Book Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Every now and then a book arrives in your life that you know is going to stay with you long after you have read the last page.

Often those books are filled with comfort, they resonate and feel completely relatable, a ‘go to’ tale to raise cheer.

Well in the case of My Dark Vanessa, the very opposite is true.

Don’t get me wrong, this book will stay with me. I want it to stay with me. And I want it to stay with anybody who reads. Particularly young women, particularly those in authority, particularly those in a position of trust.

But I doubt they will find comfort in it’s pages, but they will find truth. A truth that everyone needs to acknowledge and understand.

My Dark Vanessa is the story of stolen youth, in fact a stolen life. It focuses on Vanessa Wyes. An unusual teenager, romantic and bright, she is awarded a scholarship at prestigious Maine boarding school. A loner, struggling to find her place she enters a relationship with Jacob Strane, her English teacher. He is much older, not physically attractive but charming. He begins by praising her poetry, singling her out for additional attention in class, handing her challenging and individual texts. Soon this progresses to passing physical contact; a hand on a knee, a kiss on her head. Then it goes further.

Even calling this a relationship makes me uncomfortable. It is an ‘interaction’ that Vanessa defines as love; indeed as the her greatest love. But which the reader clearly sees as abuse.

When the novel begins Vanessa is in her early thirties, working, by her own definition, a mind numbing job in a local hotel. None of her early literary promise is fulfilled. Vanessa engages in periodic bouts of alcohol and drug abuse, references to broken relationships and casual sex litter her narrative.

And Strane is an ever present force in her life. When he is publicly accused by another former pupil of sexual assault Vanessa is forced to examine her experiences and start to redefine what she has clung to as her one great love.

My Dark Vanessa is raw, complicated and powerful.

It is an effective, but painfully stark portrayal of the power imbalance within abusive relationships, particularly those built on natural relationships of trust, like a student and teacher.

It is an expert portrayal of the process of grooming, exploring the myriad of ways an abuser can twist the situation. Classically Vanessa is an outsider, put bluntly she is easy prey. Strane is wholly aware of his strength. And he plays with power, seeming to hand it over to Vanessa at points and then taking it away in an instant. He is a master of control; control of the situation, of emotions, of futures. It seems unlikely that Vanessa is his first and only victim.

We see Vanessa blame herself. Time and again Strane makes her responsible for the situation, seeks to make it her fault, makes it clear that all the consequences of this relationship will be felt by her.

And he is right. The novel provokes many strong emotions but there is an overwhelming sense of anger that Vanessa pays the continuing price for this situation. At the time of her abuse no one steps forward to be her champion. There is no one to tell her that this isn’t love. That these dark feelings of shame, disgust and fear aren’t part of some dark romance that everyone experiences. That love should open up your life, not close it off. That’s it should help you grow, not shut you down. That this situation is so far from healthy, that she doesn’t need to be defined by this forever.

The power and pain of this novel lies in the focus on the long term effects of Vanessa’s experience. Years later she is still in a turmoil of denial. A state that goes far deeper than an inability to acknowledge and accept what has happened. We find her making excuses, rewriting history, redefining relationships and social norms.

Vanessa is in despair. In the face of Strane’s public accusations by other women her long term survival mechanisms of normalisation are crumbling. By defining the relationship as love she has refused to be a victim, attempting, in some way, to take control. The most painful thing to acknowledge for both Vanessa and the reader is that if she admits this relationship was abusive then her foundations, the events that have defined her life are rotten at the core.

As the events move out of Vanessa’s control, as more women step forward and Strane makes an unforeseen but decisive move, there begins a spiral of self degradation. Echoes of past behaviour re-emerge and it is clear that Vanessa is asking for help in the only way she knows how.

This book is one of the most powerful and important novels I have read for a long time. It doesn’t hold back in it’s portrayal of the realities of abuse. At times it will make you wince, at times it will make you deeply uncomfortable and I guarantee it will make you angry.

But it will also bring understanding, and empathy for all those victims whose stories have gone unheard and shed light on those relationships society has in the past ignored or in some cases normalised. And for all of that it will engender hope.

Rachel x

Monthly wrap up: March 2020!!

How do you wrap up March 2020?!? The month the world changed and everyday life became like a dystopian novel or Hollywood blockbuster. I don’t know about you but I keep expecting the soothing tones of Morgan Freeman to pop up at the daily briefing to tell us the world is saved.

Alas not!

For all my glib references to the fact that I had enough books to survive at least 3 pandemics etc etc, none of you need me to tell you that the reality is very different. Life has quite literally been turned on it’s head. My life, everyone’s lives, have changed beyond recognition and people I love and care about are working on the front line.

In such extreme circumstances I nearly abandoned the idea of a Monthly Wrap up. I mean who really cares about what I read last month when we are fighting a global pandemic?

The answer is probably no one, but in times of crisis then normality and routine is some how comforting. So I am clinging to one small shred of normality: I read books and I write about what I have read.

And if no one else reads this, so be it. If nothing else I will have a record of what I was reading in this time of change and extraordinary social history.

That said, it has been very hard to read! As a teacher I am getting to grips with a whole new set of professional challenges. Providing online work for those that want it, remote support for those that need it, managing a team remotely, all whilst managing my own families needs. Daily structures have disappeared and reading time, which I imagined might be plentiful has actually been pretty hard to come by.

And when I do have a slot of uninterrupted time available to me, it has proved somewhat challenging to concentrate! I know I am not alone in the feeling that our Bookish Mojo’s have, at least temporarily, gone walk about! For every book I have finished this month I have abandoned at least one more. Perfectly solid books, but my attention has been so fleeting that I have had to move on, trying to find something to hold me steady.

So the 8 books I have managed to finish this month have worked hard to earn their place.

Of those 8 books, 3 were read in preparation for Blog tours, or in one case my first ‘Blog Blast’.

Rust by Eliese Goldbach was my only nonfiction read of the month. A moving and insightful story of the Rust Belt of the MidWest, it was an illuminating insight into current US politics and a ray of hope in a divided landscape.

The Unreliable Death of Lady Grange by Sue Lawrence took me far away from the current crisis to Jacobite plotting and broken families in the distant past. It’s grounding in truth and ongoing intrigue was enough to break through reality and soothe the soul for a while.

My final blog tour read was the wonderful The Silent Treatment by Abbie Greaves. It’s a stunner of a book, moving and heartfelt. Published today by Century, I can’t wait to share my review next week.

Also pending a review is the breathtaking My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. Published in the last couple of days this a must read. Compelling and dark, but oh so important, I am still working on the words to do this one justice.

The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson was another welcome foray into the past. Just as she proved in her previous novel The Seal Woman’s Gift Sally has the gift to create a beautiful and captivating portrait of time gone by. Her emphasis on strong female characters is captivating and the perfect plotting was inspired.

My final review of the month was SheClown and other Stories by Hannah Vincent. A complex and beautifully diverse celebration of women, embracing many different roles, lives and viewpoints. It’s sharp, insightful perception was another of those texts that helped me find some escape in this increasingly crazy world.

Finally not reviewed but certainly enjoyed were the final two books of the month Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss and Wild Dog by Serge Joncour.

Wild Dog , which joins a chorus of fantastic books released today is published by Gallic. Translated from it’s native French by Jane Aitken and Polly Mackintosh, this is a book which works across two time periods, both centred on a remote French Farmhouse. Steeped in superstition and overtaken by nature, there is a feeling that any thing could happen.

Tidal Zone, was a treat I had been saving for myself. Sarah Moss is one of my most recent favourite authors, having been blown away by Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children last year. Tidal Zone is the story of a family trying to come to terms with the sudden ill health of child, and all the adjustments and emotions that come with it. Given the current climate this might have been just too near the mark. But in Moss’s skilled hands it was an immersive joy. I can’t wait to read Summerwater which is due for publication in this summer, and which I feel privileged to have secured a digital copy of.

So looking forward in this strange and uncertain world , however hard it maybe at times, reading will remain one of my constants. Currently I am tucked into Hamnet By Maggie O’Farrell. This brilliance is my guiding light towards others on the Women’s Prize Longlist, due to become a Short List on 22nd April.

And in other news, next week my little blog turns 1! How to celebrate this blog birthday in uncertain times? Who knows but I will be marking it some special way.

Take care and stay safe

Rachel x

Book Review: She Clown and Other Stories by Hannah Vincent

I keep questioning , as I am writing my current reviews; Should I mention the strange world we are living in? Or is everyone sick to death of hearing about COVID-19 and do they just want to come places like book blogs for escape?

But I have come to the conclusion that any review is about my response to a book and my response is always going to affected by the context in which I read. For example in the last month I have abandoned more books that I have finished. My brain is struggling to cope, and so something has got to be pretty special to get me interested and keep me there. I strongly suspect that I would have continued and enjoyed those discarded books in normal times.

But these are not normal times, and so ignoring that fact seems pretty pointless to me.

But, what you may ask does this long winded justification have to do with She Clown By Hannah Vincent?

Well, to be honest finding a volume of well written and engaging short stories is always a welcome and wondrous thing but at time like this it is a life saver. The short, snappy but beautifully formed stories were just perfect for my current reading style. Like a delicious box of chocolates I could ration myself to grabbing one here and there as my work load and wandering attention allowed or I could gorge on a few given the inclination and opportunity.

She Clown is a relatively thin volume, containing 16 short stories. All the stories concentrate on the life of women, of all ages, social classes and races. But all have names that begin with ‘C’…

With some of the women I formed an immediate connection. Charlotte, for example, the hen pecked and suppressed daughter living with her mother in The Poison Frog. A story with a strong leaning towards the darkest of fairy tales, she is rescued by a frog prince in the most unusual way.

And Caro, the young working mother, exhausted, trying to keep everyone happy and finding her balm in work ( An Extra Teat)

Conversely, there are women that I actively disliked. Bella, for example, the rich, privileged mother, looking constantly to blame others for the things that go wrong in her life, biting her own child in a rage, made me recoil from the page! ( Granny’s Gun) . ( NB I know her name doesn’t begin with ‘C’ – but all becomes clear…read the book!)

But all of these women have a tale to tell. And that is the point.

Hannah Vincent has created a series of tales that are snapshots of women’s lives. These snapshots are a ‘warts and all’ portrayal and celebration of women. Not one women is held up as a saint. All are working within the boundaries of their lives and experiences, all shaped by their past, present and future. Each women is presented within their own social context and connections. Some seem trapped, but others show remarkable abilities to make subtle and sometime dramatic changes to their lives. Here there is no feeling of ‘one size fits all’ but a recognition and embracing of diversity.

The stories are, by definition short. In some cases the snapshot only provide the smallest glimpse of a situation, dilemma or lifestyle. Sometimes we see or feel a sense of resolution, sometimes we don’t.

The final story, Woman of the Year, brings the whole collection together. By taking each central character and putting them together in one story, one social situation, the author offers us further insight into each character but also strengthens and enhances her message of diversity and celebration

She Clown and other stories is a collection of short stories that that both challenges and comforts and one I would heartily recommend, especially in times when we could do with both these qualities in our lives.

Thank you Emma Dowson at Myriad Editions for my gifted copy.

Rachel x

P.S You can buy She Clown by clicking here

Book Review : The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson

A while ago, in what seems like another reality, I was on a train. I was complaining to myself about the terrible service – oh, little did we know!!! – and trying to get to my first meet up with 4 other lovely book bloggers.

To take my mind off the journey, I scrolled through Twitter and came across the announcement of Sally Magnussons impending new release. Excited I sent out an email asking for a proof , not honestly fancying my chances, as I was sure the whole world was probably asking too.

But the good people at Two Roads were so kind and within a week I had a copy in my grubby little mitts. (Which are obviously only metaphorically grubby! Wash your hands people!!)

And let me tell you bookish people of the world…it is a beauty!!

Beginning in 1856, we are introduced to Alexander and Isabel Aird , a young middle class couple living in Glasgow.

A doctor, Alexander is concerned with the health of the city, particularly the poor. A passionate champion of improving public health, he is following closely the ambitious scheme to bring clean water from the Trossachs to the people of Glasgow. It is his dedication to reducing cholera within the population that sees him accept the job of site doctor at the developing waterworks by the banks of Loch Katrine

Uprooted from her Glasgow life, Isabel finds herself isolated amongst in a strange new landscape; one which is being changed by the intense and relentless blasting of the surrounding hill side to create the series of tunnels and aqueducts needed to complete this mammoth feat of engineering.

Alone for much of the time, Isabel is also grieving. For since the beginning of their marriage Isabel and Alexander have lost seven children to still birth or miscarriage. When we meet Isabel she is carrying her eighth child. She has no hope left, and is waiting painfully for what she feels is the inevitable.

The couple are disconnected, both grieving but both internalising their grief. Alexander has his work to distract him but for Isabel distraction comes in a different, more unconventional and dangerous form…

Loch Katrine and the nearby Doon Hill are steeped in Folklore. They are the haunt of the fairies, the sithichean, and all the recent industrial activity is disturbing the ground and it’s secrets. So when a mysterious, old fashioned but rather charismatic man, going by the name of Robert Kirke appears in Isabel’s life alarms bells start to ring. When Isabel, listens wrapt to his strange story, she offers to help. But the price she is unwittingly agreeing to pay is far too high.

The strange friendship which springs up between Isabel and Robert is of deep concern to Kirsty McEchern, a navvies wife, who has become a house keeper of sorts to The Airds. She is the voice of reason, a pragmatic narrator in the style of Nellie Dean. She has an insight into the minds and marriage of the Airds, recounting the tale years after the event, trying to explain the inexplicable.

And with her own strong sense of tradition and folklore running alongside her day to day reality Kirsty is also the embodiment of one of the novels key themes. The juxtaposition of folklore and superstition with science and progress. Themes that run throughout the history and literature of the Victorian era.

Alexander and his social circle are the embodiment of the progress that is made in public health, medicine and engineering. It is a world that the grieving and unfulfilled Isabel tries desperately to reach. She is constantly rebuffed and discouraged on the basis of her sex.

It is the character of Isabel which is the very core of this novel for me. Her fight to be a mother, in an era when women were judged by their ability to bear children but obstetrics and women’s health, both physical and mental, remained a low priority. Her fight to be more that just a wife, to find purpose in her daily life and efforts to support her husband in meaningful and practical ways.

For me, a successful novel is one which shows a development of not just plot, but character. And Isabel is a key example of this. The Isabel we are introduced to at the beginning of the novel is very definitely not the Isabel we say goodbye to at the end.

Another key strength of the novel is it’s sense of place in both location but very definitely period in time. It feels like a Victorian novel. The themes, language and pace are all authentic, all reminiscent and evocative of that fast moving and strangely conflicted time in history.

The sense of Victorian-a is cemented by a parallel strand of the story, a plot line involving Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. This thread reflects the key themes of the novel; juxtaposition of progress and tradition, women’s role in society, its attitudes to child bearing. It is a thread that is neatly woven throughout and comes to a natural conclusion at the climax of the novel.

Sally Magnusson has mastered the art of weaving stories around a series of facts and bringing them together into intriguing and thought provoking novel. It is a unique story, with a unique approach. Beautifully plotted and at times heartbreakingly poignant, it is one of my reads of the year so far.

Blog Tour Review: The Unreliable Death of Lady Grange by Sue Lawrence

So there is no getting away from it…life is pretty crazy at the moment. And for the first time in a long time ‘real life’ had intruded on my bookish life to such an extent that my reading mojo seemed to vanish.

So The Unreliable Death of Lady Grange by Sue Lawrence was, I have to, up against it. But do you know what? The past was actually the perfect place to be!!!

Based on a true story, we begin in Edinburgh, 1742. The tale begins at the funeral of Lady Grange. Her sudden death has shocked her family.

But the real shock is that the spirited Rachel, Lady Grange is actually still alive.

Kidnapped by her husband, the father of her five surviving children Lady Grange is banished to the remote Hebridean Monach Isles. Fiery and defiant, certainly not a women of her time, Rachel is paying the price for pushing back against Lord Grange’s infidelity and her own ill treatment.

With the aid of the unscrupulous Lord Lovat, Lord Grange imprisons his wife on a series of remote islands, transporting her from a life of privilege to a life of hardship and deprivation.

Unable to speak the native tongue, deprived of books, writing materials and the love of her family, Rachel has been effectively obliterated. Her husband has not only taken her freedom, he has taken her identity and denied her existence.

His motives reach beyond the personal. Encapsulating a turbulent political time in history, Lady Grange has uncovered her husband’s Jacobite sympathies. Terrified that she will put not just his reputation but also his life in danger, James enacts his terrible revenge.

This is a story that is driven by power . Rachel is the very embodiment of female power in a period of time when woman had very little. Even when her circumstances are altered beyond recognition she is determined to maintain her dignity, sense of self and try to return to her current life.

Ultimately and unavoidably it is a commentary on the historical power imbalance between men and women, and how this was used and abused.

This is a powerful book, of a dark but in some ways uplifting story that might just take you away from our current craziness. Thank you Kelly @LoveBookTours for asking me along.

About the author

As well as writing popular historical thrillers, including Down to the Sea, Sue Lawrence is a leading cookery writer. After winning BBC’s MasterChef in 1991, she became a regular contributor to the Sunday Times, Scotland on Sunday and other leading magazines. Raised in Dundee, she now lives in Edinburgh. She has won two Guild of Food Writers Awards.

And there is more

For other reactions and reviews check out the rest of the blog tour below…

Blog Blast!!! Rust by Eliese Colette Goldbach

The balance of my reading always falls down on the side of fiction, but I do love a good nonfiction book. Something to really get my teeth into, and something that might cause me to change or challenge my view of the world. So when I saw the increasing swell of interest that was gathering behind Rust I was intrigued.

Rust is a true account of the author Eliese Colette Goldbach’s , experiences in the steel mills of Cleveland. Working in the so called rust belt of the US at a time of unprecedented political turmoil, in a job she never expected to do, Rust offers a fascinating insight into a world so often referred to but little explored.

Growing up in Cleveland, the mill was a constant of some what looming presence for Eliese. She was up in family that was Catholic and staunchly republican, anti abortion and vehemently anti democrat. In spite of these traditional leanings … and her sister were encouraged to look for more than traditional female roles.

As a dedicated student and committed Christian Eliese believed she was destined for higher things, always believing she would have a successful career, away from Cleveland, never for one minute thinking she would end up in the mill. Going away to college opened up Eliese’s world. Suddenly she was mixing with those who held liberal views, challenging her republican upbringing, shaping her own views.

But in the same place Eliese was subjected to a terrifying sexual assault which threw Eliese’s life far off course. The trauma of her experience triggered the onset of mania and depression found in a bipolar diagnosis. The terrifying mixed state of her condition, coupled with a crippling lack of opportunity brought about by the Great Recession and Eliese finds herself applying for a job in the mill.

The pay is good, far surpassing what she earns working as a house painter. But the conditions are tough; the hours are long and irregular, the mill is inherently dangerous despite all the health and safety measures regularly implemented and updated. At times the mill is terrifying, and it is particularly tough for the female workers who have to work longer, harder and tougher to prove their worth.

The mill is a community. Rough around the edges, where respect is earned, but a community that looks after it’s own. It is a community peopled by generations of mill workers, ruled by the union and increasingly terrified by the reduction of their industry and it’s life blood.

It is in this context that Trump begins his rise to power. Exploiting the fear and unrest felt by the Rust Belt workers and those like them, he made promises and offers, things the workers wanted to hear. But despite their vast political differences Eliese finds herself drawn the workers of the mill. Drawn to their sense of togetherness and camaraderie, Eliese appreciates the differences in their political opinions and begins to find hope in a nation that seems hopelessly divided.

Rust is quite simply excellent. If you have ever questioned the how and why of Trump’s rise to power, Rust might just help you understand. But more importantly it might provide some hope that the seemingly huge divisions between the left and right can, at some point, be bridged.

And there is more…

Check out other bloggers, on the Rust blog blast…

Blog tour review: The Foundling – Stacey Halls

A little while ago I had to have a stern word with myself. I had to remind myself that I can’t do every single blog tour that comes my way.

But sometimes a blog tour lands in the inbox that I practically beg to be involved in! The Foundling was one such book. Having read Stacey Halls incredible debut novel The Familiars last year i couldn’t wait to get on her newest offering.

It did not disappoint.

From the very minute I opened the book I was drawn in. Stacey Hall’s historic London pulled me into it’s spell and held me there.

The story begins with Bess, an unmarried and desperately poor woman, taking her child to The Founding Hospital, hoping they will agree to care for her. Leaving the baby girl, Clara in their care she leaves a token and a promise. A promise that she will return to reclaim her daughter when her circumstances improve.

Fast forward 6 years. Finally Clara has enough resources to reclaim her daughter. She arrives at the Hospital full of hope, only to be told her daughter was claimed by her mother the very day after her entry, six years previously. How is this possible?

Other than to say that the plot is beautifully crafted, I don’t want to give very much away about the plot at all. It is enough to say that from the beginning it is a story of mysteries and I don’t want to spoil any of them!

The story is set in London of the 1700’s. The setting is skilfully depicted as a city of two halves. The rich living comfortably, often extravagantly, the poor just about surviving. This juxtaposition of London life is immediately portrayed within the four walls of the Foundling Hospital. Bess takes her newborn to be entered in to the admission lottery, racked by both physical and emotional pain. That same impossible lottery is source of entertainment for the wealthy patrons of the hospital, all gathered to witness the women bringing their children and asking for help.

This duality forms the very core of the novel. Rich compared with poor. Two mothers, Bess, poor, a street hawker and Alexandra a rich widow; two backgrounds. The Foundling raises questions about what does it take to be a good mother. Through these two women we explore the many faces of motherhood. Stacey Halls asks us to consider whether material comfort alone can replace the bond of a mother whatever their circumstance. Or does every child deserve the chance to escape the crippling poverty if they are given the chance.

Through two heartfelt and beautifully crafted portraits of two very different women the role of nature and nurture is explored. How does the experience of a women’s own life shape her ability to be a mother to her own children ?

I have made no secret of my love for historical fiction. It makes up a considerable portion of my reading material, and done well I think it is hard to beat.

The Foundling is a superb example of it’s genre. From the beginning the impeccable research is apparent. Each detail highlighting the skill of an author who not only takes the time to build the foundations of their novel but weaves the knowledge in a meaningful and relevant way.

There is no research dumping to be found here, just tantalising nuggets of information which add to the overall beauty of the book and, like all the best historical fiction, make you want to find out more.

The Foundling is a quite simply a beautiful book. It is the kind of book you will remember long after reading and the kind of book you will recommend throughout the year.

And there is more…

For other great reviews of this winning novel check out the rest of the blog tour below…