Book review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell


Title: My Dark Vanessa

Author: Kate Elizabeth Russell

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Publisher: William Morrow

Publication date: 10th March 2020

My rating: ★ ★ ★  ☆

Summary:

“‘ALL HE DID WAS FALL IN LOVE WITH ME AND THE WORLD TURNED HIM INTO A MONSTER

Vanessa Wye was fifteen years old when she first had sex with her English teacher.

She is now thirty-two and in the storm of allegations against powerful men in 2017, the teacher, Jacob Strane, has just been accused of sexual abuse by another former student.

Vanessa is horrified by this news, because she is quite certain that the relationship she had with Strane wasn’t abuse. It was love. She’s sure of that.

Forced to rethink her past, to revisit everything that happened, Vanessa has to redefine the great love story of her life – her great sexual awakening – as rape. Now she must deal with the possibility that she might be a victim, and just one of many.

Nuanced, uncomfortable, bold and powerful, and as riveting as it is disturbing, My Dark Vanessa goes straight to the heart of some of the most complex issues our age is grappling with.

My review:

Not all books are supposed to be entertaining and easy to digest. Some books strive to bring out all forms of humanity and incite the most complex array of emotions in its readers. My Dark Vanessa is most definitely one of those books – daring and ambitious with the intention of delivering a strong message to its readers.

Sexual abuse is hardly ever explored to this degree in books and media. When I originally read the blurb and reviews I was surprised to see that this is the main subject matter of the book with Vanessa, a 15 year old schoolgirl, as the main character. I certainly didn’t expect it to be discussed in such detail and can only admire the author for the courage to explore it to this extent despite the stigmas attached in our modern day society. Although the book was extremely disturbing and difficult to read, it is equally powerful and fearless in its attempt to remove barriers and analyse the deepest and darkest thoughts from the victim’s perspective.

One of the most meaningful strategies used is the first person narrative. There were moments where I felt I was in Vanessa’s shoes, living through the horrors she was facing and that made it even more real and horrifying. It also delivered a more genuine and raw perspective during the parts where Vanessa was left on her own to reflect on some of her choices and try to rationalise the relationship. This would have been less effective without the use of the first person narrative so I am glad that the author decide to use this technique.

The dual alternating timelines is another fundamental technique and one which highlights the effect of sexual abuse later on in life. The impact which Jacob Strane had on Vanessa, even years after finishing school, is tremendous and the way which the author handles this with the introduction of some other characters is noteworthy. I didn’t agree with some of her choices as an adult but upon reflection I believe that this is exactly what the author wanted to emphasise after all the trauma Vanessa experienced as a child.

I struggled a lot with this book but ultimately finished it with the firm idea that, although it is a distressing book to read, it is also a very necessary addition to bring attention to some of the dilemmas in our society. It is technically excellent and emotionally involved which makes its message even more powerful. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone due to the dark nature of the subject matter but readers who are aware of the triggers and are expecting a raw and profound book will likely not be disappointed.

My top books of 2020

studious-saturday

It is finally 2021! It’s been a surreal year on many levels. On a personal level I also struggled several times during the year but books encouraged me to stay positive and escape to many worlds. Similar to my top books of 2018 and top books of 2019 posts, I have split my top books into backlist and those published in 2020. To read my thoughts on each book click on the links below.

Top backlist books

Book CoverBook CoverBook Cover

5. The Muse

4. A Man Called Ove – review to come!

3. Beast

2. After the End

1. The Silent Patient

The year started off strong with The Silent Patient. I was blown away by the ending and was doubtful that any other thriller would impress me more and I was right. The top spot is an easy choice however I struggled to rank After the end, Beast and A Man Called Ove. Although they are different in genre and writing style, there was something to take away from each one. Finally, The Muse took me on a beautiful journey during lockdown when I most needed it and remains one of the books with the most beautiful settings I have read to date.

Top books published in 2020

Book CoverBook CoverBook Cover

5. My Dark Vanessa – review to come!

4. The Water Keeper

3. The Italian Villa

2. What Lies Between Us

1. As the Stars Fall

My top 4 books published in 2020 were all ARCs and I am very grateful for the authors’ and publishers’ kindness to provide such brilliant books to read before their publish date. I loved the character development in As the Stars Fall, the mystery in What Lies Between Us and the setting in The Italian Villa and The Water Keeper. I finished the year reading the seemingly popular My Dark Vanessa which I originally had mixed feelings about but ultimately decided is a book with a very powerful message which deserves its spot in the list.

I am especially pleased to have read such a wide range of genres in 2020. My top books in past years were mostly thrillers with occasional contemporary fiction or historical fiction thrown in however this year I was lucky to enjoy a much greater mix. I still remember how these books made me feel after finishing them, even though for some months have passed. I look forward to reading many more interesting books during 2021 and am curious to how this list will look at the end of this year.

Question time

What are your favourite books of 2020?

Book review: Every Note Played by Lisa Genova


Title: Every Note Played

Author: Lisa Genova

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Publication date: 5th April 2018

My rating: ★ ★ ★  ☆

Summary:

“‘An accomplished concert pianist, Richard has already suffered many losses in his life: the acrimonious divorce from his ex-wife, Karina; the estrangement of his daughter, Grace; and now, a devastating diagnosis. ALS. The relentlessly progressive paralysis of ALS begins in the cruellest way possible – in his hands. As Richard becomes more and more locked inside his body and can no longer play piano or live on his own, Karina steps in as his reluctant caregiver.

Paralysed in a different way, Karina is trapped within a prison of excuses and blame, stuck in an unfulfilling life as an after-school piano teacher, afraid to pursue the path she abandoned as a young woman. As Richard’s muscles, voice and breath fade, the two struggle to reconcile their past before it’s too late.

With a strong musical sensibility and the staggering insight of Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You, Lisa Genova has delivered a masterful exploration of what it means to find yourself within the most shattering of circumstances.

My review:

Sometimes life takes an unexpected course, for the better or worse. Unfortunately for Richard, his diagnosis is a serious one and he already foresees his distressing future as we are introduced to his character in the first chapter. ALS is a debilitating disease and a particularly awful one for Richard, a professional pianist who cannot imagine life without music and his piano.

I was hooked right from the first page although I had my reservations about how the author would navigate the complexities surrounding terminal illness and end of life care. My worries soon dissolved as I realised that Lisa Genova has a particular way with words. Her carefully chosen vocabulary was just right for this story as she didn’t overload the plot with too much medical language but successfully explored the illness from both Richard’s point of view as well as those around him in an expressive and coherent manner. There were elements of sarcasm scattered in however this was done in a tasteful way to show Richard’s coping mechanism with his sudden and painful diagnosis. I applaud the author for the way she handled this sensitive topic in a way many others would be unable to.

Character development is key in Every Note Played and I was interested to hear the viewpoints of Richard’s ex-wife, Karina, and his daughter, Grace. Although Karina almost immediately stepped into the role of Richard’s carer, Grace was less forgiving of some of her dad’s past actions and the way he treated her mother. This created a series of compelling and at times heartbreaking interactions between the broken family which only further highlighted the hardships of terminal illness and its impact on relationships.

The final few chapters were incredibly hard to read however celebrated Richard’s life in a way I could never have imagined at the start of the book. Each character, including Richard himself, ultimately came to terms with the undeniable outcome in their own way and this incited in me a range of emotions which were difficult to control.

Every Note Played is an emotionally wrecking read however it is an important one as it emphasises how short and fragile life is and how practising forgiveness is sometimes the only way to heal. Although it is a book that some may struggle with, it is one that I will be recommending to many friends and family members as there is a lot to learn and reflect on.

Book review: An Anonymous Girl by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen


Title: An Anonymous Girl

Author: Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Publisher: Macmillan

Publication date: 27th December 2018

My rating: ★ ★ ★ 

Summary:

“‘Seeking women ages 18 – 32 to participate in a study on ethics and morality. Generous compensation. Anonymity guaranteed.

When Jessica Farris signs up for a psychology study conducted by the mysterious Dr. Shields, she thinks all she’ll have to do is answer a few questions, collect her money, and leave. But as the questions grow more and more intense and invasive and the sessions become outings where Jess is told what to wear and how to act, she begins to feel as though Dr. Shields may know what she’s thinking…and what she’s hiding. As Jess’s paranoia grows, it becomes clear that she can no longer trust what in her life is real, and what is one of Dr. Shields’ manipulative experiments. Caught in a web of deceit and jealousy, Jess quickly learns that some obsessions can be deadly.

My review:

My favourite element in Thrillers is the deceit and trickery used to allure the reader into a false sense of security and there is no doubt that this author duo dominates this superbly, as shown by their previous co-written books. I was instantly convinced by the blurb and could not wait to discover how they would incorporate the psychological manipulation into the story line.

In terms of storytelling only, this book left a lot to be desired. Many parts were overshadowed by the characters’ thoughts and emotions and it often felt like the main character, Jessica, was constantly analysing Dr Shields’ every move. The pace was uneven throughout and only picked up speed towards the end. However, the unexpected twists were nicely distributed and well executed.

Character development is a key feature in An Anonymous Girl and one which the authors mastered with ease. Jessica is an unreliable narrator and her constant questioning was sometimes irritating however this was contrasted by the fierce and cold Dr Shields and her husband. I didn’t know who I could trust and my suspicion for all three characters only increased with the twists. By the end I was wrong about many of my original feelings towards them which further highlights the distortion and cunning nature of these characters.

Ethics and morale are analysed in an interesting way however failed to truly backup the message the authors were trying to deliver. The questions in the survey were intimate and stimulating with the possibility to be interpreted in multiple ways. However, after reading Jessica’s answers it almost felt as if the authors were consciously trying to steer the reader towards the idea that her wrongdoings were sinful and draw more attention to her actions and behaviour. I would have preferred a more open minded approach to the ethics behind the survey as it seemed like this was purposefully done with the intention to justify Dr Shields’ decision to choose Jessica as her subject for the study even though her answers were not that shocking or appalling from an ethics standpoint.

The premise of An Anonymous Girl is original and exciting. The set of interesting characters and focus on the difference between right and wrong set the scene for a gripping thriller with several unexpected twists. It was an enjoyable book despite the lack of clear direction in the story line at times however I appreciate that it is mostly a character driven book. Fans of psychological thrillers will find a lot to love about this book.

Book review: How to Be Brave by Louise Beech


Title: How to Be Brave

Author: Louise Beech

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Orenda

Publication date: 15th July 2015

My rating: ★ ★ ★ 

Summary:

“‘All the stories died that morning … until we found the one we’d always known.

When nine-year-old Rose is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, Natalie must use her imagination to keep her daughter alive. They begin dreaming about and seeing a man in a brown suit who feels hauntingly familiar, a man who has something for them. Through the magic of storytelling, Natalie and Rose are transported to the Atlantic Ocean in 1943, to a lifeboat, where an ancestor survived for fifty days before being rescued. Poignant, beautifully written and tenderly told, How To Be Brave weaves together the contemporary story of a mother battling to save her child’s life with an extraordinary true account of bravery and a fight for survival in the Second World War. A simply unforgettable debut that celebrates the power of words, the redemptive energy of a mother’s love … and what it really means to be brave.

My review:

How to Be Brave is a magnificent story of hope and fear, spanning several generations and showing the true meaning of family. The present day story of Rose and Natalie was heartbreaking and contrasted by the adventure that Natalie’s grandad, Colin, faced at sea in the 1940s. These two story lines interlace marvelously and the result is a promising book filled with both uplifting and bittersweet moments.

Diseases such as diabetes are often underrepresented in books and the media and whenever they are introduced, many times they appear as a taboo subject easily overlooked and often followed up by inaccurate information. However, I was pleasantly surprised at the vast research carried out by the author prior to writing the book as well as the careful manner with which she handled the illness and developed Rose’s character as not only a child who is defined by this disease but also one who is still growing, learning and eager to discover the world through real life stories such as her great grandfather’s. I believe this is true for many people, particularly children, who are given a sudden diagnosis and I am glad that the author took this route instead of solely focusing on the impact of her diagnosis.

Rose’s and Natalie’s struggles are opposed by Colin’s troubles at sea while on a stranded boat, hoping to reach land or be rescued. I found his story to be a remarkable tale of survival and admired his outlook and positivity despite the distressing situation. This part of the book was incredibly moving and engrossing and I often found myself just as eager as Rose to keep reading to understand how he managed to survive.

I believe that this is one of those books that readers will react to in different ways depending on which stage of their life they are currently in or the troubles they are facing. Personally, I read this book during what I thought was a challenging time in my life however after finishing the book I valued its powerful message of persevering during difficult times much more than before. I highly recommend How to Be Brave to everyone as I believe it will appeal to fans of all genres and even though it may stimulate a different response, its meaning and compelling storytelling will not disappoint.

Book review: My Name is Anton by Catherine Ryan Hyde


Title: My Name is Anton

Author: Catherine Ryan Hyde

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Lake Union Publishing

Publication date: 1st December 2020

My rating: ★ ★ ★ 

Summary:

“It’s 1965, and life has taken a turn for eighteen-year-old Anton Addison-Rice. Nearly a year after his brother died in a tragic accident, Anton is still wounded—physically and emotionally. Alone for the holidays, he catches a glimpse of his neighbor Edith across the street one evening and realizes that she’s in danger.

Anton is determined to help Edith leave her abusive marriage. Frightened and fifteen years Anton’s senior, Edith is slow to trust. But when she needs a safe place to stay, she lets down her guard, and over the course of ten days an unlikely friendship grows. As Anton falls hopelessly and selflessly in love, Edith fears both her husband finding her and Anton getting hurt. She must disappear without telling anyone where she’s going—even Anton.

If keeping Edith safe means letting her go, Anton will say goodbye forever. Or so he believes. What would happen, though, if one day their paths should cross again?

My review:

Anton and Edith form an unlikely friendship after Anton accidentally catches Edith being abused by her husband in the apartment across his. Although their situations couldn’t be more different, they immediately form a strong bond as they help each other through a rough period in their lives.

Catherine Ryan Hyde develops characters who are genuine and real making it easy to connect with them on a deeper level. As their friendship evolves into a romance, both innocent and intense, and they support each other through tough times I couldn’t help wanting the best for these characters. The storyline was realistic enough, bringing in an array of difficulties which couples face in their every day lives as Anton and Edith go on their separate ways only to reconnect years later. From a both platonic and romantic perspective their story was beautiful and pure.

A lot of the focus in My Name is Anton is on the characters – from Anton’s dear grandmother and great-uncle to his belittling parents and his sweet dog. Unfortunately the plot suffered as a result and there were several times where I felt that it lacked depth. Towards the end the pace picked up speed but it felt as if the author decided to squeeze most major milestones into the few remaining chapters. At this point I was thoroughly enjoying the book and would have preferred an extended ending and conclusion to fit with the pace and style developed in the previous chapters.

This book is beautifully written and contains the perfect mixture of heartache and happiness  interwoven in even the most bittersweet chapters. It was a joy to read and I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy character driven books with a powerful message.

My Name is Anton is out to buy today!

Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing a free advanced reader’s copy in exchange for my honest review.

Blog tour: The Cousins by Karen M. McManus

Title: The Cousins

Author: Karen M. McManus

Genre: Young Adult Thriller

Publication date: 3rd December 2020

My rating: ★ ★ ★

Summary:

“Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah Story are cousins, but they barely know each another, and they’ve never even met their grandmother. Rich and reclusive, she disinherited their parents before they were born. So when they each receive a letter inviting them to work at her island resort for the summer, they’re surprised . . . and curious.

Their parents are all clear on one point–not going is not an option. This could be the opportunity to get back into Grandmother’s good graces. But when the cousins arrive on the island, it’s immediately clear that she has different plans for them. And the longer they stay, the more they realize how mysterious–and dark–their family’s past is.

The entire Story family has secrets. Whatever pulled them apart years ago isn’t over–and this summer, the cousins will learn everything.”

My review:

The Cousins is set in Mildred Story’s fancy resort on Gull Cove Island. Rumours have roamed on the island about the reasons Mildred disowned her children twenty-five years ago however the reasons are still unknown. When Mildred’s three grandchildren receive a surprising letter inviting them to work at the resort during their summer break, everyone is keen to understand why she made contact after so many years and if there is something sinister behind her actions.

Family drama and tension is at the center of The Cousins and a big chunk of the first half of the book focuses on the three cousins trying to under the relationship between their parents and their grandmother. The messy family dynamic was at times difficult to follow, especially as there were many characters introduced in both timelines however once I learnt the relationship between the characters it became easier to discern.

I often struggle with YA Thrillers as the plot is usually too oversimplified however there was plenty of action in The Cousins. The twists were unexpected and the ending quite unpredictable. The alternating chapters from 1996 to now allowed for progression of both storylines and created an ever increasing tension as more secrets were revealed.

Although there were some moments which made me cringe, The Cousins was overall both engaging and enjoyable. It felt like there were many paths the plot could take but I was ultimately satisfied with the ending and outcome. It was a quick read for me and I can see many readers speeding through it.

Many thanks to Dave at TheWriteReads for providing an advanced reader’s copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

The Cousins will be out to buy on 1st December 2020!

Book review: After All I’ve Done by Mina Hardy


Title: After All I’ve Done

Author: Mina Hardy

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Publisher: Crooked Lane Books

Publication date: 10th November 2020

My rating: ★ ★ ★ 

Summary:

She’s lost her best friend, her husband–and possibly, her mind.

Five months ago, an accident left Diana Sparrow badly injured and missing a few months of her memory. As if that’s not enough, she’s started having recurring nightmares about the night of the accident. Dreams that feel so real, she’s left questioning: maybe she didn’t just slide off the road into a ditch. Maybe, just maybe, she hit something. Or someone.

She can’t turn to her former best friend Val, who’s been sleeping with Diana’s husband Jonathan for months, but she might find some comfort in newcomer Cole Pelham. Yet the closer they become, the more Diana begins to wonder what really happened that night–and how Cole might be connected. Worse, it seems everyone else could be involved, too.

Who was with her that night? What really happened? As her life unravels thread by thread and the dreams become too real to ignore, Diana will have to face the unthinkable–and do the unforgivable.

My review:

After All I’ve Done starts with a lot of promise. Although the memory loss plot has been incorporated many times before in Thrillers, there were extra layers of mystery and doubt right from the first chapter which carried through to the end. The book was always filled with tension and suspicion which led to a very cryptic mystery, forcing the reader to anticipate the characters’ intentions from the little background that is disclosed on the main character, Diana.

Thrillers often feature either too many characters or so few that the plot is watered down however After All I’ve Done stars the right number of characters and a perfect balance between character development and plot. I couldn’t connect with Diana as I felt that she was too untrustworthy and sometimes too dull for a main character. However, the other minor characters such as the mother-in-law and best friend dipped in and out of each chapter with ease and encouraged me to speculate on their motive which I always enjoy.

My main concern with this book at the beginning was the possible predictable twist and ending. I believed that my theory was too farfetched despite the multiple hints throughout the book and especially given how twisted and wrong such an outcome would be but unfortunately my guesses were right. I finished this book feeling somewhat shocked and unsettled however I applaud the author for bravely analysing twisted family relationships and for not being afraid to push boundaries to the extreme. Although I didn’t entirely like the direction it took, the added suspense and mystery surrounding Diana’s accident kept me invested until the end.

After All I’ve Done is out to buy now!

Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing a free advanced reader’s copy in exchange for my honest review.

Book review: The Girls in the Snow by Stacy Green


Title: The Girls in the Snow

Author: Stacy Green

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Publisher: Bookouture

Publication date: 19th October 2020

My rating: ★ ★ ★ 

Summary:

In the remote forests of Stillwater, Minnesota, you can scream for days and no one will hear you. So when the bodies of two fifteen-year-old girls are discovered frozen in the snow, Special Agent Nikki Hunt is sure the killer is local: someone knew where to hide them and thought they’d never be found.

Home for the first time in twenty years, Nikki sees that the whole town had been frantically searching for missing best friends Madison and Kaylee, and when she finds out who Madison’s step-father is, she becomes desperate to lead the case. John was once the person she trusted most in the world, who stood by her when she was just sixteen and her parents were murdered. Who supported her when she identified their killer, Mark Todd.

But when Nikki arrives at the Sheriff’s office, she’s confronted by protesters eager to see Mark freed. With new evidence that could clear his name, Mark has appealed his conviction and his brother Rory begs Nikki to take a look at what they’ve found.

Nikki knows she must focus on the killer at large, but Rory makes her wonder if she put her trust in the right people all those years ago. Are Madison and Kaylee’s deaths connected to her parents’ murders? And can she face up to her past before another life is taken?

My review:

Madison and Kaylee, two fifteen-year-old girls, are found frozen in the forests of Minnesota and Special Agent Nikki Hunt is called to the case. Nikki’s past quickly catches up to her as she recalls the horrific murders of her parents not too far from where the two girls were murdered. What follows is a race against time to catch the killer as Nikki also battles with her own memories of the day her parents died.

New series in the Mystery/Thriller genre often need a feisty and mysterious main character and I was not disappointed to find that Nikki Hunt fits that criteria perfectly. I was intrigued by her history and her connections to Stillwater. The parallel story line involving her parents’ killer, Mark Todd, was an interesting addition and created further tension and intricacy in the already gripping plot involving the two murders.

The bitter and freezing cold backdrop created an even more intense atmosphere and a remarkable setting for a murder. Although the descriptions are simple and straightforward, the setting was superbly illustrated and a nice touch to complement the plot.

With its impressive setting and interwoven story lines, The Girls in the Snow proved to be a strong start to the Nikki Hunt series. I can already see several directions the series may take and would be interested to to see which direction it follows and what future adventures Nikki will face.

The Girls in the Snow is out to buy now!

Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing a free advanced reader’s copy in exchange for my honest review.

Book review: The Vow by Debbie Howells


Title: The Vow

Author: Debbie Howells

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Publisher: Avon

Publication date: 15th October 2020

My rating: ★ ★ ★ 

Summary:

Two weeks before her wedding, a stranger stops Amy in the street and warns her she’s in danger. Then that night, Matt, her fiancé, doesn’t come home. Desperate, Amy calls the police – but when Matt fails to emerge, she’s forced to call off her wedding day.

Then another man is reported missing, by a woman called Fiona – a man meeting Matt’s description, who was about to leave his fiancée for her.  He was supposed to be moving in with her – but instead, he’s vanished.

Amy refuses to believe Fiona’s lover can be her Matt – but photos prove otherwise, and it soon becomes clear that Matt has been leading a double life. As the police dig deeper, two conflicting, yet equally plausible stories emerge from two women who allegedly have never met.

My review:

Amy is convinced that she has found the love of her life and is excited for her wedding, soon to take place. Her world is turned upside down when her fiancé, Matt, disappears mysteriously with no trace. The investigation ultimately brings the police full circle when they suspect that Amy is involved in Matt’s disappearance. This is a common plot line in thrillers and has been done many times before so I was glad to see some other characters, such as Fiona, introduced to break up the stereotype and create a sense of unease.

One of the strongest features in The Vow is the never ending mystery the author weaves into the story line. Matt is painted as a secretive and possibly manipulative character however it is clear from the start that both Amy and Fiona have a dark side which they are trying to hide. It was impossible to understand who the victim was in these circumstances and I thoroughly enjoyed the ping pong approach of deceit and lies as the plot progressed.

Unfortunately the characters were too mediocre and uninteresting to fully grab my attention. I could empathise with both Amy and Fiona and I found Amy’s daughter, Jess, a nice addition however none of these women had any unique attributes to keep me invested in their development.

Although I wasn’t fully invested in this book, there were some interesting writing techniques, such as changing POVs and an unknown narrator from 1996 which stood out and created a never ending sense of mystery. Full of suspense and tension, The Vow promises to be a hit for thrill seeking readers.

The Vow is out to buy today!

Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing a free advanced reader’s copy in exchange for my honest review.