REVIEW: MY DARK VANESSA, BY KATE ELIZABETH RUSSELL

2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past.
But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of Room, My Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.

 

 My Dark Vanessa, narrated by our protagonist, begins in 2017, just as the vocal wave of women’s voices about the men that used and abused them hits the media and becomes a movement. We see that Vanessa is struggling with its impact, and the strength of her denial keeps her rooted in her own view of events.

Swinging back to the year 2000, we see the tentative beginnings of what Vanessa has dubbed a love relationship with her English teacher, Jacob Strane, and how she cannot seem to keep away from him. As much as he has manipulated her through his praise and the way he carefully asks for her consent along the way, we also view how Vanessa has responded to him as if they are in a consensual relationship. In fact, he defines her life for several years. She doesn’t see the inappropriateness of their relationship, but a part of her must sense that it is, since she is secretive and defensive.

Vanessa’s narrative offers the reader a detailed and descriptive view of the connection she feels to Strane, and the more we learn, the more we become aware of how she is trapped by the hold he has on her. She seems unable to accurately portray their reality in her own mind, idealizing the relationship and finding herself stuck by her own inability to move beyond it.

A vivid and dark portrayal of a form of addiction that glues the participants together by their own denial and desperate need for the connection, the book is one I could not put down and therefore, earned 5 stars from me.

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REVIEW: MY LOVELY WIFE, BY SAMANTHA DOWNING

 

Our love story is simple. I met a gorgeous woman. We fell in love. We had kids. We moved to the suburbs. We told each other our biggest dreams, and our darkest secrets. And then we got bored.

We look like a normal couple. We’re your neighbors, the parents of your kid’s friend, the acquaintances you keep meaning to get dinner with.

We all have our secrets to keeping a marriage alive.

Ours just happens to be getting away with murder.

My Thoughts: Our first-person narrator is the husband in My Lovely Wife, and in a little game he is playing with his wife, he identifies himself as Tobias when he meets potential prey. He also claims to be deaf.

At first, we are unclear about the nature of the game. But slowly we learn more, and even come to understand the origins of the events that transpire. Or at least we think we do.

As the story moves along, with all the expected twists and turns, I know that I didn’t anticipate how things would play out. I should have known, as there were red flags waving all over the place.

Millicent, the wife, seems a little too put together and willing. So agreeable. So lovely, if you will. Could she be the person she seems to be?

The pace quickened shortly after the real game was revealed, and near the end, I was rapidly turning pages, with one hope in mind. Probably not the hope you are imagining, but sometimes the best kind of denouement is for one “bad” person to win out over the other. 5 stars.

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REVIEW: LIE WITH ME, BY SABINE DURRANT

 

It starts with a lie. The kind we’ve all told – to a former acquaintance we can’t quite place but still, for some reason, feel the need to impress. The story of our life, embellished for the benefit of the happily married lawyer with the kids and the lovely home.

And the next thing you know, you’re having dinner at their house, and accepting an invitation to join them on holiday – swept up in their perfect life, the kind you always dreamed of…

Which turns out to be less than perfect. But by the time you’re trapped and sweating in the relentless Greek sun, burning to escape the tension all around you – by the time you start to realize that, however painful the truth might be, it’s the lies that cause the real damage…
… well, by then, it could just be too late.

My Thoughts: Lie With Me is a gripping tale narrated in the first person voice of Paul Morris, a writer, whose life is not turning out the way he had hoped. When he runs into an old Cambridge University friend, Andrew Hopkins, he is less than thrilled. There is something about Andrew that always makes him feel…less than. But he can’t show any of this, so he accepts an invitation to dinner.

The lies come tripping off his tongue when Andrew, and then the other guests, ask questions about his work, his life, etc. Little white lies, of course. But the closer he gets to them all, including an attractive woman named Alice Mackenzie, with whom he quickly becomes involved, he finds himself caught up in a web of lies.

The invitation to a Greek holiday comes later, but by then, the story of his life is caught in the trap he has created.

In Greece, nothing is the way he had hoped, and soon the chaos of the friends and their families, their expectations, and Alice’s quest to find a young girl who disappeared ten years before…all of it becomes a disaster in the making. Andrew’s behavior is strange, and so is Alice’s. Are the two of them involved? Are they keeping secrets? Why are odd things happening around the house, where a renovation is taking place?

My thoughts about the characters were negative, overall. Alice was evasive, sneaky, and she and Andrew always seemed to be huddled somewhere, whispering. I didn’t trust either of them, even though Paul had not been truthful about a lot of things. The teens, as usual, were also creating havoc.

Before the story comes to a crashing conclusion, we realize that nothing is as it seems, and Paul is in a lot of trouble. By the time Paul discovers the truth, it is too late for him. Unless someone can extricate him from the mess created not just by his lies…but by the secrecy and manipulation of others. The ending left us hanging…but hopeful. 4.5 stars.

 ***

REVIEW: CONFESS, BY COLLEEN HOOVER

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Was it fate that brought them together? Can there be two fates for a person in one lifetime? Auburn Reed and Adam were teenagers in love…and then he died.

Years later, Auburn is back in Dallas, Texas, where she had gone to be with Adam while he lay in the hospital dying. Why is she back? What made her leave Portland, where her family lived, when she hated Texas? Who is Lydia, and why does she seem to have a hold over Auburn?

We don’t find out the reasons for a while. But before we do, there is a moment when two more seemingly fated souls meet. Looking for a second job one day, Auburn stumbles upon a unique art studio. One which uses a very creative inspirational tool called confessions. Owen Gentry runs the studio, and hires Auburn for one event. He explains the use of “confessions” in his work.

There is something extra that connects them from the very first moments; something more than just the fact that they both have the middle name “Mason,” which gives Owen the quirky initials OMG. Something indescribable. But it feels real.

Watching the two of them over the course of only a couple of days felt a little like seeing “insta-love” unfold, except for the fact that they aren’t labeling it. They are comfortable with each other, can talk for hours, and they just connect.

The secrets they are keeping and how there is more to their stories kept me reading, hoping to find out all the details. The tension arises as we discover the connections between the characters, and realize the hold that Lydia and her son Trey have over Auburn. I hated them both from the beginning, and seeing their antics and how they managed to control Auburn made me want to throw something at them.

Portions of Confess moved slowly for me, but then the tension ratcheted up, and in the end, I was turning pages so quickly, rooting for Auburn and Owen, and sending hate vibes to Trey and Lydia…and then, with relief, I was brought back to earth by the final reveal. 4 stars.

ratings worms 4-cropped***