Babysitter by Joyce Carol Oates – A Review

Publisher: 4th Estate

Publication Date: 1st September 2022

Well Joyce Carol Oates is a bit of a legend isn’t she really? I’ve not read many of her books but even I know that.

When I heard that JCO had a new book out called Babysitter, focussing on a child abductor and serial killer I knew it would be brilliant. Little did I know that it would also crawl right under my skin! So much so that I had to stop reading and put it down a few times for a breather!

Set in the late seventies in Detroit the story focuses on two separate threads that begin to weave together. We meet Hannah Jarrett the wife of a very affluent and successful businessman, Wes Jarrett who is well known and respected in the upper class areas of Far Hills in Detroit. The couple have two young children Katya and Conor and a housekeeper and nanny Ismelda. Hannah spends her days doing philanthropic work and is cochair on many charity commitees. It is at one of the charity dinners she has organised that she has a chance meeting with Y.K. A mysterious man who merely briefly touches her wrist but makes a huge impression on Hannah. Despite not many other people in the room remembering him or even knowing exactly who he might be.

Hannah starts an affair with this enigmatic mysterious man and sneaks away whilst Wes is at the office and the children are at school to meet him in a hotel suite.

It is here that she finds herself waking up disheveled and with a patchy memory. Even though she knows something untoward is going on she still revels in the thrill of having a ‘lover’ to spice up her dull suburban life. And maybe this is what happens in affairs?…..

Whilst all this is going on we also have the serial killer thread of the story. A murderer dubbed ‘Babysitter’ has been abducting children of around ten years old and keeping them hidden for a few days. Torturing and sexually assaulting them before strangling them. He then bathes them and leaves them displayed naked with their arms and legs crossed with a pile of their freshly laundered and ironed clothes beside them.

Hannah is terrified that as punishment for her extra marital affair, her children will fall victim to Babysitter but she also takes comfort in the fact that so far the children who have been murdered have all been from neglectful families. Until the murders come a little too close to home.

As Hannah’s life begins to unravel she starts to wonder about how little she actually knows about her lover and she fights to keep her family together.

Hannah is not an immediately likeable character by any means. She spends a lot of time bemoaning her life and has many issues, particularly with her father who she calls Joker Daddy. She also dwells a lot on how as a white, affluent woman she is regarded by other people. Race plays a big part in the novel and is indicative of the time.

The serial killer aspect is not a huge focus if you’re only interested in this novel for that element. It’s a peripheral story that frames the disintegration of Hannah’s life.

This novel is very tense and made me feel uncomfortable at many points along the way! The descriptions of violent sexual assault and it’s aftermath are extremely graphic and make for difficult reading. There are also depictions of child sexual abuse within a paeodophile ring which are extremely uncomfortable, so please do bear this in mind if you’re considering reading.

Joyce Carol Oates writing is very distinctive and can be quite difficult to get into initially in my opinion, but once you’re there you are completely absorbed. Despite the feelings this book gave me I really did enjoy it. It crawled under my skin and took root in my brain. I felt like I needed a good hosing down after reading it!

I’ve also since bought more JCO novels to keep me topped up!

Thank you so much to Matt Clacher and 4th Estate for my review copy.

See you soon.

Amanda xx

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The Family Retreat By Bev Thomas – A Review

Publisher: Faber & Faber

Publication Date: 25th August 2022

It was May when the proof of The Family Retreat by Bev Thomas dropped through my letterbox. I did that thing that I’m sure a lot of us do where you just have a sneak peek at chapter one just to see what it’s all about. I read chapter one……chapter two……chapter three and didn’t put it down for a couple of days. This is one of those books you want to skip work and ignore your family for!

Rob has decided that it will be a good idea for his family to get away for the summer and leave their home life and worries behind. Jess, his wife, is not so sure it’s a good idea to run away from their problems but as she’s currently on a sabbatical from her job as a GP in a busy London surgery she agrees to the break to spend some time with Rob and their two young children Sam and Ruby.

They soon settle into their relaxed holiday vibe in a lovely little cottage on the coast and even start to make friends. Helen and her husband James are living in a cottage nearby with their two children. Jess makes friends with Helen but the relationship is quite superficial at first with Jess sensing that Helen wants to keep her distance and keep things on a surface level. Jess admires Helen’s organised mothering skills and strict routines and watches on sometimes enviously. Helen’s husband, when he’s around is attentive and helpful and Jess admires their whole family dynamic.

As the women spend more and more time together with the kids, days on the beach, barbecues etc Helen begins to open up more about her life and some issues within it. But what secrets are both women keeping and will it bring them closer or crack families apart?…..

This is quite a tense read and there were times when my heart was hammering due to the dangerous and heart-in-mouth moments that occurred. I was swept along so skilfully in the narrative that I was fully immersed in the situations along with these characters.

The back drop of the coast line was such a good choice. The descriptions of the landmarks and a particular place known as the dancing ledge were very evocative. In fact the author Bev Thomas put an image of a similar place to the dancing ledge on her Twitter feed and it was exactly as I’d pictured it.

There are lots of layers to this story to build up and peel away. I love a story with secrets and facades to chip away at.

This book deals with some difficult issues such as mental illness and domestic abuse which is something to bear in mind.

I really enjoyed this book which I think would make an absolutely perfect summer read. I honestly couldn’t put it down.

I can’t wait for what Bev brings us next!

Thank you to Bev and Faber & Faber for my review and finished copies.

See you all soon.

Amanda x

Bad Fruit By Ella King – A Review

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication Date: 18th August 2022

I always enjoy a book about a difficult mother and the tag line of ‘Meet Mama. A good mother? Or a good liar….’ drew me to Bad Fruit by Ella King.

Set in Greenwich London over one hot summer, we meet 18 year old Lily, daughter of a Chinese mother and English pathologist father. Lily’s mother is an extremely difficult woman and then some! She’s volatile and selfish and explosive. She’s difficult and cruel and the family pretty much tiptoe around her, none more so than Lily.

Lily has older siblings, sister Julia and brother Jacob. Julia is the incendiary child who ignites the flames of fury in her mother whilst Jacob keeps his distance. Both have moved out leaving Lily behind to handle their mother. Lily has been moulded into a miniature version of her mother and Julia likes to call her Mamas girl, Mama’s doll. Lily is the least Chinese looking of the three siblings so their mother makes her dye her brown hair jet black,use makeup to change her skin colour and contacts to change her eye colour. She wears her mother’s favourite pink clothes and cooks her mother’s favourite meals, diligently completing lists of tasks her mother leaves for her whilst she’s at work.

Lily’s father is somewhat beleaguered and tries to avoid his wife’s raging tempers despite being the cause of them in a lot of cases. Lily is the only person who can pre-empt the rages and uses tried and tested methods of diffusing her mother’s anger by distracting her with cooking traditional meals from her childhood in China and encouraging her to talk about the memories she has of this time.

But Lily begins to have disturbing flashbacks which start small, smashed glass, milk between toes, a woman collapsing against a chair…… these flashbacks mean nothing to her and bring on debilitating panic attacks that she struggles to control.

But in investigating these flashbacks Lily starts to learn more and more about her mother, uncovering secrets and lies with potentially devastating consequences.

The opening of this novel is chaotic! In a great way. There’s a lot going on and you are aware that this family has some huge issues right from the off! My mind was whirring with what on earth could have made this family and particularly, this mother, so toxic and dysfunctional!

It is a very layered exploration of trauma and how this filters down through generations gaining levels of toxicity as it goes. It’s a difficult often tense read and there are some shocking and chaotic moments. I really felt for Lily and her situation as a young girl wanting to break free from her childhood home but also being left behind as the one who has to ‘handle mother’.

I read this book in one 24 hour period and couldn’t look away from the car crash realities of this dysfunctional family. Loved it!

Thank you to Susanna Peden and HarperCollins for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda xx

The Night Ship By Jess Kidd – A Review

Publisher: Canongate

Publication Date: 11th August 2022

You all know how much I adored Things In Jars by Jess Kidd. I wanged on about it endlessly! And rightly so!

I was both excited and nervous when I heard that Jess had a new book coming out in August this year, The Night Ship. Nervous because I wanted to love it so much. I even put off reading it for longer than I normally would for this very reason.

Fear not dear reader for Jess kidd has done it again! Written a spectacularly imaginative story that everyone must read.

The book has a dual timeline narrative which you know I love. We have little Mayken in 1628 who has just boarded a ship called the Batavia with her nursemaid Imke, headed to see a father she doesn’t know after losing her mother to the ‘bloody flux’.

The ship is grand and Mayken in her high social standing is afforded a cabin on the upper decks or the ‘upper world’ as it’s known. However, curious and bold Mayken yearns to know what is going on below deck in the ‘below-world’ and sets about discovering the comings and goings down in the cramped, dark and stuffy, rat infested lower decks.

Mayken’s much beloved nursemaid Imke has a touch of the foresight about her and passengers come to her for predictions and prophesies. But when Imke becomes gravely ill, Mayken has reason to believe that something more sinister is aboard the ship…..slithering around in the darkness.

In 1989 young Gil, having also just lost his mother in terrible circumstances is arriving on a remote island in Australia to stay with his fisherman grandfather, Joss. Joss is a quiet, surly and introspective man who has little time for his new charge. The other fishing families on the island are not keen on Joss to say the least but there is one particular family, The Zanetti’s, who have a deeply held grudge against Gil’s grandfather. Gil doesn’t want to be a fisherman and finds it hard to settle on the island but he’s drawn to stories of a Dutch ghost girl who wanders the island…..

The two timelines merge together in various ways and there are echoes of themes across the two. Power, cruelty and control. The individual characters of Mayken and Gil are written so beautifully and authentically that you can’t help but root for them both! Mayken is a strong and brave little girl and Gil is strong and brave too but in different ways and for different reasons. Both children have lost their mother and find themselves alone and trying desperately to find themselves but not quite fitting in.

The historical detail regarding the ship Batavia was immense. I was so immersed in life at sea and could imagine all the finer details. Jess is so good at crafting wonderfully immersive stories that just sweep you away to other places and times.

Jess is also a master at writing fully formed characters bursting with personality even if they are a somewhat peripheral character. There are quite a few different characters in this story, both aboard the ship and on the island but they are all very distinct. There is a fearsome man called Stonecutter onboard the Batavia who only appears briefly but wreaks havoc and spreads fear. Mayken and Gil both make some really gorgeous connections with others. Mayken with a British soldier and various crew members and Gil with a couple of islanders Sylvia and Dutch but mostly with a tortoise pal called Enkidu who you’ll never forget!

I’m always left a bit stunned at the end of Jess’s books wishing I could go back and read it again immediately just to be back in that world and The Night Ship is no exception. It goes without saying that the book led me on a googling mission as it’s based on the real life story of the Batavia. Absolutely fascinating!

Another totally magical tale with storytelling at its heart. I loved it!

Thank you Jess for my proof copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx