Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Doomsday in her own lifetime: a woman turns her back on her paranoid, survivalist family one book at a time, writes Jennifer Platt

Published in the Sunday Times

Educated: A Memoir
Tara Westover, Hutchinson, R320

The cover looks like it’s set somewhere in South Africa. A derelict classroom table and chair are the only signs of life in the middle of golden veld overlooked by a blue-tipped mountain. But this is Idaho – a state in the good ol’ USA whose governor CL “Butch” Otter looks like he may have walked straight out of a Dallas episode with a cowboy hat and an aw shucks ma’am smarm. This is also the state that recently rejected a bill to confiscate guns from convicted domestic felons. So your husband, who has been found guilty of abusing you, still has the means to shoot you.

This is the state where, remarkably, Tara Westover, the last child of seven kids, grew up – in a small, mountainous part of it called Buck Peak. Her dad is a full-on anti-government survivalist, her mom a midwife so that they would “be completely off-grid … and she would be able to deliver the grandchildren”.

In the intro, this is what Westover writes: “On the highway below, the school bus rolls past without stopping. I am only seven, but I understand that it is this fact, more than any other, that makes my family different: we don’t go to school.”

Nor do they go to the doctor or the hospital, even when seriously injured, even when her mother is so badly concussed after a car accident that she has to stay in the darkness of their basement for years, even after her brother Luke suffers third-degree burns so horrific that his flesh melts off. “Papery ropes of skin wrapped delicately around his thigh and down his calf, like wax dripping from cheap candles,” writes Westover.

Westover dedicates this book to another brother, Tyler. “Tyler influenced me,” says Westover in a phone interview from what is now her home in Cambridge, England, near the university where she received her PhD. “If it wasn’t for him, I would be still living that life. I can’t even contemplate it.”

Tyler got out. He taught himself and got a high-school diploma. Then he went to college. This was not celebrated in the family. His father says: “A son of mine, standing in line to get brainwashed by socialists and Illuminati spies.” Their father preaches about the big bad world out there and how the government is waiting to come get them. “I think my father is bipolar and this feeds his paranoia,” says Westover. They each have a go bag – in case the police or FBI comes for them, and they can escape to the mountains. Her father invests in silver coins and keeps them in the basement with his cache of guns.

Now that Tyler has gone off to college, Westover at the age of seven has to step into his place as one of her father’s crew, hauling scrap metal in a junkyard.

Like Tyler, she wants something different for herself. “I wanted to learn. I don’t know when it became something I needed to do, but I just felt it.” Her gateway into the world started with her singing – surprisingly something that her father was proud of and supported.

Then another of her elder brothers comes back into her life after having disappeared for six years. She gives him the pseudonym Shawn in the book. At first he seems like her saviour: he helps her with a neck injury, saves her from falling off a horse, and drives her to her theatre rehearsals in Worm Creek as she prepares to sing in musicals.

But one night, at the age of 15, Westover refuses to fetch a glass of water for Shawn – he loves to give orders, a power play he revels in. He drags her by her hair to the bathroom, forces her head into the toilet and twists her arm until she nearly faints. This is the beginning of many years of abuse.

The memoir takes on a frenzied thriller-like tone. You want nothing more than for Westover to get away. She gratefully does escape for bits of time. Like Tyler, she teaches herself, gets her high-school diploma and for the first time steps into a classroom, at Brigham Young University. In one instance she asks the lecturer for the definition of a word she has never heard before. Surly, the teacher answers, “Thanks for that.” The word is “holocaust”.

She goes back home in the holidays, changed. “I don’t think that education is so much about making a living, it’s about making a person,” she says.

She asks her parents to intervene to get Shawn to stop abusing her, but they deny it ever took place and tell her that she has “false memories of what happened”.

“I had a mental breakdown but with therapy I finally accepted that I was telling the truth,” she writes. And she had her journals, proof that her memories were real. These are largely what she bases her memoir on. Westover and her parents are now estranged.

Asked if she would give her own 15-year-old any advice, Westover is firm that she wouldn’t change anything. “You have to come to a point where you ask yourself tough questions … My book is about how to remain loyal to yourself when you fundamentally change. I hope that it can help other people. That there is no shame of where you come from.” @Jenniferdplatt

Book details

Hitchcock meets Harlem: Michele Magwood reviews AJ Finn's twisty and slick The Woman in the Window

Published in the Sunday Times

By Michele Magwood

The Woman in the Window

The Woman in the Window
AJ Finn, Harper Collins, R285

In the book world, success stories don’t get much better than this. Editor at leading publishing house writes a thriller under a pseudonym, a bidding auction breaks out on the synopsis alone and even before publication film rights are sold and foreign rights in dozens of countries. His own publishing house buys it for a cool two million – not realising it’s been written by the guy down the corridor – and the book is blurbed by supernovas Stephen King “Unputdownable!” and Gillian Flynn “Astounding.” It debuts at No 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

The Woman in the Window tells the story of Dr Anna Fox, once a respected child psychologist and now an agoraphobic, alcoholic shut-in. Her husband and eight-year-old daughter have left her and she drifts through the days drinking merlot and popping pills, watching the world outside her Harlem townhouse through the zoom lens of her camera. And then, one night, she witnesses – she’s damn sure she witnesses – a murder in an apartment opposite her. The victim is a woman Anna knows, but no one believes she ever met her, let alone saw her get stabbed to death. Crippled by addiction and mental illness, she must solve the mystery.

“Anna’s a mess,” says the author in an email interview. “Yet she owns her mess. She’s smart, she’s funny, she’s self-aware.” Readers he meets find her relatable and intriguing, he says.

He deftly subverts the “male gaze” of so much crime fiction. “I was keen to create a female lead who isn’t passive, reactive or an obvious victim,” he writes, “and I wanted to describe her as a woman in the title – not a girl. With a few exceptions, including Gone Girl (a title that bristles with irony), these ‘girl’ books seem to condescend to women readers. Can you imagine if we referred to grown men as ‘boys’? Creepy.”

Daniel Mallory – AJ Finn – was working as a crime editor at William Morrow in New York. For 15 years he had grappled with debilitating depression which was eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder. While adjusting to new medication he took some time off work and stayed at home, watching old movies. One day as Hitchcock’s Rear Window was playing, he noticed a woman in an apartment across the street. While Jimmy Stewart was spying on his neighbours on screen, so Mallory found himself watching the woman across the way. The idea for the novel came to him right there and then, and it took him just two days to write an outline.

There’s a delicious slippery Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith aspect to The Woman in the Window. Mallory was heavily influenced by Highsmith (The Talented Mr Ripley) when he studied her at Oxford, and he is a lifelong fan of Hitchcock’s films. “Highsmith’s work fascinates and disturbs me because it subverts the forms of detective fiction,” he says. “The Woman in the Window is not as subversive but it does reflect, I hope, Highsmith’s lean, succinct style, and her willingness to peer into the dark corners of the human mind.”

What this book does do, with great effect, is explore the darkness of depression and psychosis, something Mallory knows only too well. Thankfully his condition is now under control.

“What’s enormously gratifying is to meet and hear from my publishers and readers around the world, and also to have the chance to speak to audiences about mental health, a topic that’s too little discussed.”

Twisty and slick, and ever so clever, The Woman in the Window is a one-sitting read. @michelemagwood

Book details

Hayden Eastwood's memoir of growing up in post-independence Zimbabwe is laced with humour, anger and sadness

“Dad thinks lots of things are right-wing. He even thinks He-Man is right-wing. I ask Dad who we are and he says left-wing. Left is opposite to right. If right is bad, then we’re the opposite of that, which means we’re good.”

It’s post-independence Zimbabwe and an atmosphere of nostalgia hangs over much of Harare’s remaining white community. Hayden Eastwood grows up in a family that sets itself apart, distinguishing themselves from Rhodie-Rhodies through their politics: left is good; right is bad.

Within the family’s free and easy approach to life, Hayden and his younger brother, Dan, make a pact to never grow up, to play hide and seek and build forts forever, and to never, ever be interested in girls. But as Hayden and Dan develop as teenagers, and the chemicals of adolescence begin to stir, their childhood pact starts to unravel.

And with the arrival of Sarah into their lives, the two brothers find themselves embroiled in an unspoken love triangle. While Sarah and Hayden spend increasing amounts of time together, Dan is left to deal with feelings of rejection and the burden of hidden passion alone, and the demise of a silly promise brings with it a wave of destruction.

Laced with humour, anger and sadness, Like Sodium in Water is an account of a family in crisis and an exploration of how we only abandon the lies we tell ourselves when we have no other option.

The Author
When not informing people about the inadvisability of push-starting motorbikes in close proximity to rivers, Hayden Eastwood develops cryptocurrency trading bots as part of a high-risk low-return business venture portfolio. Non-transferable skills from a doctorate in computational physics have likewise ill-equipped him for gooseberry farming, vehicle maintenance and relationships with women. He lives in Harare.

Book details

Also available as an eBook.

A jealous ex-wife, a skittish bride-to-be, and many, many twists - Jennifer Platt reviews The Wife Between Us

Published in the Sunday Times

The Wife Between Us
Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen, Macmillan, R285

There’s something fun and soapy about the new wave of domestic thrillers – or, actually, they’re more telenovela-like.

They have such an unrealistic glamorous feel and improbable storylines to feed the insatiable thriller market, those who have gobbled up the Girls books – Gone Girl, Girl on a Train etc – and want more.

More drama, more angst, more guessing games.

These feature impossibly beautiful and fragile yet strong women who could be mentally unstable or not, a rich, handsome, dapper man with piercing eyes who could be bad or not, a marriage that has many secrets – old family skeletons, murder, abuse … and the twists, yoh, they just keep on coming.

Set in New York, The Wife Between Us is one such roller-coaster ride. Vanessa now lives in a trendy flat with her aunt after she and her husband Richard have divorced. She is the jealous ex-wife, seemingly stalking his new fiancée. She wants to do everything to stop the wedding from happening.

Nellie, Richard’s fiancée, is suitably skittish. There are no-caller ID phone calls, her wedding photographer is inexplicably cancelled, and Richard is quite demanding. So demanding that her best friend, Sam, is worried that he might not be the Prince Charming that Nellie thinks he is. But Nellie is smitten and will do anything for Richard.

It’s clever and addictive reading but be prepared for over-the-top machinations. There’s already a twist in the first third of the book. Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

Book details

Book Bites: 11 March

Published in the Sunday Times

The Twinkling of an Eye: A Mother’s Journey
Sue Brown, Human & Rousseau, R230

The Browns are an ordinary family. They have two lovely children (Meg and Craig), good friends, and a home that welcomed others. They also have a ghastly cuckoo in the nest, a life-threatening tumour that was discovered in Craig’s brain when he was 12. His mother wrote this book after his death. The story is horrifyingly accurate. She spares no one in the telling of it. This is an unflinching book about a cruel death, but one that puts living at the centre of death. Jennifer Crocker @malleson30

Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down
Anne Valente, William Morrow, R250

Valente takes you down the bloodied school corridor, under the desks in the classrooms, to the back of stacks in the library as Caleb Raynor guns down 28 of his fellow students, three teachers, three staff members and one principal. This is on October 8 2003 at 9:04am. This is fiction but seems very real (none of the teachers have guns). The part that does not feel real is that this is not the only tragedy to face the small town in St Louis. Three days after the shooting, the houses of the families of the victims start burning down. Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

The Wanderers
Meg Howrey, Simon & Schuster, R220

Three Nasa astronauts are chosen for a mission to Mars which will make them the first people on the Red Planet. Helen is a veteran astronaut with a complicated relationship with her daughter, Sergei is on the verge of divorce and Yoshi is trying to reach out to his distant wife. Why are they doing it? How will their significant others cope with their absence? A nuanced tale of adventure, terror and the complex emotional challenges of journeying to the outer limits as well as within. Nikki Temkin @NikkiTemkin

Book details

Entertaining, yet saccharine - Margaret von Klemperer reviews Tom Hanks's Uncommon Type

Published in the Witness (21/02/2018)

Uncommon Type
Tom Hanks

William Heinemann Ltd

TOM Hanks has what I hope is a deserved reputation as Hollywood’s Mr Nice Guy, making him probably the most unlikely person there to be outed as yet another of the industry’s serial gropers.

It’s hard to even imagine him playing a villain, though apparently he did once play Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona. Now that he has turned his hand to fiction with this collection of short stories it would be pointless to expect anything dark or villainous here. Hanks is no Roald Dahl.

Apparently he is a collector of old typewriters – I can’t imagine why anyone would want to do that and they must take up a lot of room, even if you have a Hollywood-style mansion – but never mind. Typewriters provide a tenuous connection between the stories, featuring more prominently in some than in others, but getting at least a mention in all of them. And some of the characters also appear more than once.

The two best stories have a hint of sci-fi about them. One, “Back from Back in Time”, deals with time travel, back to the World’s Fair in 1939. It is the only story in the collection that doesn’t have an entirely upbeat ending, of which more later.

The other, “Alan Bean Plus Four”, has four friends (who turn up in several of the stories) building a rocket in the back yard and setting off on a mildly hilarious trip round the moon, and back.

Obviously the publisher reckons that the author’s name will sell the book. Fair enough. There are plenty worse things being published, and as long as the reader treats this as something to dip into, rather than settle down to read from cover to cover, Uncommon Type offers entertainment. But the relentless happy endings do begin to pall. It’s a bit like living on an unvaried diet of lemon meringue pie – or watching endless re-runs of Forrest Gump. Once is fine, but something a little darker or more astringent would be welcome.

Just a bit less Mr Nice Guy to add some bite.

Book details