#BookReview Dangerous Women by Hope Adams @MichaelJBooks

Dangerous WomenAbout the Book

London, 1841. The Rajah sails for Australia. On board are 180 women convicted of petty crimes, sentenced to start a new life half way across the world. Daughters, sisters, mothers – they’ll never see home or family again. Despised and damned, all they have now is each other. Until the murder.

As the fearful hunt for a killer begins, everyone on board is a suspect. The investigation risks tearing their friendships apart… But if the killer isn’t found, could it cost them their last chance of freedom?

Based on a real-life voyage, Dangerous Women is a sweeping tale of confinement, hope and the terrible things we do to survive.

Format: Hardcover (352 pages)     Publisher: Michael Joseph
Publication date: 4th March 2021 Genre: Historical Fiction

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Dangerous Women

My Review

Conviction The Recovery of Rose Gold Henley Literary FestivalI first heard about this book at Henley Literary Festival in 2019 when it was one of the debut novels featured at the Michael Joseph Proof Party, alongside Stephanie Wrobel’s The Recovery of Rose Gold (which I’ve since read and reviewed). At the time, Dangerous Women was due to be published in 2020 under the title Conviction. For various reasons, publication was delayed but the plot of Dangerous Women is largely unchanged from that which the author described at the time. Indeed the passage from the book which Hope read at the event can be found in the final version. You can read my review of the event here. Be aware it features descriptions of strangers mingling before social distancing was even a thing.

Dangerous Women is inspired by the real life voyage of the Rajah from London to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1841 during which many of the women prisoners, as in the book, worked on the embroidery of an elaborate quilt – now held in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. You can read the author’s blog post about how she first learned of the quilt here and view pictures of it here.

Although technically sentenced to transportation for a set number of years, for many of the women aboard the Rajah, it will be the last time they see England, leading to heartbreaking scenes as the ship departs. “The ones who have children will yearn for them. The ones who have living parents will fear their deaths, their sicknesses, and being unable to help them.” But it’s not the same for all the women. For Kezia Hayter, who her whole life has felt underappreciated by her mother compared to her sister Henrietta, it’s a chance to forge an independent path in life. Her appointment as Matron on the voyage is also an opportunity to contribute to a cause about which she feels strongly: the welfare and rehabilitation of female prisoners. From the outset Kezia feels sympathy for and a sense of responsibility towards those in her charge, coming to think of them as her women. She goes out of her way to encourage them and to defend them where necessary.

The convicts are perhaps fortunate in that both the captain of the Rajah, Charles Ferguson, and the ship’s surgeon, Mr. Donovan, hold relatively enlightened views. Like Kezia, they are prepared to recognise that circumstances – poverty, abuse, coercion – may have led the women to commit the crimes they have. Clergyman Mr. Davies, on the other hand, subscribes to the less generous view that the cause of the women’s crimes is sinfulness.

For the women chosen by Kezia to work on the patchwork quilt she has designed, it’s not only a means of learning a skill that may benefit them in their new lives but a chance to leave the confines of below decks where the other less fortunate convicts spend their days. It also becomes a shared endeavour. Despite their different backgrounds and life experiences, by the end of the voyage they have become, as the author so imaginatively describes it, “a patchwork of souls”.

Although we’re told the Rajah is transporting one hundred and eighty women, for narrative reasons the reader only really gets to know the eighteen women chosen by Kezia to work on the quilt, and even then only to varying degrees.  The plight of the remaining women and the cramped and claustrophobic conditions that must have existed below deck remain largely in the background, except for a vivid scene in which the Rajah encounters a storm. However, within the circle of women working on the quilt, the reader gets to see friendships formed and severed, stories shared and secrets revealed.

A vivid account of an epic voyage, Dangerous Women is also a cleverly constructed “locked room” mystery. As well as trying to work out who might have carried out the vicious attack that takes place early on in the voyage, I enjoyed looking out for clues to the identity of the individual onboard who is not entirely what they seem. To be truthful, the answer to the latter was revealed a little earlier than I expected but that still leaves plenty of dramatic events to unfold.  There are revelations that bring redemption for some and unexpected possibilities for others.

I received an advance review copy courtesy of Michael Joseph via NetGalley.

In three words: Intriguing, compelling, dramatic

Try something similar: Fled by Meg Keneally or The Tides Between by Elizabeth Jane Corbett

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About the Author

Hope Adams is a pseudonym of Adele Geras. Adele was born in Jerusalem and spent her early childhood in many different countries, including Nigeria and British North Borneo. She went to Roedean School in Brighton and from there to St Hilda’s College, Oxford.

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Dangerous Women

#BookReview The Push by Ashley Audrain @MichaelJBooks

The Push Ashley AudrainAbout the Book

What if your experience of motherhood was nothing like what you hoped for – but everything you always feared?

‘The women in this family, we’re different…’

The arrival of baby Violet was meant to be the happiest day of my life. It was meant to be a fresh start. But as soon as I held her in my arms I knew something wasn’t right. I have always known that the women in my family aren’t meant to be mothers.

My husband Fox says I’m imagining it. He tells me I’m nothing like my own mother, and that Violet is the sweetest child. But she’s different with me. Something feels very wrong. Is it her? Or is it me? Is she the monster? Or am I?

Format: Hardcover (320 pages)         Publisher: Michael Joseph
Publication date: 7th January 2021 Genre: Contemporary Fiction

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My Review

I first heard about The Push when it was one of the debut novels featured at the Michael Joseph Proof Party at Henley Literary Festival in 2020. Under normal circumstances, I might have expected to be aboard the Hibernia cruising along the Thames, sipping a glass of fizz while listening to Ashley talk about her book. Since 2020 was definitely not normal, instead I had to make do with the online event, which included an uncorrected proof copy of the book in the ticket price.

The compelling and intriguing prologue of The Push sees a woman (whom we will shortly know as Blythe) observing her daughter through the windows of the house of her former husband, Fox, and his new wife. The story that follows is her account of events, addressed to her ex-husband. The narrative style takes a little getting used to but comes to make absolute sense because the book is her side of the story and, to a certain extent, a self-justification of her response to the events that led up to this point.

Interspersed with Blythe’s first person narrative are occasional flashbacks to the troubled childhood of her mother, Cecilia. Cecilia’s experiences at the hands of her own mother, Etta, leads her to warn her daughter, “One day you’ll understand, Blythe. The women in this family, we’re different…”. It’s a statement that will colour Blythe’s view of herself and influence some of the events that follow.

Despite her understandable reservations about becoming a mother, Blythe is persuaded by Fox that they should start a family. I have never given birth but the author’s vivid description of Blythe’s experience of the birth of her daughter, Violet, brought me as close as I’m ever likely to get – or would want to get, frankly – to the reality of it. The book also conveys the rollercoaster of emotions Blythe experiences after giving birth – from the highs of the wonder and astonishment at the new life she has created to the lows of lack of sleep and the unrelenting nature of caring for a young baby. It brings Blythe close to breaking point. “I felt like the only mother in the world who wouldn’t survive it.”

Blythe worries she can’t live up to Fox’s expectations of what a ‘good mother’ should be however hard she tries. And she really does try.  In fact, society’s expectations of motherhood is one of the themes explored in the book and the extent to which it involves an element of performance, of ‘playing the part’ expected, of hiding the private reality behind the public face.

To make things worse, Blythe struggles to bond with Violet in the way her daughter seems to do naturally with Fox. She confides, “I felt like I would never have with her what you had.” I’m sure I’m not the only reader moved by the rare occasions on which Violet responds to Blythe’s loving gestures. It’s a pattern that continues as Violet grows up, leading Blythe to wonder if is it something about her, or something about Violet that’s not quite right?

The author cleverly sows seeds of doubt in the reader’s mind. Are Blythe’s concerns about Violet’s behaviour merely delusions fuelled by Blythe’s own childhood experiences or a recognition of something within Violet that others fail to see? And are Violet’s questions merely a sign of precocious intelligence or evidence of a manipulative mind at work? As Blythe admits, “there weren’t many places my mind wouldn’t go. My imagination could tiptoe slowly into the unthinkable before I realized where I was headed”.

A shocking event part way through the book brings about a sudden change of tone. From that point on the author skillfully ramps up the tension, creating a chilling sense of foreboding that doesn’t let up until the final page.

From its clever title to its heart-stopping conclusion, The Push is an impressive debut about grief, obsession and betrayal.

In three words: Chilling, intense, suspenseful

Try something similar: The Recovery of Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel

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About the Author

Ashley Audrain previously worked as the publicity director of Penguin Books Canada. Prior to Penguin, she worked in public relations. She lives in Toronto, where she and her partner are raising their two young children. The Push is her first novel.

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