Review: The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir – Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

the fact of a bodyBefore Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich begins a summer job at a law firm in Louisiana, working to help defend men accused of murder, she thinks her position is clear. The child of two lawyers, she is staunchly anti-death penalty. But the moment convicted murderer Ricky Langley’s face flashes on the screen as she reviews old tapes―the moment she hears him speak of his crimes―she is overcome with the feeling of wanting him to die. Shocked by her reaction, she digs deeper and deeper into the case. Despite their vastly different circumstances, something in his story is unsettlingly, uncannily familiar.

Crime, even the darkest and most unsayable acts, can happen to any one of us. As Alexandria pores over the facts of the murder, she finds herself thrust into the complicated narrative of Ricky’s childhood. And by examining the details of Ricky’s case, she is forced to face her own story, to unearth long-buried family secrets, and reckon with a past that colors her view of Ricky’s crime.

But another surprise awaits: She wasn’t the only one who saw her life in Ricky’s.

An intellectual and emotional thriller that is also a different kind of murder mystery, The Fact Of a Body is a book not only about how the story of one crime was constructed―but about how we grapple with our own personal histories. Along the way it tackles questions about the nature of forgiveness, and if a single narrative can ever really contain something as definitive as the truth. This groundbreaking, heart-stopping work, ten years in the making, shows how the law is more personal than we would like to believe―and the truth more complicated, and powerful, than we could ever imagine.

Rating: 4/5

The Fact of a Body, as many reviewers have noted, is a difficult read. This is largely due to the nature of the subject matter, and the narrative style which gives the heavy material its due. But it’s also a stellar, searching read, making you question at each step – what would I do in this situation?

But I didn’t understand then that the law doesn’t find the beginning any more than it finds the truth. It creates story. That story has a beginning. That story simplifies, and we call it truth.

There are two parallel story arcs in this book. The first is the case of a murdered child, with an in-depth look at the life of the perpetrator, as well as the investigation surrounding the crime. The author really delves into each situation, narrating as if she was there, reconstructing the scenes as best as possible from her extensive research.

The second narrative arc deals with the author’s family history and her own experience of child abuse, which she is forced to confront. She conducts her research with the knowledge that Ricky Langley is also a confessed paedophile who molested children prior to his arrest for murder. Going through his past crimes is a harrowing experience, both for the reader and the author in her quest to understand this particular man; this particular crime.

The people face being asked to make an unimaginable decision. There is no other situation in which we ask a civilian to decide if someone will live or die.

While you may have very set views on the death penalty, I think the book will still make you think long and hard about so many of the topics that are relevant here – how we fail people who seek help, the lack of rehabilitation and resources for those who need it, the nature of forgiveness and redemption.

Criminal law doesn’t care where the story began. But how you tell the story has everything to do with how you judge. Begin Ricky’s story with the murder – and it means one thing. Begin it with the crash – and it means another.

The book is a slow read, but not one to give up on. It’s a compelling, real-life mystery that gives great insight into the workings of the American legal system; into a forgotten small-town crime; into the mind of one lawyer/writer who grapples with a multitude of narratives, both personal and professional, in pursuit of the truth.

People think the robe protects you. It doesn’t protect you. Not from the stories.

Review: Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? – Alyssa Mastromonaco

who thought this was a good ideaIf your funny older sister were the former deputy chief of staff to President Barack Obama, her behind-the-scenes political memoir would look something like this… 

Alyssa Mastromonaco worked for Barack Obama for almost a decade, and long before his run for president. From the then-senator’s early days in Congress to his years in the Oval Office, she made Hope and Change happen through blood, sweat, tears, and lots of briefing binders.

But for every historic occasion-meeting the queen at Buckingham Palace, bursting in on secret climate talks, or nailing a campaign speech in a hailstorm-there were dozens of less-than-perfect moments when it was up to Alyssa to save the day. Like the time she learned the hard way that there aren’t nearly enough bathrooms at the Vatican.

Full of hilarious, never-before-told stories, WHO THOUGHT THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA? is an intimate portrait of a president, a book about how to get stuff done, and the story of how one woman challenged, again and again, what a “White House official” is supposed to look like. Here Alyssa shares the strategies that made her successful in politics and beyond, including the importance of confidence, the value of not being a jerk, and why ultimately everything comes down to hard work (and always carrying a spare tampon).

Told in a smart, original voice and topped off with a couple of really good cat stories, WHO THOUGHT THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA? is a promising debut from a savvy political star.

Rating: 4/5

This was a highly entertaining memoir. It did feel a little light at times, in terms of the behind the scenes political strategising and insights into Obama, but as a Guardian review I read noted, Mastromonaco hasn’t ruled out returning to politics – so you can’t go burning all your bridges and divulging things which should rather stay hidden.

The book isn’t written chronologically, but rather organised into chapters focusing on a particular theme or lesson she learnt along the way. And this works for me, since following a format from cradle to grave can very often bore me.

Essentially, Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? is part insight into Alyssa and her career, anecdotes from her time in politics, particularly her time spent in the White House, as well as some humorous commentary and pieces of career advice for young women (Advice, which quite frankly, boils down to persevere, work hard, and stand up for yourself.) Although this did resonate with me:

Forward motion is always better than no motion – even if you don’t think it’s taking you in the direction you wanted to go.

Due to all the above elements included, I wouldn’t classify this as a hardcore political memoir, but it does seem that there is a dearth of contributions from women in this subgenre. (Probably due to a dearth of female politicians/strategists in what still seems to be an old boys club in many countries.) And like I mentioned, I really enjoyed reading this book. Mastromonaco has an approachable style, and it was incredibly interesting reading about her experiences, the people she met and the problems she had to solve.

I also like the fact that she is matter of fact about her achievements. She doesn’t boast, but she doesn’t overplay them. She worked hard to get where she did. And I think it’s something many of us struggle with – the balance between being proud without being conceited.

Finally, something that stood out for me was her openness about her struggles with IBS. As a fellow-sufferer, I was clenching my gut in sympathy reading about her digestive near-misses. Seriously, it feels like digestive issues are the final frontier of health issues we need to stop shying away from discussing in public.

By this point in my career at the White House, most of the senior staff knew about my IBS; I once had to have Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, watch the bathroom door for me at Hamid Karzai’s palace while two Afghan guards played cards and smoked on the other side of it. This kind of thing really breaks down barriers with people. When you tell someone, “Here’s the thing: I might have to shit on this helicopter,” and they don’t shun you afterward, you have a friend for life.


Free copy received from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Quotes taken from uncorrected proof and may differ from final publication.

Mini reviews: To all the books I meant to review but didn’t

Ahem. Sometimes you get behind in reviews. Sometimes you don’t have enough to say about them to constitute an entire review. Sometimes you just weren’t in the mood to write one at the time. This post is pretty much a combination of these. And I see a few more heading your way in the future, ha.

The Good Daughter – Alexandra Burt

the good daughterWhat if you were the worst crime your mother ever committed? 

Dahlia Waller’s childhood memories consist of stuffy cars, seedy motels, and a rootless existence traveling the country with her eccentric mother. Now grown, she desperately wants to distance herself from that life. Yet one thing is stopping her from moving forward: she has questions. 

In order to understand her past, Dahlia must go back. Back to her mother in the stifling town of Aurora, Texas. Back into the past of a woman on the brink of madness. But after she discovers three grave-like mounds on a neighboring farm, she ll learn that in her mother s world of secrets, not all questions are meant to be answered… 

Rating: 2/5

An interesting concept, but the execution, pardon the pun, was fairly lacklustre. With some better editing, this book could have been cut down by a hundred pages or so and been all the more suspenseful for it. There was just so much unnecessary filler. I love me some slow atmospheric mystery novels, don’t get me wrong (Jane Harper’s The Dry is an excellent example of how this can be done) – but The Good Daughter just took far too long to get us there. The reader could join the dots long before some of the reveals. Finally, I was expecting some kind of connection between the two cases going on, but there was nothing, which felt a bit strange to me.

Free copy received from Jonathan Ball Publishers in exchange for an honest review. 

Reasons to Stay Alive – Matt Haig

reasons to stay aliveReasons to Stay Alive is about making the most of your time on earth. In the western world the suicide rate is highest amongst men under the age of 35. Matt Haig could have added to that statistic when, aged 24, he found himself staring at a cliff-edge about to jump off. This is the story of why he didn’t, how he recovered and learned to live with anxiety and depression. It’s also an upbeat, joyous and very funny exploration of how live better, love better, read better and feel more. 

Rating: 4/5

This was the book I needed 7 years ago, in the midst of a nervous breakdown where I eventually ended up dropping out of university for a year to recover. It wasn’t the book I needed right now, but it’s comforting to know it exists. I know that mental illness can come in waves, and I know I may very well need it in the future. Haig tells of his own experience with anxiety and depression, interspersed with suggestions on what worked for him, and ruminations on mental illness and how much of it is connected to modern life. It’s definitely worth a space on your bookshelf.

The evolutionary psychologists might be right. We humans might have evolved too far. The price for being intelligent enough to be the first species to be fully aware of the cosmos might just be a capacity to feel a whole universe’s worth of darkness. 

Notes from a Big Country – Bill Bryson

notes from a big countryBill Bryson has the rare knack of being out of his depth wherever he goes – even (perhaps especially) in the land of his birth. This became all too apparent when, after nearly two decades in England, the world’s best-loved travel writer upped sticks with Mrs Bryson, little Jimmy et al. and returned to live in the country he had left as a youth.

Of course there were things Bryson missed about Blighty but any sense of loss was countered by the joy of rediscovering some of the forgotten treasures of his childhood: the glories of a New England autumn; the pleasingly comical sight of oneself in shorts; and motel rooms where you can generally count on being awakened in the night by a piercing shriek and the sound of a female voice pleading, ‘Put the gun down, Vinnie, I’ll do anything you say.’

Whether discussing the strange appeal of breakfast pizza or the jaw-slackening direness of American TV, Bill Bryson brings his inimitable brand of bemused wit to bear on that strangest of phenomena – the American way of life.

Rating: 3/5

I just had to chuckle in despair when I read this book, a collection of short essays. As it was written in the mid nineties, all I could think of was ‘Oh Bill, you ain’t seen nothing yet.’ And not just the humorous nostalgia of internet dial-up, junk mail adverts and catalogues, diners and motels, endless bureaucracy, labour-saving appliances, and all those other weird and wonderful elements that characterise the decade of my childhood. Rather, I refer to the political commentary he slyly interjects into most of his pieces – with the hope that twenty years later, the land of his birth may have made some progress in these matters.

I don’t want to get heavy here, but given the choice between free iced water at restaurants and, let us say, a national health service, I have to say my instinct is to go with the latter. 

Done Dirt Cheap – Sarah Lemon

done dirt cheapTourmaline Harris’s life hit pause at fifteen, when her mom went to prison because of Tourmaline’s unintentionally damning testimony. But at eighteen, her home life is stable, and she has a strong relationship with her father, the president of a local biker club known as the Wardens.

Virginia Campbell’s life hit fast-forward at fifteen, when her mom “sold” her into the services of a local lawyer: a man for whom the law is merely a suggestion. When Hazard sets his sights on dismantling the Wardens, he sends in Virginia, who has every intention of selling out the club—and Tourmaline. But the two girls are stronger than the circumstances that brought them together, and their resilience defines the friendship at the heart of this powerful debut novel.


I am conflicted with this one – on one hand, it’s a fun, entertaining YA novel entered on female friendships, young women navigating their way in what is very much a macho world. There’s some madcap adventure, romantic suspense and superb teamwork. The author also has a really enjoyable writing style.

On the other hand, there are two elements in the book that can be considered problematic. First, while both girls are of legal age, the one romantic relationship features a ten year age gap. So keep that in mind. Secondly, the other love interest is black, and the new recruit to the motorcycle club, who takes on the grunt work and isn’t referred to by his name during his probation period. While the author does try delve into this in a conversation between the pair, Tourmaline and Cash, the whole scenario has me feeling uncomfortable considering the history of the American South. Again, something to keep in mind, and I would suggest deferring to the reviews of those more qualified than myself to make a judgement call on this.

Review: Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari

sapiens100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo sapiens.

How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables and consumerism? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?

In Sapiens, Dr Yuval Noah Harari spans the whole of human history, from the very first humans to walk the earth to the radical – and sometimes devastating – breakthroughs of the Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions. Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, paleontology and economics, he explores how the currents of history have shaped our human societies, the animals and plants around us, and even our personalities. Have we become happier as history has unfolded? Can we ever free our behaviour from the heritage of our ancestors? And what, if anything, can we do to influence the course of the centuries to come?

Bold, wide-ranging and provocative, Sapiens challenges everything we thought we knew about being human: our thoughts, our actions, our power … and our future.

Rating: 4/5

“History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.”

This book is well-deserving of the accolades it has been receiving – it’s a truly fascinating read detailing the journey from humanity’s rather humble beginnings. In a way, it reminds me a little of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, but with greater analytical depth and a focus on the humanities side of culture, language and history.

“Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.”

I just wish I had the sheer intellectual knowledge needed to critique and debate some of the ideas presented here. On the whole, I think it’s fairly well-balanced in terms of presenting the existing theories, but the author does have a clear opinion on matters, and justifies his conclusions. In one critical review that I encountered on Goodreads, for instance, the reviewer pointed out the author’s romanticised view of our pre-agricultural ancestors – sure, they weren’t burdened down ploughing fields all day, but there wasn’t much in the way of human progress going on either.

“We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.”

Regardless of your opinions on some of these debates, Sapiens is a truly fascinating book, especially when it looks at the collective fictions and social constructs that have enabled humanity to co-operate – or alternatively, go to war. Like most non-fiction work of this kind, I find you have to read it fairly slowly to be able to digest everything, and possibly alternate it with a fiction read to avoid information overload.

“Biology enables, Culture forbids.”

Possibly my favourite part of the book was the examination of how different human cultures formed their taboos, their social hierarchies, their deeming of what is appropriate and what is not, what constitutes as ‘natural’. There’s so much food for thought here. Plus, while many of the concepts covered require some concentration, the author uses really clear examples to get his points across and simplify the conundrums.

Review: Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body – Roxane Gay

hungerFrom the bestselling author of Bad Feminist: a searingly honest memoir of food, weight, self-image, and learning how to feed your hunger while taking care of yourself

“I ate and ate and ate in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe. I buried the girl I was because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere. . . . I was trapped in my body, one that I barely recognized or understood, but at least I was safe.”

In her phenomenally popular essays and long-running Tumblr blog, Roxane Gay has written with intimacy and sensitivity about food and body, using her own emotional and psychological struggles as a means of exploring our shared anxieties over pleasure, consumption, appearance, and health. As a woman who describes her own body as “wildly undisciplined,” Roxane understands the tension between desire and denial, between self-comfort and self-care. In Hunger, she explores her own past—including the devastating act of violence that acted as a turning point in her young life—and brings readers along on her journey to understand and ultimately save herself.

With the bracing candor, vulnerability, and power that have made her one of the most admired writers of her generation, Roxane explores what it means to learn to take care of yourself: how to feed your hungers for delicious and satisfying food, a smaller and safer body, and a body that can love and be loved—in a time when the bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes.

Rating: 5/5

This is such a powerful, raw memoir, that I don’t think I have the words to do it justice. I had previously heard of the author, and have always been meaning to get around to reading ‘Bad Feminist’, but ‘Hunger’ is my first proper encounter with Gay’s writing. And I think, on the most part, I will let her words do the talking for me.

Something terrible happened, and I wish I could leave it at that because as a writer who is also a woman, I don’t want to be defined by the worst thing that has happened to me.

She has such incredible talent – the writing is introspective, honest and thought-provoking. One gets the sense that this memoir is as much of a journey for her as it is for us, the reader. The fairly short chapters also make it a slightly ‘easier’ read, in terms of having a moment to catch one’s breath amidst the distressing subject matter.

I began eating to change my body. I was wilful in this. Some boys had destroyed me, and I barely survived it. I knew I wouldn’t be able to ensure another such violation, and so I ate because I thought that if my body became repulsive, I could keep men away. Even at that young age, I understood that to be fat was to be undesirable to mean, to be beneath their contempt, and I already knew too much about their contempt.

The main focus of the memoir is on the author’s weight and her evolving relationship with her body, using food as a defence mechanism after a horrific sexual assault when she was 12 years old. The sheer pain, suffering, and self-loathing are palpable; they pour off the page and it will make you want to punch and weep and scream.

I made myself bigger. I made myself safer. I created a distinct boundary between myself and anyone who dared approach me.

While the author may be self-depracating, and avoids praise of her strength of character, I have to disagree. I think she is an incredibly brave, insightful, wonderful woman, and I salute her.

But when people use the word ‘obese’, they aren’t merely being literal. They are offering forth an accusation.

Apart from her journey from childhood to where she is now, the book also contains commentary on the manner in which society treats overweight bodies, and the ways in which they are forced to navigate the world. Rounding it all off are some thoughts on feminism, race and class. It’s a frank, unflinching memoir that we can all learn from, empathise with and marvel at the national treasure that is Roxane Gay.

This is a memoir of (my) body because, more often than not, stories of bodies like mine are ignored or dismissed or derided. People see bodies like mine and make their assumptions. They think they know the why of my body. They do not.


ARC received from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Quotes taken from uncorrected proof and may differ from final publication.

Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly EverythingIn Bryson’s biggest book, he confronts his greatest challenge: to understand—and, if possible, answer—the oldest, biggest questions we have posed about the universe and ourselves. Taking as territory everything from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization, Bryson seeks to understand how we got from there being nothing at all to there being us. To that end, he has attached himself to a host of the world’s most advanced (and often obsessed) archaeologists, anthropologists, and mathematicians, travelling to their offices, laboratories, and field camps. He has read (or tried to read) their books, pestered them with questions, apprenticed himself to their powerful minds. A Short History of Nearly Everything is the record of this quest, and it is a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge, as only Bill Bryson can render it. Science has never been more involving or entertaining.

Rating: 4/5

Glance at the night sky and what you see is history and lots of it – not the stars as they are now but as they were when their light left them. 

I’ve been on a non-fiction kick lately, and A Short History of Nearly Everything was an excellent addition to my repertoire. Bryson is skilled at explaining difficult or very technical concepts in a manner that is accessible and easy to understand – no mean feat indeed.

It’s the kind of book you can’t really read in one sitting, considering the really dense subject matter. It’s pretty impressive that he managed to fit as much as he did – namely the history of the earth – into 550 or so pages. Of course, it’s not the entire history, naturally – he had to pick and choose the elements he considered relevant. Still, it’s an incredibly fascinating read.

“One of the hardest ideas for humans to accept is that we are not the culmination of anything. There is nothing inevitable about our being here. It is part of our vanity as humans that we tend to think of evolution as a process that, in effect, was programmed to produce us.”

It’s books like these that have really gotten me interested in all things science again – why don’t they make us read things like this in school? It would have livened up my physics and chemistry lessons considerably. There are so many fascinating facts contained in this volume. Ones that particularly tickled me:

When you sit in a chair, you are not actually sitting there, but levitating above it at a height of one angstrom (a hundred millionth of a centimetre), you electrons and its electrons implacably opposed to any closer intimacy. 


Your skin cells are all dead. It’s a somewhat galling notion to reflect that every inch of your surface is deceased. 

One aspect that impressed me was the fact that Bryson included mention of the wives and female colleagues of the male scientists who got all the fame and glory. Since the contributions of women have been written out of history for so long, it was excellent that their efforts here were acknowledged.

Finally,  amongst all the science-ing and anecdotes, the subject matter is surprisingly profound and astoundingly beautiful at times.

So we are all reincarnations – thought short-lived ones. When we die, our atoms will disassemble and move off to find new uses elsewhere – as part of a leaf or another human being or drop of dew. 

Review: Shrill – Lindy West

shrillComing of age in a culture that demands women be as small, quiet, and compliant as possible–like a porcelain dove that will also have sex with you–writer and humorist Lindy West quickly discovered that she was anything but.

From a painfully shy childhood in which she tried, unsuccessfully, to hide her big body and even bigger opinions; to her public war with stand-up comedians over rape jokes; to her struggle to convince herself, and then the world, that fat people have value; to her accidental activism and never-ending battle royale with Internet trolls, Lindy narrates her life with a blend of humor and pathos that manages to make a trip to the abortion clinic funny and wring tears out of a story about diarrhea.

With inimitable good humor, vulnerability, and boundless charm, Lindy boldly shares how to survive in a world where not all stories are created equal and not all bodies are treated with equal respect, and how to weather hatred, loneliness, harassment, and loss–and walk away laughing. Shrill provocatively dissects what it means to become self-aware the hard way, to go from wanting to be silent and invisible to earning a living defending the silenced in all caps.

Rating: 4/5

My first experience with Lindy West’s writing was when I discovered the world of Jezebel, which was an eye-opening encounter to my feminism-starved self. Of course, now I am more aware of the site’s problematic nature, but at the time it was a good introduction for my high school self to the world of feminism.

Shrill covers Lindy’s childhood, coming of age and career as a woman who is classified as ‘big’. It doesn’t go into boring autobiographical detail, but rather includes observations and experiences relating to feminism and our culture’s obsession with weight. The book is also an easy read – not in terms of the content matter, which will probably make you alternately angry, despairing, and ‘RRRRR girrrrrl power’, but rather in terms of the writing style, which is fairly colloquial – Lindy has an approachable, conversational tone – perhaps a little over the top snarky at times.

In a certain light, feminism is just the long, slow realisation that the stuff you love hates you.

I cannot tell you how much the above quote resonates with me. Ever since I’ve become more aware of social justice issues, it is so difficult to consume movies, books and other forms of media without observing the sexist/racist/homophobic elements.

Much of the book is focused body size, and the author’s experience in a world which constantly polices female appearance.

So, what do you do when you’re too big, in a world where bigness is cast not only as aesthetically objectionable, but also as a moral failing? You fold yourself up like origami, you make yourself smaller in other ways, you take up less space with your personality, since you can’t with your body. You diet. You starve, you run till you taste blood in your throat, you count out your almonds, you try to buy back your humanity with pounds of flesh.

I could feel the hurt pouring off the page at some points, and some of her words really resonated for me. While I perhaps don’t qualify as plus-size, the emphasis on making yourself ever-smaller certainly struck home.

People go on and on about boobs and butts and teeny waists, but the clavicle is the true benchmark of female desirability. It is a fetish item.

She also makes a number of salient points, a few of which I have quoted below:

I dislike ‘big’ as a euphemism, maybe because it’s the one chosen most often by people who mean well, who love me and are trying to be gentle with my feelings.  I don’t want the people who love me to avoid the reality of my body. I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable with its size and shape, to tacitly endorse the idea that fact is shameful, to pretend I’m something I’m not out of deference to a system that hates me.


Please don’t forget: I am my body. When my body gets smaller, it is still me. When my body gets bigger, it is still me. There is not a thin woman inside me, awaiting excavation.


Privilege means that it’s easy for white women to do each other favours. Privilege means that those of us who need it the least often get the most help.


The fact that abortion is still a taboo subject means that opponents of abortion get to define it however suits them best.


We don’t care about fat people because it is okay not to care about them, and we don’t take care of them because we think they don’t deserve care.

I didn’t even realise until I read this book that West originally started out in comedy – which has been overshadowed by her activism in response to the trolls and prejudice she’s encountered. An honest, unflinching collection of essays with some excellent critique.