#Book Review: How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza

humanHow to Be Human is the oddly mesmerising tale of Mary – recently split from her controlling fiancé, unsatisfied with her job, haunted by a loveless upbringing, and unsure of what path to take. “The magazines were full of stories of women choosing between their career and their maternal instincts. But what if you had neither? What if you were still waiting?” The book opens with her discovery of a baby on her doorstep – but who left it there, and why?

Before we can probe this mystery we are brought back in time, to Mary returning home and finding a resplendent fox reclining on her lawn. She takes his presence to be a sign he has chosen her – but for what purpose? As Mary becomes increasingly obsessed with her connection to the fox – who brings her gifts, who she lets into her home, and who is claiming her garden as his territory – her connection to reality becomes more questionable. By the time we catch back up to the baby on the doorstep, we have no way of knowing if the baby was placed there by her struggling new parent neighbours; her ex-fiancé who is still enraged she doesn’t want children; by the fox; or by Mary herself. It doesn’t really matter who did it – consequences are real even when the actions themselves are mysterious.

I’m not entirely sure why now, but I expected this book to be quite like The Portable Veblen (but with foxes, not squirrels). However, Mary’s loosening grip on reality is not kooky, it is dark and uncomfortable. The writing throughout is luscious, including the evocative passages where we slip into the fox’s point of view. How to Be Human is a complex, intriguing book that defies easy placement in a genre, and well deserves a read.  

How to Be Human is published by Hutchinson Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House). I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

#Book Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

the powerSince I read The Power (I’m still churning through a review backlog, apologies!) it has famously gone on to become the first science fiction work to scoop the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction. That probably tells you all you need to know about the calibre of this novel – although I’m not sure I would classify it as SF myself (maybe because I think labels are for jam jars, not for books).

“It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.”

In The Power, something has recently shifted in the dynamic of the world. Slowly, teenage girls appear to be evolving the capacity to inflict agonising pain and even death through their hands. This power can be traced to a ‘skein’, undiscovered as dormant in most older women – although anyone with the power can activate another woman’s skein for her. In a short period of time, the entire dynamic of the world changed. What would happen if women could protect themselves and each other? What would happen if one gender could literally wield huge power over another? How do we see gender dynamics when the power is placed elsewhere?

“One of them says, ‘Why did they do it?’ And the other answers, ‘Because they could.’ That is the only answer there ever is.”

Frankly – I adored this book. It’s been my go-to birthday present to people for months. It doesn’t just flip gender roles, it explores gender based violence; sexual violence; family; morality; organised religion; and military motivation in a systematic way – holding up a dystopian mirror to the reality we live in through a rollicking story focusing on the convergence of a diverse group of young women. I spent the first half of the book thinking “fuck yeah!” and internally high-fiving, and by the second half battling an increasing queasiness as Alderman forces her readers to think clearly about the balance of power. If you haven’t read this one yet – make it your next one.

The Power is published by Viking. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

#Book Review: Bitch Doctrine by Laurie Penny

bitch doctrineThis was a weird book to read on honeymoon I guess, but that’s how I roll.  Laurie Penny is a brilliant writer, and while I don’t always completely agree with her I love how her white hot passion for equality and her humour jump off the page. This is not a boring treatise, or a dry feminist tract, this is a collection of writing on a variety of subjects ranging from reactions to the US Presidential Campaign in 2016 to transgender rights to online bullying that reads like a page turner.

“When you’re used to privilege, equality feels like prejudice.”

 It will come a surprise to no one that I consider myself a feminist, and I have read a lot of books on the subject. As a result, I can’t say that I learned much I didn’t know from this book – but many people would, and I can highly recommend it on that basis. For readers like myself, to whom the content may not be news per se, I can assure you it is still a brilliantly engaging read that will remind you why you think the way you do. Penny is eminently quotable. Seriously I highlighted so much of the book it would have been easier to highlight what I didn’t like. This is the best form of polemical writing – thoughtful yet action orientated, engaging, and darkly humorous. Read it!

Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults is published by Bloomsbury Circus. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

#Book Review: Indelible by Adelia Saunders

IndelibleI was fascinated by the premise of this debut novel, where a young Lithuanian woman named Magdalena is trying to escape an unusual gift/curse. She can see words written on people’s skin – banal details or profound warnings – and she moves to a country where she can’t speak the language to get some respite from the onslaught of information. As she slowly learns English, she stops wearing her glasses in an attempt to avoid the words on faces and resorts to stumbling around short-sightedly rather than seeing clearly.

I expected the novel to follow Magdalena exclusively, but her story is mixed with two others – Neil, a history student who has Magdalena’s name written under his eye; and his father Richard, who is haunted by a memory of his mother visiting him as a child, even though all the biographers of the now famous writer and beauty say she abandoned him as a baby refusing to ever look at him. The linkages between their lives are developed as the book progresses.

I’ll be honest, I never much cared for Richard, and his passages dragged the novel down for me. Even though he had a better storyline than Neil, he was such a needy drip that I couldn’t warm to him or care about the ‘mystery’ of his mother. I would have liked to have spent more time with Magdalena; her beautiful tragic friend Lena; her mother and her grandmother and left the boys out of it. There is some great writing here, but there is also a lot of meandering and loose ends. It is worth reading, but I can’t say that I was wholly satisfied. That said – the premise was intriguing, the parts I enjoyed were excellent, poignant and haunting. I will be keeping an eye on what this author produces next.

Indelible is published by Bloomsbury. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

#Book Review: Operation Trumpsformation by Ross O’Carroll-Kelly

Op TrumpI’m not sure how popular Ross O’Carroll-Kelly is ‘out foreign’, but since 1998 this satirical creation of journalist Paul Howard has been shining a spotlight on Ireland’s society through the privileged lens of a rich Dublin southside rugby player. This is the fourteenth book in the series (and the RO’CK juggernaut isn’t only books) so he is definitely doing something right, and the formula remains in place for this latest outing.

There’s plenty to take offence at (Ross is still deeply unpleasant and that’s just the start of it) and plenty to laugh at too. Ireland’s Marriage Equality referendum; gender identity; Trump and Brexit are all key parts of this particular mix, plus causal references to Irish celebs (“the Happy Pear goys, Vegward I call them”). I confess I had fallen out of touch with the character for his last couple of outings, and reading this book reminded me how funny he can be. If you are a RO’CK fan you will love this; if you are new to him it’s as good a place as any to start.

Operation Trumpsformation is published by Penguin Ireland. I received a copy of this book from the publisher in return for an honest review.

#Book Review: The Gingerbread House – Kate Beaufoy

the_gingerbread_house_1I read this little gem months ago and am shamefully only getting to writing the review now. This is a deceptively simple tale of teenage Katia, unable to help her family as her recently unemployed mother moves in with her aged grandmother as her carer to save money. We see the family through Katia’s eyes – how desperately her mother missed her father during the week; how cruel the toll of dementia is on an individual and their loved ones; and slowly as the book evolves we uncover another tragedy that sheds light on why a profound sadness is just below the surface in every interaction.

The Gingerbread House is gentle yet gripping – I had to find out what was going to happen, even though much of the book is a skilful capturing of moments and character development rather than driving plot. Little details are softly devastating “On the table next to her is a large-print book, a glasses case and a magnifier. Granny doesn’t read anymore, but she likes to pretend she can. She wears a wrist watch so that she can tell the time, but because she can’t decipher the numerals the time for Granny is always day or dark night or the dusky in-between”. Katia is a beautifully drawn character, and I loved getting to know her. This is a bittersweet, but ultimately life-affirming story, and I highly recommend it.

The Gingerbread House is published by Black & White publishing. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

#Book Review: The Many Selves of Katherine North – Emma Geen

9781408858431This book has such an original concept, so well executed, that I can’t believe I haven’t heard more hype about it. In a bleak near future, Katherine ‘Kit’ North is a nineteen-year-old woman who has been working for seven years as a phenomenaut. Her role is to project her consciousness into the bodies of lab grown animals to study creatures in their natural settings, and the ‘plasticity’ of brain required to do this usually only exists for a short time in young teenagers. When we first meet Kit, she is a fox, and throughout the book we experience several glorious sections of total immersion in another environment as Kit embodies creatures from whales to snakes. However, Kit has begun to have doubts about the ethics of her company, and embarks on a dangerous investigation in the ‘real’ world.

At the moment of projecting consciousness into another creature, phenomenauts experience ‘Sperlman’s Shock’ – a painful sensory overload and panic as they adjust to their new forms. One of the best elements of the book is the bleeding of the rich life of any other being to the paucity of reality for humans “where Sperlman’s Shock is temporary torture, Come Home is insidious chronic doubt”. Kit’s identity crises readjusting to the human world will resonate with anyone who struggles to feel at home where they are supposed to belong.

“I weave through the morning commute. The humans here always strike me as improbably perpendicular, every chin thrust out with the confidence of a silverback. What is it that gives them such assurance? As if they’re all alphas. A suited man jostles past and I bare my teeth at his glare. This is what the city reduces you to – meat, meat that’s in the way”.

The Many Selves of Katherine North is more of a psychological book than it is purely science fiction, but the best speculative fiction is always more than the setting. This is a skilful examination of empathy and the capacity of the written word (and perhaps ultimately technology) for embodied simulation. As Kit’s perception of the world begins to fragment, the narrative of course becomes more disjointed and paranoid – but in a completely convincing way. This book deserves to be more widely read, and I look forward to more from Emma Geen.

The Many Selves of Katherine North is published by Bloomsbury Circus. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.