#BookReview: Skin Deep by Liz Nugent

skin deep“I could probably have been an actress. It is not difficult to pretend to be somebody else. Isn’t that what I’ve been doing for most of my life?”

Liz Nugent’s latest offering Skin Deep is the story of Cordelia Russell –  beautiful, charismatic, living as a socialite on the French Riveria. It’s also the story of who Cordelia really is – her real identity; her real circumstances; and most importantly her real, distinctly unbeautiful personality. Cordelia is some piece of work –one of the best female psychopaths ever written, she is up there with Cersei Lannister and Lady Macbeth for me. Occasional chapters told from other characters point-of-view really bring home the level of devastation Cordelia causes to others without a moment’s consideration. The word that continually comes to mind thinking about Skin Deep is ‘warped’ – there is something fundamentally twisted about Cordelia, and yet her beauty and charisma wins over so many people who are warped by her in turn. This is psychological thriller writing at its best – even when situations become extreme, the characters are totally believable and carry the story.

Most of you know I am a huge Liz Nugent fan – not least because in a genre that can become predictable and formulaic her focus on whydunnit rather than whodunnit keeps the stories gripping throughout the narrative rather than relying on a twist at the end that may or may not deliver. This is my favourite of her books to date. I was gripped by every page of Skin Deep, and yet somehow there was still a kicker of an ending that caused me to wake up my significant other by exclaiming “holy shit!” at 2am. I’m terrified of ruining this for anyone by giving away plot points – just trust me and read this one, ok?!

HUGE thanks to Penguin Ireland for sending me an advanced copy of this in exchange for an honest review. Skin Deep is available from bookshops on 5th April.

Enter to win a copy of Skin Deep here.

#BlogTour #BookReview: Twice the Speed of Dark – Lulu Allison

TTSOD_FINALToday I am delighted to be part of the blog tour for Lulu Allison’s debut novel Twice the Speed of Dark, which was published last week. I primarily read for my own enjoyment and receive many review requests that I turn down as they just do not grab me – however after I read one small excerpt of Twice the Speed of Dark I was hooked, and had to read the rest. This thoughtful, lyrical novel, in which a mother and daughter separated by fatal violence circle each other, still bound by love, will stay with you long after you have closed the pages.

The story follows Caitlin, killed by a violent boyfriend, who slowly unfurls her story from beyond the grave. As Caitlin pieces together what happened to her, and the slow erosion of herself in an abusive relationship that culminated in her death, she pieces herself back together. Meanwhile her mother, Anna, is tormented by visceral grief. As she experiences the intensity of her individual loss, Anna could not believe how little interest the world took in the death of her only child. She becomes dismayed by the indifference she sees in news reports of victims of distant wars and acts of terror, seeing echoes of her daughter in all of the unnamed dead. In notebook after notebook, Anna begins to write portraits of these victims, creating lives and loves and identities for them and siphoning to them some of her personal grief. Through these acts of love for strangers, Anna slowly begins to build a connection to the world once more.

There had been a bomb in a distant market place. One of many bombs, the deaths caused by this event barely noticeable amongst the dreadful losses that filled the news every day. But a filament snagged and slowed the story down. Somehow that detail caught her; a market place, perhaps the most domestic public space there is. People shopping for food, plastic buckets, scarves, aluminium pans. Markets all over the world selling plastic buckets and aluminium pans. A place providing easy acquisition of the humbler tools of life; domestic wares, phone parts and gaudy cases, vinyl handbags, potatoes, eggs, cabbages. Mothers buying an evening meal, teenagers shopping for the excitingly new and obligingly affordable. A man buying a bucket so that he could clean his house. These ordinary people doing ordinary things, they would be the dead.

Allison’s background is as a visual artist, and it creeps through in her writing. For me the best passages occur when she is embracing her flair for the visual, and not just in the creation of a multitude of pen portraits of the victims. Consider the evocative imagery of how she introduces Anna: “She recognises her body – the dry of winter sits on her; her tall shape clings forlornly to long bones. She is mad, a scream frozen, sharpening the air around her as the frost has sharpened the ground under her feet”. Twice the Speed of Dark deals with difficult subject matter, and if you are not a fan of literary fiction you might not want to join Allison on this journey. I for one am glad I did, and I look forward to reading more from her in the future.

I received a copy of Twice the Speed of Dark from the author in exchange for an honest review. Find out more here. The blog tour continues…

blog tour poster

#Book Review: Himself, by Jess Kidd

himselfI absolutely loved this genre bending, darkly humorous book. Opening with the brutal murder of a very young woman in the fictional village of Mulderrig on the west coast of Ireland in the 1950s, Himself initially reads as a crime novel. As the novel jumps forward 20 odd years, to the arrival of handsome Dublin orphan Mahony – armed only with a tip his mother had been taken from him in Mulderrig, and that he shouldn’t trust anyone in the village – we move from a crime genre to something  harder to define. We journey with Mahony into an unravelling of the dark heart of what happened to his mother, and what secrets the village – haunted in many ways – holds. There’s a surrealism that is at times David Lynchian – but with the humour of Flann O’Brien. Jess Kidd had me at “Just look at her, she’s a sex-mad culchie”.

Mahony takes up residence in a B&B with a long-term occupant – the aging actress Mrs Cauley – who shares Mahony’s affinity with the supernatural and a love of mysteries. Their relationship leads to the hatching of an improbable plot involving staging a riotous village production of The Playboy of the Western World as a method of uncovering the truth about what happened to Mahony’s mother. There are some plot threads that aren’t resolved, partly as there are as many ghosts in the novel as there are the living – particularly haunting is the constant appearance of Ida, a little girl without the back of her head who wants Mahony to play with her. While some balls are dropped, for this reader it didn’t really matter – I enjoyed going along for the ride. Frankly I would love to see a Mrs Cauley spin-off – she’s a brilliant character. I totally forgave any of the elements of the book that didn’t knit together, and look forward to reading more from Jess Kidd.

Himself is published by Canongate Books. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

#Book Review: Peach by Emma Glass

peachSomething terrible has happened to Peach, but she just wants life to go back to normal.

Something terrible has happened to Peach, but her parents are too wrapped up in themselves and their new baby to notice it.

Something terrible has happened to Peach, so she cleans herself up and self-administers stitches, tries to ignore the stench of meat and oil that follows her everywhere, tries to ignore flashbacks of a strangers gaping mouth and sausage fingers.

This short powerful book is visceral. Several of the passages are painful to read, they are so harrowingly descriptive. Peach starts off in shades of Eimear McBride and ends up in shades of Beckett, while always holding its own distinctive style. It is utterly absorbing – the reader is sucked into the impressionistic world (Peach is soft and easily bruised, sweet baby leaves powdered sugar on the lips that kiss him…) without question. A heart-breaking examination of the traumatic aftermath of sexual assault, it is astounding that this is a debut novel. Not an easy read, but a hugely important one.

Peach will be published by Bloomsbury in January 2018. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

#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.