Sunday, 29 November 2015

Bleach House LibraryTop Reads of 2015 - Part One



It is that time of the year again.  Time to look back on all books I have read since the 1st January and decide which ones were my favourite.  Always a difficult post, as I have enjoyed some wonderful books, both fiction and non-fiction this year.   I will break them up into genre and hope that I may inspire some of to pick up a title, or two, either as a gift or just for yourself.  Here they are:

Literary Fiction


Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume 



MY REVIEW

One man and his dog.  Not an original idea, but this is no ordinary novel.  
This is my favourite novel of the decade.  

This debut comes from the winner of  2014 Davy Byrnes Award, so I had a sneaky suspicion that I was starting to read something special.  It took me about thirty seconds of reading to know, rather than suspect, that this was a novel to be savoured.  From the prologue, to each individual chapter (each attributed to a season) and from paragraph to line, I slowly inhaled the story and let it take over.  I was transported from a cold bedroom in Co. Louth to the rural villages of the Irish Midlands, stopping off in the odd coastal towns.  The potholed roads, the long twisting laneways, the silent main streets and the family run pubs and petrol stations.  What a change from the usual dual carriageways of our daily lives.  As I turned the pages, I was reluctant to do so.  The knowledge that I had to finish this book was something that I was ignoring, instead choosing to place my bookmark in with hesitation and delaying the inevitable.  I would place the book at arms length, glance at it, close my eyes and re-read the latest pages in my mind.  Now, I am aware that that this makes me sound slightly deranged, but those who know me can surely picture it.   Eventually, I could hold off no more.  The bookmark was removed for the last time and I faced the final pages.  I felt like I was losing a friend.  I was almost certain how the ending was going to shape up, and I was in denial.  A big deep breath and it was over. 
 I am still a bit bereft.  

The protagonist in this tale is not named, however the mystery of his name is easily solved.  He has a diminished mental capacity which makes him the same level as a child of approximately nine years old.  The reader is left to imagine this gentle giant with an abundance of innocence and years of loneliness and isolation.  He adopts an ex-badger baiting dog, who he christens OneEye, and here begins an incomprehensible story of devotion.  

Sara Baume has taken the idea of friendship to a new level, in my opinion.  The 'companionship' concept does not come close to the depth of feeling described in this novel.  A child may feel this way about a special blanket, sobbing uncontrollably when parted from it.  A recently widowed man may have a shadow of this feeling visible across his face.  A mother may feel this as she watches her son head off to war.  Such is the depth of the friendship between Ray and OneEye.  Each chapter is sprinkled with seasonal sensations and each line is written with the most sensual prose I have encountered from a contemporary author.  The mood, the tempo, the minimal dialogue and the outstanding descriptive passages made for an emotional journey, albeit on a small island with basically just one character.    I could go on to reveal more plot line and quote some of the poetic verses contained within the narrative, but I am going to leave that to the lucky person who is reading this novel for the first time.  I can never have that honour again, but will certainly enjoy my re-reads.

A massive congratulations to Sara Baume and Tramp Press.  You have raised the bar for Irish, and International, fiction...

Spill Simmer Falter Wither is published by the amazing team at Tramp Press.  The title is available in paperback and you can get your copy, with Free Worldwide Postage and 12% discount, here.



Eggshells by Caitriona Lally 



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My review

Vivian is not great at social interaction.  Actually, Vivian is extremely awkward in company and can go days without speaking to another human being.  A grown-up orphan, she lives in an inherited house in Dublin's North inner city.  She has sporadic contact with her sister, also called Vivian, and avoids her neighbours as much as possible.  However, she would like to have friends, have a purpose to her days and someone to bounce her random thoughts off.  Lemonfish, her decrepit goldfish, is not one for  words, so she advertises for a friend.  But Vivian, being the individual that she is, only wants a friend called Penelope.  No nicknames, like Pen or Penny.  She has her reasons, one being her love for certain words and their formations.  When she receives a reply, Vivian embraces the idea of friendship, despite initial reservations, and travels outside her comfort zone.  The reader is brought on a memorable journey, through the streets of  Dublin, where Vivian looks upon the city from a unique angle.  She sees places, landmarks and road signs unlike most of us.  She sees colours where we may see grey, history in place names long ignored and symmetry that is taken for granted.  But can one survive the streets of Dublin when unable to converse to an acceptable norm?  Vivian walks the streets, to a certain pattern, determined to find answers within the city limits...

Vivian may be the most endearing character I have encountered in modern Irish fiction.  Like Jonesy, from Donal Ryan's The Thing About December, there is a raw, honest and innocent feel about her.  Caitriona Lally shuns the label of  'mental illness' and shows how the most intelligent minds can often hide behind the facade of awkwardness and insecurity.  Vivian's personal hygene, for example, is atrocious, as she doesn't see the need to conform to the 'norm'.  She is afraid of her own reflection and sees no need to change her clothes on a regular basis.  To her, food is fuel, money is for the bare basics and the real goal in life is to find harmony in words, on the streets, in history and in books.  When she makes an effort to conform, albeit in her typical unusual way, there are hilarious consequences.    A trip to the hairdressers in the City's largest department store actually made me laugh aloud, while her attempts to gain the friendship of a taxi driver had a mixture of humour and sadness blended together.   Vivian's sister is riddled with sibling embarrassment and disdain, yet she is aware that she is tied to her namesake forever.  Their interaction is uncomfortable from her perspective, yet her oblivious sister tries her best to blend into their family unit.  

Lally has created a character which will remain forever etched in my mind.  Vivian is a woman who many would cross the road to avoid, yet could enrich the lives of others.  Her idiosyncrasies may seem extreme and would make you wonder if such a character would survive without access to cash on a regular basis (not really touched on in the novel).  But, this is fiction, and like The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simpsion, Eggshells is such a clever read, using the protagonist as a way of making the reader question the accepted 'norms' of our everyday lives.  There is a also a touch of magic injected into Dublin's Northside, which is a welcome change to the more fiction-populated areas on the Southside.  No need for leafy suburbs and canal walks, when Vivian shows the hidden gems on the other side of the Liffey.  Some may say that not much happens in this debut novel.  I would disagree.  It is full of sincerity, spacial awareness, a reverse view of today's expectations and an massively memorable character.  Highly recommended for lovers of Irish literary fiction...  

Eggshells is published by Liberties Press and is available in paperback and ebook format.
You can order your copy, with Free Worldwide Postagehere

Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor 



My review
Emily Dickinson loves words more than people.  She notices the beauty in the minutia of nature and sees random darkness of the world around her.  Quite content to remain within the confines of her house and gardens in Amhurst, she adores her friend Susan, is indifferent to her family and whiles away her hours writing verse, in her bedroom.  However, when a new maid arrives from Ireland she is strangely drawn to her chatty and inquisitive nature.  Ada is not backward in coming forward and balances out the stuffiness of Amhurst, delightfully.  There is life injected into the house and Emily and Ada become unlikely friends.  The smell of baking lingers in the downstairs kitchen and pantry, the sound of chat is heard where there was formerly silence and Ada's beau is a frequent visitor to the Dickinson kitchen.  Ada's life is altered one fateful evening and things slowly begin to unravel.  A fear of the unknown, a lack of family and a dreadful illness cause Ada to become a problem for the Dickinson family.  Emily is determined to help, in whatever way she can, but can she save Ada?  Is their friendship strong enough to go beyond the barrier of the staff/employer divide?

To say I was chomping at the bit to read this novel is a bit of an understatement.  I have been a fan of Emily Dickinson's work since studying her for my school exams.  Not only are her words profound, intense and memorable, but researching her life was an unexpected pleasure.  The 'crazy' lady, locked in her bedroom with no company but for her poems.  Dark, depressed and dreary.  This is what many have come to believe about Emily's life and words.  But this is an incomplete, and perhaps debatable or inaccurate, picture.  Nuala O'Connor has identified with the woman behind the poetry.  The human being who devoured literature, loved her friend and sister-in-law dearly, appreciated nature for its simple existence and who said :

"Hope is a thing with feathers - 
 That perches in the soul -
 And sings the tune without the words - 
 And never stops - at all - "

Each chapter is given a unique title, which lends a feeling of a more intimate read.  It also means the reader can return to favourite passages quite easily.  The chapter lengths are short, yet each contains an equal measure of literary delight.  There are no fillers here.  For the first time, I am considering buying the audio book, to soak up the eloquent words from another perspective.
The author has taken a legendary poet and given her a voice through fiction.  Using wonderful prose, elegant style and respectful narrative, she has brought Emily to life.  Her famed 'darkness' is not relevant to this story, her love of flora and fauna, her trusting nature and her adoration of the written word are the important factors.  Her unexpected closeness to the family maid is the core of this tale.  Ada is what Emily needs, and Emily is what Ada needs.  Two very different women, two vastly different walks of life, yet two characters who understand each other more than anyone.  
Meticulous research has led to a novel full of detail, warmth, depth and beauty.  It is historical fiction with e
legance and integrity.  Just as Miss Emily Dickinson deserves...


Miss Emily is published by Sandstone Press and is available in paperback and ebook format. 


_____________________________________________________________________________________________

Crime Fiction




My review


How quickly could you spot a serial killer?  Male? Female? Young? Old?  In fact, most of us know that anyone of us could be a killer.  There are obviously recurring themes when you research the lives of these killers; dreadful childhoods, lack of love and support, lack of feelings etc etc... but very few people think of these things when they bump into a stranger on the street or park beside them at the supermarket.  Who is standing in line alongside you at the library?  How often have you seen the same person at the bus stop beside your local coffee shop?  Can you continue to believe that there is inherent goodness within us all, or should you start to doubt everyone you encounter?  There are no answers to these questions, by the way, but this is a book that will make you think about who you can trust and how much should you believe to be true.

The killer in Graeme Cameron's debut novel is very different to the ones we are used to reading about.  There is no swagger, no preferred 'type', no bigger plan.  He is just a confused man with a soft centre, who happens to trap women and sometimes murders them.  A man with an average appearance, a likability about him and an urge to hunt and kill.  He seems confused.  He wants to be the nice guy, genuinely has a good heart and, as far as serial killers go, treats his hostages fairly decently.  There is a gentleness about him which confuses not only his victims, but the reader too.  One minute you are shocked at his secret cellar and the mere idea of his entrapment of these women.  The next you are willing him on as he answers questions from the police who have their suspicions about him.  He knows himself that he is not 'normal' and even drops hints to people he encounters.  The writing is both shocking and comical at the same time,  The character is tragic yet warm, devious yet innocent and full of equal measures of darkness and warmth.  A very clever narrative which has echos of truth about it (The case of Natasha Kampusch comes to mind straight away, while further into the novel there are similarities to the hunting style of serial killer Robert Hanson), the novel is one that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and won't let go.  You know he is a despicable man who derserves to be caught, but the almost child-like innocence he portrays at the same time makes you doubt  it.  Like 'Dexter', the TV show serial killer, you are almost praying he won't be caught.  There is no doubt that the twisted mind of this man is not someone who should be allowed to roam the streets, among the 'normal', but there is more than one person who wants him around...

I  almost inhaled this book in one sitting.  It is clever, sassy, different and inspiring.  A brave new voice in the world of thrillers.  A voice that demands to be heard, and remembered.  Bravo Graeme Cameron.  Who wants 'Normal', in fiction, all the time??? A massive thumbs up from Bleach House Library!

Normal is published by Harlequin MIRA is available in paperback and ebook format. You can order your copy with Free Worldwide Postage, and 10% discount,  here.





Freedom's Child by Jax Miller.




My Review

Freedom Oliver is a drunk.  She is trouble.  She is desperate.  She is in Witness Protection.  She needs to find her daughter.  The daughter that she only held for a few minutes, over twenty years ago.  Something sinister has happened and nothing can hold Freedom back any longer.  Just who will she have to take down on her journey?

This debut from US born author, Jax Miller, is unusual.  It uses the format of a crime thriller (good guys, bad guys, murder, mayhem and clever detective work), yet there is no real detective.  There is badness in the goodies and some of the bad guys lean toward the good side.  The past is brought into the present and ongoing nightmares become reality. 
 Freedom has pushed everyone away from her since she lost the most important things in her life; her children.  Accused of murdering her husband, years before, she signed her son and daughter over for adoption, believing she was providing them with the best possible future.  An acquittal, re-location and name change means that she has no contact with her children, but she keeps an eye on them via social media.  When Rebekah, her daughter, stops posting online, Freedom is not the only one who notices.  So does Mason, Freedom's son.  He fears for his sisters safety and returns to their childhood home, in a religious compound.  A place he had hoped never to see again.  However, he is not welcome and he needs to turn detective himself, in order to help his sister.  Mason is not aware that Freedom is also en-route to search for Rebekah and is being trailed by her dead husband's family, who are keen on revenge. There are also more eyes focused on Freedom than she realises.  But are they watching with good intent, or bad?

The novel opens with a confident approach.  A strong female protagonist, ballsy, tough, determined and yet flawed.  Booze is Freedom's drug of choice and sex is just a quick fix.  She has no ties, no family, no links to her past and a seriously bad temper.  Working in a trucker bar, fighting her way through life on a daily basis, occasionally having convenient sex, she trusts only two people.  Her female boss and a hooker called Passion.  Although she has a bit of a crush on a local police officer, she is not prepared to let him get close to her.  There is such an anger in Freedom's character.  A bitter and twisted past, a traumatic event and the loss of her kids has made her teeter on the edge of sanity for more than two decades.  The disappearance of her daughter is going to tip her one way or the other.  The cross country journey that she takes is one of pain, sorrow and a host of crazy events.  Everyone she touches, everyplace she goes, each time she enters a room; it all ends up in bloody chaos.  There are thrills after thrills, bodies piling up, firearms, motorcycles, drugs, sex and a whole lot of bad language.  The atmosphere is dark. Very dark.  There are religious cults, drug-fuelled family feuds and sexual mistreatment.   But there are chinks of humanity in Freedom's soul and she shows how a mother is not always in control of her feelings.  Jax Miller writes like a man, and I mean that as a compliment.  There is a removal from femininity, an attempt to make a female just as bad-ass as her mostly male counterparts, and she manages to make a tattooed redhead, with a nasty mouth and a murky past, seem sexy and assured.  This novel is a blend of early James Patterson or Jonathan Kellerman and has chinks that are reminiscent of Thomas Harris's The Silence of The Lambs. Horror, mistrust, deception and a cracker of a female protagonist.  A top-notch, right rollicking read...

Highly Recommended.  

Freedom's Child is published on July 30 2015 by Harper Collins and will be available in TBP and ebook format.  You can order it with 12% and Free Worldwide Postage here , thanks to Kennys.ie






The Bones of You by Debbie Howells



My Review

A teenage girl has disappeared.  Just who is the most concerned?  
Her mother, Jo, a waspy housewife with a penchant for the finer things in life?  Kate, a fellow mother of a teenage girl who suddenly becomes Jo's lifeline?  Delphine, the younger sister of the missing girl? Neal, the girls father, a television journalist who is adored by all? When a body is discovered in the local woodland, the small rural village is shocked and secrets begin to seep through doorways and through the trees.  All the while, they are being watched by Rosie.  Neither here nor there, she recalls the events leading up to her disappearance and monitors the unfolding drama surrounding her family and friends.  There are two sides to every story.  Just who can be believed?

This debut psychological thriller is bound to split opinions.  One the one hand it dismisses the importance of police procedural within the thriller genre and, on the other, it emphasises the need to identify and understand a character.  While there were holes in the plot, (surrounding police presence and social workers involvement, for example) the novel does not suffer as a result.  The story begins straight away, with Kate learning of Rosie's disappearance.  The local mothers seem upset but untouched by the episode and Kate throws herself at the mercy of the girl's mother, Jo. The story is told from Rosie's perspective too, lending an ethereal feel and drawing the reader into the world of uncertainty.  Similar to Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, there is a wonderful use of liminal space and tiny nuggets of information are drip-fed at a perfect pace.  Other characters are solid, like Delphine, the troubled second daughter of Jo and Neal, who is a shady afterthought in her parent's lives.  The reader is left to wonder at her safety, and indeed sanity, throughout.  The ever-so-perfect Neal is obviously far from perfect from the start, but how much of the information given is true?  The only character I wasn't keen on was Laura, a journalist and a former friend of Kate.  She is one of the  worst investigative journalist I have read in fiction.   Basically, this is a story of belief.  Just which side of the story is true? Keeping an open mind can be difficult and manipulation is a tool, almost as sharp as a knife...

"If you have two equally convincing opposing stories from two people who love each other, how do you work out what's true?"
"The thing is, one person's truth is very often another person's lie."

It is easy to see why this novel was acquired for six figures in a four-way auction.  It is clever, wonderfully paced and is sure to be a huge word-of-mouth success.  Psychological thrillers are all the rage at the moment, with The Girl on the Train hovering at the top of bestseller lists for over six months now and publishers wanting a piece of the the action.  There are few books that will succeed, but I think this may well be one of them.  A one sitting read, that will have your fingers worn as you turn the pages at breakneck speed.  The characters may not be the brightest sparks, or even likeable, but they will suck you in to their world, and you may forget the one you actually live in for 340 pages.  A brilliant read.  Highly recommended...

The Bones of You is published by Macmillan is available in hardback and ebook format.  
Readers can purchase the book from Kennys.ie with Free Worldwide Postage buy here




 With Our Blessing by Jo Spain.



When a newborn baby is snatched from its mother's arms, in 1975, it destroys the life of a young woman and causes ripples of trauma down through the years.  But she is one of many, and goes unnoticed, like them all.  

Thirty five years later, and a brutal murder is uncovered in Dublin's Phoenix Park.  The victim is elderly and has suffered a grisly death.  DI Tom Reynolds and his team are called into to investigate.  Before long, they discover a link to Ireland's sordid secret, The Magdalene Laundries.  While they are offered assistance from the nuns of a former institution,  they are met with a veil of secrecy and decades of Catholic hierarchy.  Could one of the religious order be involved in such a personal killing?  Could they commit such a sin?  One thing is clear.  The past is catching up on the convent and DI Reynolds needs to get there first...


Dublin author, Jo Spain, has debuted with gusto.  This is not only another crime fiction book, in an already busy genre, it is a character based novel with a good bit of bite to it.  DI Tom Reynolds is a protagonist that lingers.  A good family man, not perfect, yet likable.  Thankfully, he is not like other 'troubled' Inspectors.  No drink problem, no sneaky cigarettes, no lusting after his female partner. and no shady dealings within the force.  Just a genuine guy, doing his job, missing his wife and worrying about his daughter.  This is refreshing, as a lot of crime fiction has the angst-ridden hero who battles inner demons alongside their cases.  Not so with Tom.  He has a great team, male and female and a comical driver to add to the mix.  The make up of the investigative team is well rounded, with plenty of scope to feature them in subsequent novels.  
The narrative is strong.  While we are all aware now of the horrors behind the walls of the Magdalene Laundries,  the author somehow manages to make it feel fresh and sharp.  There is no blurring of facts, or large canvas brushstrokes.  It is focused and fair.  There is balance added with the stories from the nuns too.  Far too often there is a general dogmatic approach to the sisters who worked behind these walls, although it is known that there were individuals who were also horrified with the circumstances in the laundries.  Jo Spain acknowledges these nuns and yet still portrays the events with fact-based honesty.  
This is a novel of tension, suspense and stories.  Stories from the past and the present.  From a convent in rural Ireland, to a police force in Dublin.  The Gardaí are well presented, doing their jobs, intent on finding out the circumstances surrounding the murder.  They are just like any of us.  Doing their best, while making a few mistakes along the way.  The convent is well described, with echoes of its heartbreaking past.  The atmosphere is multi-layered, depending on the area of the building, or which sister is in the room at the time.  I did lose track of the nuns at one point, and had to turn back a few pages, but not enough for me to lose focus.  This is a page-turner, no doubt.  The warmness of the characters made it an extra special read, with the added feeling of reading a modern Agatha Christie tipping it into one of the best crime thrillers I have read for a while.  I applaud Jo Spain for this debut, and for introducing DI Tom Reynolds to us.  Book two better not be long coming.  We need more books like this...



With Our Blessing is published by Quercus and is available in paperback and ebook format.  You can order your copy, with Free Worldwide Postage and 23% discount, here.


 General Fiction


Under a Dark Summer Sky by Vanessa Lafaye. (UK edition called Summertime).


My Review

Set in the fictional town of Heron Key, Florida in 1935, this debut novel mixes up fact and fiction to bring the reader through one of the worst hurricanes in history.  Not only is the sea rising to dangerous levels and the ever-changing winds confusing the weather forecasters, but the tension in the town has reached its own boiling point.  Racial prejudice is rampant and veteran soldiers have arrived in the area to help build a major bridge.  The soldiers are a mixture of black and white but are all victims of discrimination, living in squalor and treated like animals.  Things get even worse when a local white lady is found beaten and close to death following a Labor Day beach party.  The assumption of guilt falls on a former army officer, a black man, down on his luck, yet there is no logical reason for this assumption.  The law doesn't seem to apply in Florida and the voice of a black man is not going to be heard.  As the storm comes closer and closer, just who is going to face the impending chaos and who will be affected the most?

This is historical fiction at its finest.  Full of depth, despair, fear, hope, love, loss and friendship.  So many emotions are brought to the foreground, it becomes the readers world for the novels entirety. 

 The author has included an informative historical note at the beginning of the book, which explains the whole idea behind the veterans of Heron Key.  This is a real help to the reader, and adds more depth to the characters that are introduced along the way. 
From page one, where were enter the world of Missy and Selma, (both black servants in a racist town, full of wealthy, bored and dishonest white folk), the novel reaches out and sucks you in.  The blacks are plodding along, never expecting change, afraid to dream of a different world,  The whites are, for the most, miserable.  Money may buy them nice homes and cars, afford them access to the finest dressmakers and cooks, yet it can't buy love or genuine respect.  It is hard not to draw comparisons to Katherine Stockett's The Help or The Secret Life of Beesby Sue Monk Kidd, as they both lovingly told of the relationships between blacks and whites in past times.  However, this novel also has aspects which are reminiscent of The Color Purple.  Strong, female characters, fighting to exist for the sake of their families, friends and their own sanity.  It shows how women have, and still do, have to fight that but harder to find their inner happiness.  The double weight of being black, and a woman, is not a new concept in literature, but  Vanessa Lafaye has cast a new light on it.  What concerned the women of this era more?  The search for independence, love or education?  The love they felt for the white children they were raising was heartrendingly real.  The love they felt for their husbands and brothers was intense, deep and long lasting.  This book looks at how these women and children were treated when a storm raged through at fatal intensity.  It also juxtaposes this storyline with a look at some of the white residents, who hide behind their pale exteriors and masks of contentment.  .  The Kincaid family, barely able to look at each other, the town doctor, lonely and broken, the country club ladies and gents, who drip with dishonesty and the general store owner who just wants to prepare for the storm.   
The characters are hopping off the page on a regular basis.  There are quite a lot of them, but once you get past the initial introductions, each has a part to play in the overall narrative.  The writing is superb.  Blending the many worlds within Heron Key to a believable and atmospheric ideal.  Chapter pacing is just right, historical facts not overloaded and yet there is a balance between the storm, the cultural angle and the love story.  It is hard to believe that this is a debut novel, such is the standard, and I cannot recommend this enough.  A wonderful blend of history and fiction, finely tuned research and warm writing style, makes this ideal for fans of Sue Monk Kidd and is definitely a book that should be bought, read and savoured.  It will linger in many readers minds, as shall the memory of the victims of the 1935 hurricane.  A stunning, striking and sensual debut. A complete joy to read. 

Under a Dark Summer Sky is published by Sourcebooks and is available in paperback.  





About Sisterland by Martina Devlin.


My Review

Sisterland is all about women.  Men are only needed for breeding and heavy labour.  Women no longer need them and every female has a role within the land.  There are limited thoughts allowed, memories are censored via 'memory-keepers' and emotions are strictly controlled.  The governing body of Sisterland are a group of nine women, who make all decisions for the good of their country.  Mothers are not allowed bond with their babies, male children are not celebrated and the concept of love is unknown.  Living quarters are allocated, not chosen, life partners are assigned and every day is extremely regimental.  Women can not leave their homes without wearing masks to protect them from the atmosphere and 'nature' is piped in through speakers and air vents in the form of bird song and various scents.
  Constance is struggling with controlling her emotions and when she is chosen to 'baby-fuse' and become pregnant, for the good of Sisterland, she feels 'mos' that she had never know existed.  Her regimented surroundings start to seem smothering and she has more questions than answers.  If only she had someone to talk to.  Can she risk asking about her feelings? Is there anyone in Sisterland she can completely trust?  Is this place really for the benefit  of womankind or is there more than meets the eye?

Martina Devlin has delved into her imagination and thrust the reader into a world of 'what if'...
What if you were not allowed think what you wanted to? What if emotions were a commodity? What if  you were only giving birth to increase the population?  All combined, these concepts are fantastical, but when individually examined, many have occurred in many regimes, worldwide, already.  How insane was the Nazi regime during WWII? How many baby girls have been dumped in China? How many young women were used for breeding an Aryan Race?  Why do whole countries let a small number of people make such important decisions without questioning their motives? Simplistic, I know, but hindsight is a wonderful thing and this book brings the idea to a new level.  Set in the near future, science is not the cause of this extreme idea of a female-led society.  Unusually, there is no manipulation of embryos, artificial insemination or test tube trials.  The good old fashioned baby-making ways are used, but under controlled guidance from specialised staff.  Pregancy terms are shortened, to facilitate more births at a faster rate, and 'Sourcing places' take the place of hospitals.  The Nine (the governing body of Sisterland) are a sinister crew, who have more than a few shady moments, making the book even more interesting.  How far-fetched is this novel? Not very, it seems.  Restricting the flow of  information and editing history can lead to a very different future.  Clever manipulation, piped smells and music, thought-forming chants and complete segregation.  Is it completely improbable? This amazingly clever novel makes it seem eerily possible.  Using an inquisitive young woman as its protagonist, the author is able to address the whole background to Sisterland, and how it came to be.  The additional characters are fantastically drawn and link many issues seamlessly.  It may take the reader a little while to settle into the language and identify with individual characters, but once in, you won't want to leave this bizarre world.  Your dreams may move to another level, your thoughts on history may jar and your awareness of your own emotions may increase.  Welcome to Sisterland.  A world not that far removed from the one we live in...
Highly recommended.

About Sisterland is published by Ward River Press 


The Dress by Kate Kerrigan.



My Review

1950s New York and one of the most beautiful women in the city is on the hunt for a dress.  Not just any dress, one that is unique, alluring and awe inspiring.  The hope is that the right dress could save her marriage.  For Joy, beauty has always been part of her life.  Blessed with looks, money and breeding, life has always been plain sailing.  But lately things are not as straight forward.  She finds herself needing a drink to help her get through the day, finds the walls of her fifth avenue home closing in around her and her husband drifting away for no obvious reason.  A chance encounter with a talented young designer sets a plan in motion.  The perfect party, the perfect dress and the return to the perfect marriage.  
Meanwhile, unknown Irish seamstress, Honor, struggles to believe in her talent.  She knows she can design and create, but is it enough for the high-maintenance socialite?  Can she produce a dress so exquisite that it could change Joy's life? Or even her own?  Thousands of dollars are spent as the two women pin their hopes on the dream of the perfect dress...

This is Kate Kerrigan's first novel with Head of Zeus and what a way to kick off!  Using her talent for writing historical fiction, and blending it with a current timeline, this novel is pitched perfectly for the reader who wishes to escape to another world.  There are actually a few worlds rolled into the this; 1950s New York, 1930s Ireland, Present day London, Miami and Ireland, all with their own tales to tale.  Lily is a vintage fashion blogger and while researching images for her blog, she stumbles across a photo of Joy in an outstanding, intricate dress which blows the blogger's mind.  As the woman also has the same surname, Lily delves some more and discovers they are loosely related.  The photo inspires Lily to dust down her dressmaking equipment and re-create the dress.  
The narrative shifts from time and location with ease and there is a softness about the overall story that remains throughout.  While there are plenty of design and dress making moments in the novel, it is written in such a way that the reader is not overloaded.  The big selling point of  The Dress is very simple: imagination.  The descriptions of New York in its Hey Day, the dresses, the dinner parties, the cocktail hours and the need for a drinks cabinet in the drawing room.  Those days may be long gone, along with women's unequal status (for the most), but that doesn't mean we can't slip into these women's marabou slippers, and lives, for a bit.  Look at the success of  the TV show, Mad Men.  Don Draper and fashion to die for. Simple.  The imagination is also used to bring us on fashion shoots in 2014 Miami and lace-hunting trips to rural Ireland.  Lily has a part to play in all  of this, but it is Joy and Honor who remain to the forefront.  Two very different women, from immensely different backgrounds, they somehow find solace in each other's company and form a special bond while creating the masterpiece.  But what happens when it's finished?  Can their friendship withstand the aftermath? 

This is women's fiction at its finest.  The writing is flawless, flows nicely and has a perfect pace.  The past links well with the present and the overall package is finely crafted.  A stunning cover is sure to call out to many from the shelves of bookshops everywhere,in September (when it is released in hardback) and no doubt will be downloaded to many an e-reader this summer.  For anyone who has gazed longingly at the pages of Vogue, drooled over the costumes in period dramas or wondered what rich socialites in Manhattan really did all day, this is for you.  A fusion of fashion and feeling... 

The Dress is published by Head of Zeus 



You, Me & Other People by Fionnuala Kearney



My Review

Beth and Adam have parted ways.  Not in an amicable way either.  Beth discovers Adam has cheated on her, for the second time, and has had enough.  Their daughter Meg, is away at University and Beth just cannot take the lies and deceit anymore.  She struggles to move on from their break-up as she doesn't know herself as a single unit, just as a wife and a mother.  Rattling around her marital home, she wonders if, by kicking Adam out, has she done the right thing.  Was a it a knee jerk reaction to his affair?  Can she forgive and forget?  Can she manage without him?  

Adam, meanwhile, is struggling to come to terms with the break-up himself.  The novelty of a younger woman, sex on tap and a bachelor life is not as appealing as one would think.  He misses the home comforts and the magnitude of his dalliance is swallowing him up.  Things are even about to get worse, as an unexpected phone call causes more secrets to come to the surface, and spill into his life.  Things couldn't get worse, or could they?

Fionnuala Kearney has written a novel that began so realistically that I felt I was right there beside Beth, almost immediately.   The writing is so subtle that you find yourself lost in the world of this family from beginning to end.  Beth seems to be a representation of a large percent of women over forty, who have done the major child rearing, picked the dream home and decorated it to within an inch of its life, all while supporting their husbands in a quasi cheer-leading way.  A stay at home mother who has a hobby or a 'calling' (in this case, song writing), which occasionally brings home some money,  means that Beth has been cocooned in this suburban world, with a kind of separation from reality.  Firmly convinced of her husband's adoration, she never suspects he would play away from home again and her world shatters in one foul swoop.  Their daughter, nineteen year old Meg, is also devastated by her father's infidelity and she lays on the guilt trip in a heavy handed way.  Also gunning for Adam's demise is Karen, Beth's best friend and confident throughout the whole ordeal.  Even  Adam's younger brother, Ben, is horrified at his sibling's behaviour.  All in all,  Adam is not popular.  With anyone.  While we read of his feeling lost and alone, it is hard to feel any sympathy for the creator of his own hard luck.  

All through the book, there are little clues to a more uneven past than Beth could imagine.  Like chinks of light through uneven floorboards, there is enough to warrant further investigation into the murky darkness, but with the knowledge that you may not like what you find. 
 Secrets and lies.  Who are they usually to protect?  The liar, or the people who trust them?  

This debut caused me to basically miss a whole day with my family.  I knew by the third page that I was hooked and that there was no point in putting it down.  I read straight through, until my eyes were unable to fight the good fight anymore, but only with the knowledge that it was the weekend and I could pick up the baton nice and early the next day.  
A clever look at human nature, the differences between men and women and the dynamics of the 'average' family.  We all have boxes in the attic, labelled and forgotten.  How many of us have secrets that we hope remained labelled and forgotten?  More, I expect, that you would think...


Highly recommended.  Ideal for fans of Jojo Moyes and Diane Chamberlain. 


You, Me & Other People is published by HarperCollins 

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CHECK BACK SOON FOR PART TWO OF MY TOP READS OF THE YEAR 

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