Tag Archives: women

UK Crime Review: Sweetpea by CJ Skuse

Sweetpea, C J Skuse, (HQ, Apr 20 2017)

Genres in the mix: crime, black humour

Age target: adult

Story basics: (from Goodreads):

‘This isn’t a book for the squeamish or the faint-hearted … think Bridget Jones meets American Psycho’ – Red

The last person who called me ‘Sweetpea’ ended up dead…

I haven’t killed anyone for three years and I thought that when it happened again I’d feel bad. Like an alcholic taking a sip of whisky. But no. Nothing. I had a blissful night’s sleep. Didn’t wake up at all. And for once, no bad dream either. This morning I feel balanced. Almost sane, for once.

Rhiannon is your average girl next door, settled with her boyfriend and little dog…but she’s got a killer secret.

Although her childhood was haunted by a famous crime, Rhinannon’s life is normal now that her celebrity has dwindled. By day her job as an editorial assistant is demeaning and unsatisfying. By evening she dutifully listens to her friend’s plans for marriage and babies whilst secretly making a list.

A kill list.

From the man on the Lidl checkout who always mishandles her apples, to the driver who cuts her off on her way to work, to the people who have got it coming, Rhiannon’s ready to get her revenge.

Because the girl everyone overlooks might be able to get away with murder…

Review-in-a-tweet: gloriously no-holds-barred, hilarious and disturbing peek into serial killer Rhiannon’s diary. Loved her kill lists!

The emotional ride: almost as crazy as Rhiannon herself! One minute you’re nodding along with her observations about the world, thinking ‘yeah, that’s it exactly’ and the next, recoiling in horror as she reminds you in full technicolour that she’s an actual serial killer.

Narrative style: I loved the diary mode of this, with Rhiannon’s daily thoughts and annoyances. It’s really up close and personal, so you’re never in any doubt why Rhiannon’s doing what she’s doing (or at least, why she thinks she’s doing what she’s doing, I suppose – but that could be a whole other book!)

Main character: fabulous and detailed in all her psychotic glory. I loved her ‘hit list’ approach to daily journalling – each daily entry begins with a numbered list of the people who’ve annoyed her/she’d love to kill. I also loved her dry wit and straight-talking. These were things that helped to make her behaviour seem reasonable, despite everything.

Supporting cast: others in the novel are also really well drawn, even though we see them all through Rhiannon’s obviously quite limited viewpoint. I enjoyed reading them through all her snark, although it is clear that she is surrounded by largely unlikeable people…

I definitely need to reiterate that this is an adult title. It may be the most inappropriate for a YA audience title that I have reviewed here. The humour is very black indeed and there is graphic sex and violence. I would not recommend this book to students as a teacher, although there are some sixth formers who I might mention it to discreetly in an unofficial capacity as I also know that almost all my students will definitely be seeing worse on TV than they would read here (but couldn’t have it said that ‘school’ in any way suggested reading this…!!). Having said all that, it was hilarious and I did have some embarrassment as I read on the bus to work – laughing is generally frowned on in that context…

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

Sweetpea is out now in the UK from HQ, who provided me with a review copy via NetGalley.

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend.

I’m counting this review towards the British Books Challenge. It is my fifth.

Review: Someone Else’s Skin by Sarah Hilary

Some secrets keep you safe, others will destroy you…

Detective Inspector Marnie Rome. Dependable; fierce; brilliant at her job; a rising star in the ranks. Everyone knows how Marnie fought to come back from the murder of her parents, but very few know what is going on below the surface. Because Marnie has secrets she won’t share with anyone.

But then so does everyone. Certainly those in the women’s shelter Marnie and Detective Sergeant Noah Jake visit on that fateful day. The day when they arrive to interview a resident, only to find one of the women’s husbands, who shouldn’t have been there, lying stabbed on the floor.

As Marnie and Noah investigate the crime further, events begin to spiral and the violence escalates. Everyone is keeping secrets, some for survival and some, they suspect, to disguise who they really are under their skin.

Now, if Marnie is going to find the truth she will have to face her own demons head on. Because the time has come for secrets to be revealed… (Book description from the publisher’s website)

All the key ingredients of a great British crime series are in place in this stunning debut. Engaging characters, a surprising plot and some gorgeous writing.

This is a cracking crime debut with a strong and often surprising plot, peopled by a convincingly-drawn cast of characters. DI Marnie Rome is set to be a new star of British crime fiction and I look forward to learning more about her in future novels (plenty of them, I hope).

Gritty without unnecessary gore and twisty with no loss of clarity, the plot is everything a good crime novel should be. There were several points where I was genuinely surprised at the turn things took (I hate it when it’s clear to me who did what and why if it isn’t supposed to be). At the same time, a tight cast of characters meant that there were no “who’s he again?” moments.

I found Marnie Rome to be a great central character. She easily gained my sympathy and respect and I appreciated how much of her backstory we gained, without detracting from the main plot. I also enjoyed how we often saw her through others’ eyes, particularly those of her DS, Noah Jake, whom I also liked enormously.

Overall, Someone Else’s Skin is a skilful and arresting novel which deserves massive success. I would strongly recommend it to fans of the genre.

Someone Else’s Skin is published by Headline on 27 Feb.

This review originally appeared on the Lovereading website.

Top Five Things You Shouldn’t Say to the Wife of a Stay-at-Home-Dad

This was originally published back in June 2011, but unfortunately it still stands…

1: But does he do the cleaning/dusting/washing/ironing etc?
Er, yeah  – that’s clearly part of the deal. (Not to mention none of your business! I bet stay-at-home-Mum families don’t get quizzed about the nitty gritty of their domestic arrangements).

2: I’d still have to clean the toilet myself. Don’t you?
Er, no. (Strange as it may seem, men are just as capable as women of getting things actually clean).

3: But don’t the kids want you when they’re sick? It’s natural, isn’t it?
It’s probably natural if you’re the one who’s done the bulk of the caring. The kids are perfectly happy to have Daddy look after them.

4: Did he lose his job? / Can’t he get a job?
Although this is often said in a sympathetic way, commiserating with me, it’s still pretty rude. This is our choice, not an accident; if he were unemployed, that’s probably how I’d describe it rather than saying he stays at home. Again – I doubt husbands of stay-at-home-mums get this question.

5: Wow, that’s a lot of pressure of you to ‘keep’ the family.
This is also very often a sympathetic comment, but one I doubt male single earners get.

Generally speaking, many people still find our situation either hard to understand or fascinating. I always answer questions as though I’m happy to, but really I’m sad that in the 21st century a family with a working mum and a stay-at-home-dad is enough of an oddity to create interest. Clearly, many people believe in ‘natural’ gender differences, especially when it comes to parenting.

Lesbian Teen Novels Week: Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash as a Lesbian Novel
Usually my reviews don’t contain spoilers, but really discussing this book under this banner is kind of a spoiler, so I apologise for that.   I have seen this title on a few ‘gay YA’ type lists, so it’s not a huge secret, but I suppose I feel a little odd about it as the lesbian content is so subtle, not the main point of the book, and isn’t apparent from the start. I have to also say that this is part of what I love about this book. It isn’t a lesbian novel in the sense of a novel about lesbianism, it just happens to feature a lesbian love story.
While I absolutely understand the need for gay kids (particularly, but also adults) to have ‘coming out’ stories, I also think it’s really important for stories like this to exist. Stories that aren’t ‘about’ being gay. There is no use of the word ‘lesbian or any equivalent in this book. No-one talks about whether girls (or boys) should, can or ought to get together, although it does appear to be a society which sees heterosexuality as the norm (the traditional marriage pressure centred on property and family name is present). This – a novel where some characters just happen to have gay relationships, without discussion or concern about matters of sexuality – is the kind of book that is important for everyone to read. Seeing homosexual, (and bisexual) characters as part of a wider canvas is great for combatting heterosexist culture where only ‘straight’ is seen as normal.

Ash as a Teen Novel

Gorgeous cover, too (it’s metallic IRL)

I originally bought this book for my daughter as a fairytale retelling. It does not disappoint. Combining parts of the ‘Cinderella’ story with Tam Lin-style legends of the fae, it weaves its plot around a mysterious and compelling wood; a rich rural folklore of faeries and herbal spellcraft; an orphaned stepchild and a selfish and superficial stepmother with ambition for her daughters. I thoroughly enjoyed losing myself in Ash’s world. This is a sweeter tale than many of the dark fae stories currently on the market – the faeries are mysterious and dangerous, but are not obvious enemies here.

Overall, Ash was a great read – magical and compelling. The voice has an old-fashioned, fairytale feel to it – Lo has really captured the genre beautifully. The characters were interesting and not stock characters, whilst still fitting into the fairy tale world perfectly. I liked the (as far as I know) book-specific tradition of the royal hunt being led by a woman, and I have added Huntress to my wishlist.

Thanks to Portrait of a Woman for inspiring me to read this now.

April A-Z: Succubus

The succubus is a female demon who visits men in the night and traps them in lurid dreams. In some versions of the myth, this is in order to gather semen, so that other demons (incubi) may use it to impregnate women, since demons are (obviously) sterile themselves. In other tellings, this temptation of men is an end in itself, or it may be a way of harvesting souls.

The succubus is a motif I’ve seen used in various ways. Sometimes the night time ‘excitement’ is enough to prevent a man from having normal relationships, or to destroy his existing relationship. Sometimes it’s used as a kind of morality tale, leaving the man physically weak, due to his, er, energy being spent with the succubus. Clearly, succubi have been used as an excuse for wet dreams (‘but the demon visited me …’). On occasion, a man visited regularly by a succubus is being gradually killed.

Interestingly, there is a kabbalistic legend about Lilith (first wife of Adam) being a succubus who uses human men to reproduce (in some versions) or simply seeks to waste the seed of men. This legend, being so old, has diversified into different strands: Lilith may be a succubus and/or a vampire; she may seek to steal or kill children (especially boys); she consorts with demons/fallen angels; her offspring may be generic demons, succubi, djinns or other evil beings.

In searching for an image to accompany this post, I discovered an urban fantasy series featuring a succubus was Richelle Mead’s first series. Book 1 is “Succubus Blues” – covers from two different US editions shown right. From her website:

Succubus (n) – An alluring, shape-shifting demon who seduces and pleasures mortal men.

Pathetic (adj.) – A succubus with great shoes and no social life. See: Georgina Kincaid.

April A-Z: Gender? Genre?

I’ve seen a few discussions online recently about the genre designation of women’s writing.
The arguments go as follows:

  • Men are described as writing ‘novels’ while women are defined as writing ‘chick lit’ or ‘hen lit’ or ‘mum lit’.
  • This is yet another example of women being defined by their reproductive function.

Although I would define myself as feminist, I’m not sure I can support this argument. I do agree that women are frequently defined by their sexual or reproductive function, but I’m not sure that’s the complete story here. I have two main points to make here:

  1. ‘Chick’, ‘hen’ and ‘mum’ lit are genres, not merely books written by – or for – women of particular ages/types. There are therefore female authors writing ‘novels’; I would not expect to see Angela Carter, Joanne Harris or Kate Mosse under ‘chick’, ‘hen’ or ‘mum’ lit.
  2. Equally, there are male authors defined by the genres they write in, e.g. as crime writers, sci fi writers or even writing ‘lad lit’. Admittedly, there are fewer genres which are so gendered for male writers (lad lit is all I can think of), but there are also genres which are seen as more masculine such as westerns and military adventure.  

Overall, I would probably argue that this is more a case of anti-genre snobbery than a gender thing. I suppose if I were writing books designated as ‘mum lit’ for example, I might resent being written off as frivolous (as, of course, only literary fiction is serious ;-)). The gendered nature of that genre might feel like the worst aspect of it, but of course crime writers, thriller writers, sci-fi writers etc all face similar pigeonholing. And just try asking a children’s writer when they’re going to ‘move on’ to writing for adults!

So, what do you think? Gender or genre?

April A-Z: The Crone

The Crone is a key figure in folktale and myth around the world, and one which has proven fruitful for feminist analysts over the past fifty years. In folktales, crones or hags may be good or evil.

The Crone as featured in Charmed

Evil crones are wicked witches of the ‘Hansel and Gretel’ variety. Often keen to trap and eat children, these hags seem to have no motive beyond evil itself, or the acquisition of power and are highly dangerous.

Good crones on the other hand, are kindly old ladies providing help on a quest. Often they are actually beautiful and young, but disguise themselves as crones. This disguise usually functions as a kind of test, since quest heroes would of course be kind to beautiful ladies, but only the worthy are kind to hideous old crones. Sometimes, in the ‘loathly lady‘ trope this test goes as far as requiring the seeker to kiss or marry the crone, at which point she transforms and rewards his inherent goodness with her beauty. In the oldest tales of this type, the woman symbolises the land and grants the knight sovereignty through marriage.

In the case of both good and bad crones, the old woman clearly wields power. Sadly, this (I think) is the reason that this archetype is not present in our current cultural consciousness. The scary predator has morphed into the shadowy paedophile, generally presumed to be a stranger tempting kids with the  modern equivalent of a gingerbread house. The loathly lady motif has disappeared altogether as far as I can see, probably because our society is unable to see past outward appearances, especially for women. Media representations of old women these days include the ‘batty’ (but harmless) and the victim, but none that wield power, while those who attempt to are seen as ‘unnatural’ and their femininity is questioned.

Can you think of any manifestations of the crone in our mainstream contemporary culture?

I know that Wicca and other Pagan belief systems offer reverence to crone or hag goddesses such as the Cailleach, the Morrigan, Hecate and the Badb. Some of these emphasise the wisdom of old age, while others associate the crone figure with war, revenge or death, although in this context death is not seen as inherently negative but simply as part of the natural cycle of things. The increase in popularity of such traditions may indicate a desire for many to move away from the shallowness of mainstream youth-obsessed and appearance-focused Western culture, but I am at a loss to come up with powerful or positive representations of the crone phase outside of this context.

International Women’s Day: My Relationship with Feminism

I am a feminist.  For me, that means I believe that women are not men’s inferiors.  I consider myself a liberal or ‘equal rights’ feminist.  In my head, this is all very straightforward, but I often find other people slightly more confusing…

For example, my students.  I look forward to being able to teach about equality and diversity – something which is easier for me, as an English teacher, than for some other subjects.  But then, when it comes to it, I find myself justifying the label ‘feminist’ to get away from the stereotypes that teens seem to have in mind.  I have been encouraged by the occasional response of ‘but that’s not anything -ism, that’s normal’, but for the most part, somebody in the room is always waiting for me to betray those man-hating instincts.

I’ve encountered others with odd (to me!) views too.  My postgrad studies included a Women’s Studies element and I was surprised to find that some felt I didn’t belong there – because I was (and still am!) married.    More recently, we’ve seen surprise in others as hubby stays at home full time with the kids and has done for almost 7 years now.  Whether it’s fascination (does he do… washing, cleaning, school run etc etc) or pity (oh, can’t he get a job), people react – which they probably wouldn’t do so much if I did the house+kids thing while he worked.

Overall though, I still consider myself a feminist because we still have so far to go.  Obviously there are parts of the world which have a shocking record for women’s rights, but even here in the enlightened West, there remain many inequalities, not the least of which is attitude.

The Penguin Atlas of Women in the WorldA great resource for exploring women’s rights around the world is this Atlas of Women in the World, which graphically represents a range of relevant figures.  It’s been a real eye-opener in my classes, as students discover statistics relating to literacy, marital rape and access to contraception.