Sabine Durrant- Under Your Skin

Product DetailsThis morning, I found a body.

Soon the police will arrest me for murder.

And after that my life will fall apart.

 Gaby Mortimer is the woman who has it all. But everything changes when she finds a body on the common near her home.

 Because the evidence keeps leading back to her.

 And the police seem sure she’s guilty…

As regular readers of my reviews know, I will often admit to having minor quibbles with books that are usually of such a nature as to not impair my overall enjoyment of the story, but I’m afraid to admit that ‘Under Your Skin  caused me many irritations- no pun intended.

Ostensibly this is a psychological thriller charting the experience of TV personality, Gaby Mortimer who according to the blurb ‘has it all’ but then stumbles upon a corpse whilst out jogging, and finds herself at the centre of the murder investigation. As the investigation proceeds, Gaby’s marriage and professional career begin to unravel, leading to much navel gazing and her unlikely personal involvement with a journalist who takes up her cause. Perhaps due to Durrant’s characterisation I found Gaby to be intensely irritating with her middle class smugness, which the author tried to offset with a complete over use of parentheses for the first 150 pages using these to either try to poke fun at the vagaries of the middle class from the author’s security of a middle class viewpoint that sounded hollow in its mockery, or for Gaby to try to grapple with her personal insecurities. Although the parentheses did subside, any sympathy I could have possibly had for this character was well and truly lost by this point, such was my annoyance with the over-egging of the middle class theme and the obvious markers in the story as to her guilt or innocence. As the plot unfolds, Gaby’s life and activities come under the scrutiny of the police and suspicions as to her involvement in the murder intensify Don’t get me started on the characterisation of the police protagonists, as in an effort to introduce some quirkiness to the lead investigator DI Perivale, who Durrant depicts as a long-haired ‘dandy gone wrong’, with a penchant for literary quotes,  I’m afraid I found his whole character pretty unrealistic, and indeed many of the aspects of the police investigation, bearing  little resemblance to police procedure. even allowing for artistic licence.  Disappointingly, the ending was as I guessed, and I thought pretty well signposted from early in the book, so all in all I was left feeling a little flat.

I’m sure this will be marketed with comparisons to the excellent Elizabeth Haynes Into The Darkest Corner or S J Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep, and will no doubt be a contender for  the Richard and Judy Book Club, but sadly I was disappointed, despite my initial expectations as a fan of the psychological thriller genre. Shame.

Sabine Durrant is the author of Cross Your Heart, Connie Pickles, as well as the adult novels The Great Indoors and Having It and Eating It. She is a former assistant editor at The Guardian and a former literary editor at The Sunday Times. She lives in London, England, with her three children. Follow the author on Twitter @SabineDurrant #underyourskin

 Under Your Skin published by Mulholland Books- 11.4.13

 (With thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for the ARC)

Russ Litten- Swear Down

Product DetailsA young gang leader is found stabbed on a Hackney estate – but two people confess to the murder. Ndekwe, an ambitious, newly promoted Detective Sergeant within a subtly racist police force, believes the more obvious of the two confessions: from McKenzie, a teenager from the estate with a police record of juvenile crime.But why does Jack Shepherdson – an ex-merchant seaman in his sixties – come forward with his own confession? Is he covering for McKenzie, his colleague in the bar they worked at? Or is there more truth in his statement than Ndekwe at first believes?As we listen, with Ndekwe, to their stories – to the lives of the segregated and unheard – a heartbreaking and suspenseful story emerges.

 I’m always keen to discover crime books that offer something new to the genre and demonstrate a different approach what could be a straightforward police procedural- Russ Litten more than achieves both in his powerfully affecting new novel.

Employing a unique premise with two men both confessing to one murder, Litten leads us through both their testimonies with an assured touch, and genuinely muddying the waters in terms of guilt or innocence. By using two such different protagonists- a black London born youth, McKenzie and  wily old Northerner, Jack- Litten exhibits his skills as a writer to achieve an absolute authenticity to both their voices and character, as their confessions come under the microscope of fast track detective Peter Ndekwe, who embarks on a personal mission to uncover the ‘true’ perpetrator of the crime. The characterisation is absolutely superb as Litten captures the tone and nuances of McKenzie’s and Jack’s speech patterns, and their differing life experiences as each layer of their confessions are slowly revealed to us throughout the book. McKenzie is an inherently good lad who like some many youths becomes embroiled into the nefarious world of gang culture. He comes from a broken home and has his own half baked dream of escaping to Jamaica and tracking down his errant father. He crosses paths with Jack, formerly from Hull, whose speech not only draws on his Northern roots, but is also subtly interlaced with old fashioned London slang, and whose life experience and genuine concern for young McKenzie, draws the two into an unlikely but touching friendship. I’m probably not explaining this properly, but there is a real sense of the oral tradition of storytelling running throughout the book, with the narration prompting the reader to soundlessly tap into the cadence of their speech. The rhythms of these confessional passages conjured up the pace and tone of both their accents in my head, and felt myself seamlessly switching between the two. With their exceedingly different backgrounds and divisions of age and race, Litten characterises both with precision and, more importantly, complete plausibility and totally immerses the reader in their powerfully affecting narratives.

Likewise newly promoted and fast tracked DS Ndekwe adds another essential dimension to the plot, as we bear witness to the subtle racism and feelings of resentment that his career progression causes amongst his colleagues. His determination to get to the bottom of the two confessions, to the chagrin of his superior officer Gorman, establishes him as a barometer of morality when confronted with the events leading up to the murder, and as to why both McKenzie and Jack have acted in the way they have. We see a man who is totally focused on his professional life juxtaposed with sporadic snapshots of his home life, as a personal connection outside of his work begins to loom large in the investigation, adding another facet to this unsettling tale.

This is a slowburner, in the best sense of the word, and I would urge you to just be carried away by the beautifully paced narrative, and  be absorbed in the slow rendering up of McKenzie’s and Jack’s hopes and dreams thwarted by the real demands of their day to day existences. Litten’s use of  plot, narrative and dialogue is pitch perfect and a rare treat for those readers who look for an added dimension to their crime fiction but who also relish an ultimately tough and uncompromising read. This novel will challenge your conceptions and most importantly have you thinking about it long after the final page is turned. A remarkable novel that deserves to be talked about.

Russ Litten was born at the end of the 60’s, grew up in the 70’s and left school in the 80’s. He spent the subsequent decades in a bewildering variety of jobs before becoming a freelance writer at the turn of the century, contributing pieces to The Independent, Reader’s Digest, The Yorkshire Post and BSKY B. He has written drama for television, radio and film and currently works as a writer in prisons. His first novel, SCREAM IF YOU WANT TO GO FASTER was published by William Heinemann in January 2011. SWEAR DOWN is published by Tindal Street Press April 2013. Find Russ on Twitter @RussLitten

(With thanks to Luke Brown at Tindal Street Press for the ARC and to Nick Quantrill  for tipping me the wink about Swear Down!)

Paula Daly- Just What Kind of Mother Are You?

What if your best friend’s child disappears? And it’s all your fault. This is exactly what happens to Lisa Kallisto – overwhelmed working mother of three – one freezing December in the Lake District. She takes her eye off the ball for just a moment and her whole world descend into nightmare. Her best friend’s thirteen-year-old daughter Lucinda has gone missing and now, devastated by this and publicly blamed, Lisa sets out to right the wrong. But as she begins peeling away the layers surrounding Lucinda’s disappearance, Lisa learns that the quiet town she lives in isn’t what she thought it was, and her friends might not be who they appear to be, either…

Inspired by the story of an American mother, who succumbing to the pressures of motherhood was responsible for the death of her child, Paula Daly has constructed a thought provoking and emotive debut that skilfully addresses the issues faced by women in juggling the demands of life, work and family.  I found myself instantly engaged with the portrayal of Lisa, a married, working mother of three who appears to have been partly responsible for the sudden disappearance of a friend’s child, and the subsequent feelings of guilt and sense of betrayal that start to surround her. Lisa begins to doubt her own competence as a mother when she sets herself against her seemingly perfect friend Kate (whose daughter Lucinda has gone missing), and embarks on a course of action that not only exposes the weaknesses in her own marriage, but uncovers some very uncomfortable truths in this close knit community.

In order to avoid spoilers I will not dwell on the plot too much, as this is one of those books that as a reviewer it is difficult to review without giving away the most salient details and spoiling your enjoyment as readers. Suffice to say that with three girls going missing and being brutally attacked , the growing fear for the missing Lucinda, and the strain on the local community is perfectly detailed, and Daly ratchets up the tension as the book progresses. Daly deals nicely with the suspicions that arise in relation to both Lucinda’s family, and the pressure that builds on Lisa in relation to the central investigation, with more than a few twists along the way to maintain the reader’s interest, thankfully not relying on misplaced use of coincidences or other hackneyed plot devices. So overall a strong and engaging plot to keep the reader hooked- I can say no more!

There’s always a fear that by keeping control of a strong plot other aspects of a book may suffer but I was equally struck by the strong characterisation and the sense of place throughout the book. The book is set in the Lake District and Daly really brings to the reader’s attention, not only the wild natural beauty of this area but the very singular character of life within this community at the ebb and flow of the tourist trade and the inherent financial stresses for those native to the Lakes. Daly paints a picture of a claustrophobic social network with everyone knowing everyone’s business and how difficult it is to remain at arm’s reach from gossip and accusations. Despite Lisa’s reputation built on her sterling work at a local animal rescue centre, the tables are quickly turned on her as a wife and mother, when doubts arise as to her responsibility and involvement in, Lucinda’s disappearance(As an aside, I would applaud Daly’s depiction of the work of those involved in animal rescue and rehoming, presenting an accurate and sympathetic portrayal of these largely unsung,  hardworking individuals and the demands of this all too necessary work) Lisa too begins to question the actions of those closest to her, and Daly depicts her as a woman close to the edge, as the seeds of supicion are cast around the whole community. The characterisation in relation to the female characters in particular is exceptionally well drawn, and Daly gets good leverage out of these very different women. Lisa, scatty but likeable; Kate organised and a ‘perfect’ mother; Kate’s sister Alexa, snobbish and cold, and my favourites, DC Joanne Aspinall, a competent but slightly insecure detective tasked with investigating Lucinda’s disappearance and her ‘mad’ aunt Jackie, a borderline alcoholic who thinks nothing of saying what most folk would left unsaid. A smorgasbord of determination, humour, petty insecurities, or downright malevolence is encapsaluted in these characters, and I loved the way that Daly manipulates our emotions throughout as the sheer doggedness or conversely, the less savoury  aspects of these women’s characters, come to light over the course of the book. The male characters are a little less well-developed in my opinion, and there’s a little blip towards the end with Lisa’s husband Joe, but this is a minor niggle as I believe that it’s the women that carry the heft and drive the overall impetus of the book anyway, and Daly achieves this very successfully. An enjoyable debut, with many strong themes for discussion, that would also make this a  great pick for bookgroups.

Paula Daly lives in Cumbria with her husband and three children. She is a freelance physiotherapist and lived for a short while in France. Just What Kind of Mother Are You? is her first novel and she is currently working on her next. Join the discussion on Twitter #JWKOMAY  @pauladalyauthor

Read about Paula’s journey to publication here:

Just What Kind of Mother Are You? – 25th April 2013 (Bantam Press)

Read The Literature Monster’s review here: www.theliteraturemonster

(With thanks to Alison Barrow at Transworld for the ARC)