Powerful and moving — Notes to Self by Emilie Pine

The blurb: Emilie Pine speaks to the business of living as a woman in the 21st century – its extraordinary pain and its extraordinary joy. Courageous, humane and uncompromising, she writes with radical honesty on birth and death, on the grief of infertility, on caring for her alcoholic father, on taboos around female bodies and female pain, on sexual violence and violence against the self. Devastatingly poignant and profoundly wise – and joyful against the odds – Notes to Self offers a portrait not just of its author but of a whole generation.

These vividly told and highly readable personal essay touched a chord with me for the raw, honest way they deal with everyday experiences — particularly female experiences from menarche through peri-menopause to middle-age.

The collection opens with a powerful account of Pine’s experience of the Greek healthcare system. She tells of the difficulties she encountered finding care for her father during his hospitalisation in Corfu for a serious alcohol-related condition. She reflects on the challenges families face when their loved one is an addict — of picking up after them when they are not able to look after themselves and of how it is not just practically taxing but metaphysically difficult. It hardens the heart.

The second essay — “From the Baby Years” — recounts Pine’s  experience of miscarriage and infertility. She describes the emotional and physical pain she went through while trying to conceive and the added heartache that came with the unexpected loss of her baby niece.

Then comes  a piece reflecting on Pine’s parents’ separation and her experience of being a go-between when communication broke down. 

“Notes on Bleeding & Other Crimes” is a strong essay on menstruation that captures intensely personal, unspoken experiences many women will relate to. 

For me, these four essays outshine the final two pieces — “Something about Me” which reflects on Pine’s troubled adolescence and “This is not on the Exam” which covers her experiences as an academic, teaching, researching, chasing funding and on the conference circuit.

All in all, though, a highly-readable collection. I enjoyed it. 

[Disclosure: I read an advance copy via Netgalley.]

The Last of Us by Rob Ewing | An engrossing read

Set on a remote island off the coast of Scotland, The Last of Us is the story of six children who have survived some kind of plague that took the lives of their parents and the other islanders.

All communication with the outside world has been lost. With no adults to rely on, the children must use their individual skills and imaginations to survive. Each new day involves searching for supplies — the food, water and medicines that they need to keep going. All of the children have lost their parents — either through death or through a parent being absent for one reason or another. Each is troubled by this loss and their grief influences their behaviour in different ways. Memory is important to all of them and they collaborate to preserve what they can remember of the past. They also keep to routines that help them maintain social order and respect the dead.

Mixed reviews

I really liked this book and am curious what other readers think. Reviews seem to be mixed with some readers thinking that the narrator’s voice is occasionally too adult for an eight-year old child. To be honest, I didn’t particularly notice this — perhaps because I was so caught up in the storytelling that it didn’t bother me.

Overall, The Last of Us held my attention from the first page to the end. So, for what it’s worth, I found Rob Ewing’s book an engrossing read and am  happy to give it the thumbs up. I think young adult readers in particular might like it. In terms of comparison with other novels, it reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies.

[Disclosure: I received an advance review copy]

Skin Deep by Liz Nugent | Compelling psychological drama

The title may be Skin Deep but there is nothing superficial about the characters in Liz Nugent’s third novel. 

The story opens with Cordelia Russel in a room where she has just murdered somebody and is wondering when rigor mortis will set in.

Born on a remote Irish island, Cordelia has been living on the French Riviera for twenty-five years, passing herself off as an English socialite. But her luck has run out. And we find out why as her story slowly unfolds over the coming chapters.

Like Liz Nugent’s earlier novels — Unravelling Oliver and Lying in Wait  Skin Deep is dark. Cordelia is not a likeable character but slowly you come to understand at least some of the reasons why she behaves as she does. And those reasons go back to her early life on the island, particularly her relationship with her father and the expectations he encouraged during her childhood — expectations grounded in myth and dark storytelling.

There are a lot layers to explore in this novel — island life with its hardship, secrets and tight community, family jealousies, betrayal, myth, charity, home, retribution, the elements of fire and water, earth and the mercurial nature of Cordelia herself.

This is carefully crafted novel where the threads are well interwoven and expertly tied together in a satisfying conclusion.