SMOKE IN THE ROOM BY EMILY MAGUIRE

Genre: CONTEMPORARY | Pages: 289

My rating: ★★★

Adam is lost in grief for his dead wife. Graeme is lost to despair for a world that can’t be fixed. And Katie is lost to depression. That’s a lot of hopelessness in one tiny Australian flat. Nevertheless, that despair is what made Smoke in the Room a compelling read.

I read Emily Maguire’s earlier novel,Taming the Beast, and fell in love with the gritty style of prose and her flawed central characters.

This one… it’s a good read. There’s a lot of truth in it and the characters, after a grotesque amount of binge drinking, gratuitous sex, and eating out of the trash, eventually (mostly) stumble their way into the light.

Katie, the main character, is as flawed as Taming the Beast’s protagonist. She’s a spirited young woman with an insightful (though bleak) view of the world but it took too long to see her fragility. Of course, she is troubled; it’s plain to see, but the initial lack of warmth in Katie’s character meant that I’d read over a third of the book before even liking her.

That said, after the slightly cold (but ridiculously intriguing) start, Katie’s vulnerability is slashed wide open. THIS I could connect with, relate to, and understand. I MARVELLED at the word-perfect emotion behind these characters as each of them faced their demons. The depiction of mental illness is so accurate it bites, and the blissful illusion of suicide is perfectly portrayed.

The book is gritty and edgy; the theme is dark and quite unforgiving. But once the wounds of these characters crack open, it is impossible to pause their story.

‘…depressed people are the ones with the realistic view of the world. It’s the rest of you that have filters. Soft filters that make everything seem nicer and easier than it really is. Maybe that’s all depression really is: life without a filter.’

 


smoke in the room book cover

 

The searing new novel from the internationally-acclaimed author of Taming the Beast, The Gospel According to Luke and Princesses & Pornstars. Summer, Sydney, and holed up in a tiny flat off Broadway are idealistic American Adam, weary activist Graeme, and wild, misunderstood Katie. Each is searching for answers to life’s biggest questions – why are we here; what is love; what constitutes betrayal – and thrust together, over an intense two-week period, they begin to form answers. In doing so, they must first confront their darkest demons, both within and without… Provocative, honest, brimming with sexual tension and crackling with intelligence, Emily Maguire’s sensational new novel cements her place as one of Australia’s hottest young talents.

 

As a reader, I enjoy multiple genres of books, and picking a favourite is, for me, not just impossible but criminal. Having said that, there are a few that stand out. These books are the ones I nose-dived my way through; they hooked me at first word and had that can’t-eat can’t-sleep effect. There’s also one other thing they all have in common: the storytelling is fearless. 

Here are my Top 3 Fearless Books

Fearless Books

Forbidden

“You can close your eyes to the things you do not want to see, but you cannot close your heart to the things you do not want to feel.”

 

If ever there’s even such a thing as ‘fearless books’ outside of my reading bubble, this is one that would make the cut with its hands tied behind its back. I will rave about this story until I’m senile or dead. Never have I read a story that compelled me as much as this did to turn a blind eye to the norms of society. The author took a taboo subject—incest—and spun it on its head, with characters so real and relatable that I could do nothing BUT root for them, even though on a basic level I knew I shouldn’t have. The story has never left me, and I dare you to read it and let it haunt you too.

Full review of Forbidden

Fearless Books

The Tied Man

“The summer I met Lilith Bresson, I had begun to die. Not physically, you understand. I had never been that lucky. But each day a little more of my soul disappeared.”

 

I read this one only recently, and it is by far one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever come across. That’s not to say it isn’t good. The writing is brilliant; the fast-paced action, dry (dark) humour, and the isolated setting really lend themselves to the atmosphere of the book. The real fearless quality though is in the characters and the extent of horror of the events. Never have I read something which made me cringe as much as this book did, yet I couldn’t have put it down if you’d paid me to.

Full review of The Tied Man

Fearless Books

The Bell Jar

“I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”

 

A fairly modern classic, The Bell Jar is well-known and well-loved, and one of my all-time favourites. I can relate to so much of Sylvia Plath’s work and her only novel is no exception. The subject centres around the protagonist’s fledging writing career, and her struggle with mental illness (loosely based on Sylvia Plath’s own life). The style of writing is poetic (not for everyone) and Plath demonstrates that remarkable and elusive skill of taking a bleak and morbid situation, and transforming it into compelling prose. This, to me, is as fearless as it gets.

Full review of The Bell Jar

So, fellow bookworms, what would you consider your favourite fearless books? Which of them has a permanent haunt spot in your life? Tell me in the comments.

The Tied Man by Tabitha McGowan

genre: dark, erotica, romance | pages: 395

My rating: ★★★★

The Tied Man is one of those books that whilst reading it I couldn’t seem to get enough, yet when I’m done, I’m left wondering why I would voluntarily traumatise myself. It was a good read—but understand that by good, I mean that while it has a gripping storyline, this book will plaster images on the back of your eyelids that will never ever rub off.

The plot centres around Lilith and Finn. Lilith whilst busy going about her (pretty enviable) artist’s existence, is cornered into a situation beyond comprehension: a long ‘vacation’ at an estate that caters to the whims of the most twisted sexual deviants I’ve ever come across.

That’s nothing, I hear you say.

Wait for it…

That’s not the part which set my mind boggling.

One of the live-in residents is a handsome but tragic Irishman. Finn. He is nothing short of a sex slave—used, abused, punished, and tortured, all under the questionable ‘contract’ he has with the estate owner, Blaine, and her many dubious clients.

I know, I know! Mentions of sex contracts these days brings forth images of Christian Grey and his whip, but Fifty Shades is like reading Enid Blyton compared to this book; and although the second Fifty Shades book (yes, shut up, I read all three) gets a little meatier in terms of actual plot (emphasis on little), The Tied Man outdoes this by a mile. Maybe five.

If this all sounds a bit far-fetched, don’t let it put you off. The plot is by no means thin, and these bizarre events have relatable circumstances. Firstly, Finn didn’t sign the contract for fun; there’s a legitimate and noble reason why he did. Secondly, Lilith didn’t just go along for the ride; she’s almost as trapped as Finn is, first because of Blaine, and then by her own unwillingness to give up on Finn. Lastly, the impressive writing and engaging protagonists keep the plot grounded, immersing the reader into the characters’ world.

I’ve read some spectacularly questionable stories before and I’m not easily shocked or repelled, and I’m definitely not easily offended by books, but this one… This one made even the likes of my warped mind cower in the corner—trembling. Yet, I’d recommend it to anyone who might enjoy torturing themselves with dark, twisted tales (fans of Comfort Food, Flawed, etc.)

I gobbled word after word, scene after gory scene because at the heart of this disturbing story there is a nugget of beauty—HOPE.

‘The momentary discomfort was nothing at all compared to the realisation that she was finding refuge in my flawed embrace.’ — Finn

 

the tied man book cover

 

Lilith Bresson, an independent, successful young artist, is forced to travel from her home in Spain to the wild borderlands of northern England, to repay her feckless father’s latest debt by painting a portrait of the enigmatic Lady Blaine Albermarle.

On her first night at Albermarle Hall she meets Finn Strachan, Blaine’s ‘companion’, a cultured and hauntingly beautiful young man who seems to have it all. But Lilith has an artist’s eye, and a gift for seeing what lies beneath the skin. She soon discovers that Blaine is more gaoler than lover, and if the price is right, depravity has no limits. As the weeks pass, Lilith finds that she too is drawn into the malign web that her patron has spun, yet against the odds she forges a strong friendship with the damaged, dysfunctional Finn. In a dark, modern twist to an age-old story, Lilith Bresson proves that sometimes it’s the princess who needs to become the rescuer.

Please note that this storyline contains depictions of drug abuse, violence and non-consensual sex.

Flawed by Kate Avelynn

GENRE: Dark, YA | PAGES: 336

My rating: ★★★★

Dark and disturbing—two words I’d associate with Flawed

Two more words: compelling… captivating.

Whether I’m drawn to this kind of story because of who I am, or whether it is the story itself that pulls me in is, quite frankly, entirely beside the point.

I loved this book. Love seems so wrong a word, given the content of the novel, but there it is: I love it. I ate the words off the page like a rabid animal and I make no apologies for it.

This book, like Tabitha Suzuma’s Forbidden deals with neglect, abuse, and— #OMG —incest.

If the idea of reading about that touchy topic doesn’t make you run for the hills, and you begin the story like the brave reader-adventurer you are, you are already halfway to the point of awe that I’m at, because from the get-go, Sarah, the protagonist, demands to be heard.

Her voice is strong. Even though her situation renders her weak, her inner strength makes you care for her and connect with her.

James, her brother, becomes a hero the moment he sacrifices himself to his father’s violence to save her; and then he saves her again, and again, and again.

It didn’t matter that I already knew what he would morph into; I was so caught up in the tragic events under their unhappy roof, that their pact, their bond—of safety, protection, unity, and love—was seriously all that mattered.

Like Forbidden, when it reached the point of no return, even though you KNOW there is no such thing as a grey area in this, you (or rather, I) find the behaviour… reasonable.

Yes, I damn well said it. Reasonable!

Faced with paternal abuse, neglect, and violence, an abused and otherwise absent mother, a sheltered, fragile, terrifying existence… it doesn’t seem terribly difficult to believe that the lines of love between the two people who find solace and comfort in one another, would begin to blur.

What makes Flawed so much darker however, is that unlike Forbidden, the lines have blurred only on one side—James’.

**Possible Spoilers Ahead**

As her protector, James is fiercely possessive and increasingly controlling. He loves her to a heartbreaking degree, and he wants so badly to fix everything that is wrong in their lives. It comes from a place of love, but having solved everything with his fists from the age of eight has made him volatile, and often almost as dangerous as their father; yet, he never lays a forceful hand on Sarah. At least, not yet.

Sarah struggles with her own feelings for her brother—often confused by certain emotions that pass between them. He became her only source of love and companionship—her protector and her comrade. They have had only each other for a very long time and when she begins to look elsewhere and becomes aware of the oddness of their intimate (though not sexual) relationship, James’ entire sense of self seems to crumble.

Their initial pact as young siblings—never to leave one another—is under threat when Sarah eventually falls for James’ best friend Sam. Sam leads Sarah to doorways she never knew existed; in spending time together, Sarah’s confidence grows, and her eyes seem to open for the first time.

For the first time, she becomes afraid of her brother, who would (and does) do absolutely anything for her, except let her leave or love someone else.

As reasonable as the development of inappropriate emotions is, (in my warped head, at least) there is no excuse or explanation for manipulation, particularly manipulation of a mind as fractured as Sarah’s.

We all know how this will end—yet even then, the author manages to surprise shock.

I have nothing but praise for the entire book; and nothing but admiration for the writer brave enough to tell a story as dark as this one.

Five brilliant stars.

 

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  Flawed

 

Sarah O’Brien is alive because of the pact she and her brother made twelve years ago — James will protect her from their violent father if she promises to never leave him. For years, she’s watched James destroy his life to save hers. If all he asks for in return is her affection, she’ll give it freely.

Until, with a tiny kiss and a broken mind, he asks for more than she can give.

Sam Donavon has been James’ best friend — and the boy Sarah’s had a crush on — for as long as she can remember. As their forbidden relationship deepens, Sarah knows she’s in trouble. Quiet, serious Sam has decided he’s going to save her. Neither of them realizes James is far more unstable than her father ever was, or that he’s not about to let Sarah forget her half of the pact…

Room by Emma Donoghue

GENRE: Contemporary | PAGES: 321

My rating: ★★★★★

Room is… good… By good, I mean not just good but lunch-skipping, sleep-depriving, don’t-f***ing-disturb-me good. In fact, good doesn’t cover it. Great doesn’t do it justice either. There isn’t a word for how I feel about it.

It is excellently written from page one, the opening sentence:

‘Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe…’

I was instantly drawn to the story this five-year-old was about to tell.

There were several times I paused to wonder how a child of his age could know so much yet so little; and then there was a moment before starting to read when I wondered whether a story from a child’s viewpoint would just be bad news: patronising at worst, sappy and sentimental at best. But man, am I ever glad I read it anyway. I stand – no, I sit, exhausted from the journey that is Room – corrected.

It wasn’t patronising, or sappy or sentimental. It was just plain overwhelming and quite simply, the whole damn thing just worked. And as for this sharp, intelligent boy… I realised that those bits I questioned, were merely moments I hadn’t quite placed myself in, as a child… an innocent, clean-slated, unbiased child. How could I? Therefore who the hell was I to damn well question what he felt or how and why or how much he knew or understood? I just let it be.

Within minutes of starting I was hooked on the story, captured by this child and his energy for the life he lived, in Room.

As the story progresses you learn more about his Ma, her own story, her own trauma and battles against what is; yet as many stories as I’ve read of others in her situation, I have never come across anything quite so unique as this. And it is because of Jack.

He is a born storyteller, taking us all along at a gallop.

Somehow this original pint-sized protagonist is ten times more powerful as he is than if he were a bellowing giant on a mountaintop.

If you haven’t read this yet, please DO. If only to meet Jack. Once you do, you will not forget him or his tale in a hurry. 

 

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Room

 

Jack is five, and excited about his birthday. He lives with his Ma in Room, which has a locked door and a skylight, and measures eleven feet by eleven feet. He loves watching TV, and the cartoon characters he calls friends, but he knows that nothing he sees on screen is truly real – only him, Ma and the things in Room. Until the day Ma admits that there’s a world outside… Told in Jack’s voice, Room is the story of a mother and son whose love lets them survive the impossible. Unsentimental and sometimes funny, devastating yet uplifting, Room is a novel like no other.

Such a Pretty Girl by Laura Wiess

GENRE: Contemporary, Dark, YA | PAGES: 212

My rating: ★★★★

Such a Pretty Girl is such an unpretty story.

Want a book with a horrid topic? Filled with terror? Despair? Betrayal? Stand aside Horror authors and make room for a different kind of fear. The kind that chills and fascinates; moreover the kind that for some, occurs in everyday life.

Did I say fascinate? Yes, I suppose I did. We have to admit to the fascination or why else would we want to read about it? It’s a weird thing when I can soar through books like this yet take months reading genuine classics. It’s not something I’d readily admit to for fear that my interest in this topic will be taken the wrong way.

Somehow though, authors of books like this make me realise that there must be others just like me. Like I said, why else would we read stories like this one and moreover why else would anyone write them?

The answer is the tale. In every victim’s sad and tragic story there is a fighter waiting to stand their ground; a predator dodging bad karma. This story delivers that in Meredith’s clear voice. Her struggle, her ways of coping–it is all very real–and her triumph in the end, though bittersweet for having to endure the pain before that, is nonetheless a victory.

For all the intrigue and fascination and background psychology that this story–and others like it–may hold, I think I might just be a sucker for a good (read: happy) ending as much as anyone else.

 

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Such a Pretty Girl

 

They promised Meredith nine years of safety, but only gave her three.
Her father was supposed to be locked up until Meredith turned eighteen. She thought she had time to grow up, get out, and start a new life. But Meredith is only fifteen, and today her father is coming home from prison. Today her time has run out.

Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott

GENRE: Dark, Suspense, YA | PAGES: 110

My rating: ★★★★

Brilliantly disturbing book. Impossible to put this down once you’ve begun. It is a sad story told in such blunt and vivid detail it will make you want to look away and retch a little. Yet you’ll keep reading. It’s like a car crash. My only gripe is that it’s just a hundred and ten pages long… saying that, whilst I devoured this in 48 hours, any more than that of this horrific tale would have been biting off way more than I could chew. The author clearly knew what she was doing.

 

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  Living Dead Girl

 

Once upon a time, I was a little girl who disappeared. Once upon a time, my name was not Alice. Once upon a time, I didn’t know how lucky I was. When Alice was ten, Ray took her away from her family, her friends — her life. She learned to give up all power, to endure all pain. She waited for the nightmare to be over. Now Alice is fifteen and Ray still has her, but he speaks more and more of her death. He does not know it is what she longs for. She does not know he has something more terrifying than death in mind for her. This is Alice’s story. It is one you have never heard, and one you will never, ever forget.

Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma

GENRE: Contemporary, Romance, YA | PAGES: 432

My rating: ★★★★★

My god, Forbidden is amazing. Even with the very, very sensitive topic of incest and child neglect, the story as a whole was immensely touching and so intense I felt the urge to pause between chapters–yet couldn’t!

From page one, the characters came to life for me. It was impossible not to sympathise with their situation; it was as if their very lives were unfolding in front of me, and by the time Maya and Lochan actually took their relationship to the next dangerous level I was already (incredibly) accepting it. I would go as far as admitting that I wanted them to succeed in their plans for a future together.

The ending made my heart ache. It was the ultimate sacrifice to both their family unit and to each other.

The only recommending sentence I need to utter is this: if you like good books, read Forbidden–you won’t be disappointed. 

 

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Forbidden

 

She is pretty and talented – sweet sixteen and never been kissed. He is seventeen; gorgeous and on the brink of a bright future. And now they have fallen in love. But… they are brother and sister. Seventeen-year-old Lochan and sixteen-year-old Maya have always felt more like friends than siblings. Together they have stepped in for their alcoholic, wayward mother to take care of their three younger siblings. As defacto parents to the little ones, Lochan and Maya have had to grow up fast. And the stress of their lives—and the way they understand each other so completely—has also brought them closer than two siblings would ordinarily be. So close, in fact, that they have fallen in love. Their clandestine romance quickly blooms into deep, desperate love. They know their relationship is wrong and cannot possibly continue. And yet, they cannot stop what feels so incredibly right. As the novel careens toward an explosive and shocking finale, only one thing is certain: a love this devastating has no happy ending.

Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

GENRE: Contemporary, Romance | PAGES: 192

My rating: ★★★

It took a very long time to get through Written on the Body, and even now that I’ve finished it, I still can’t be sure whether I really enjoyed it or not.

There’s no denying that there is quality in Winterson’s prose; it is poetic and unashamedly focused on emotion but there were moments when it felt a little overdone – I found myself overlooking the clever style and syntax and merely groaning and thinking: ‘get to the point, already.’

The other flaw, for me, was the lack of gender specifics; no matter how much I wanted to wrap myself up in the tale, my mind kept wandering off, following dropped clues to the character’s sex. If anything, it was an annoying and unnecessary distraction.

Overall, I’m rating this at a three, for writing skill and a story compelling enough to keep me going until the end.

If you’re into poetry, love letters and the like, or you’re enthralled about passion in general, this is for you – Winterson perfectly portrays that all-consuming, two-become-one kind of love in what can only be said to be the worship of another body, another being. It is quite beautiful to witness.

If however, on the other hand, you’re the type that cannot particularly stand to beat about the bush, I suggest you roll your eyes now, take my word for it and move on to the next book.

 

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 Written on the Body

 

The most beguilingly seductive novel to date from the author of The Passion and Sexing the Cherry. Winterson chronicles the consuming affair between the narrator, who is given neither name nor gender, and the beloved, a complex and confused married woman. “At once a love story and a philosophical meditation.”–New York Times Book Review.

Comfort Food by Kitty Thomas

GENRE: Dark, Erotica | PAGES: 192

My rating: ★★★★★

~ ‘Am I to be sane and miserable in a world of somebody else’s creation or am I to be crazy, and in my own strange way, free?’ ~

After reading a few reviews of Comfort Food, I just had to check it out, if only, at the time, to sate my curiosity. Far from regretting it, I was actually and absolutely fascinated by it.

This is the first book I’ve read based around Stockholm Syndrome (which is interesting in and of itself) and whilst I’ve delved into a couple of erotica novels, I can usually take ’em or leave ’em. This one though was amazing for the psychology within the story.

The (very readable) protagonist, Emily, is strong and smart and when she is drugged and kidnapped then broken down she knows what’s coming next. The man who stole her from the life she knew is never violent; he provides her with everything she needs but at a cost, and in such a way it makes Emily feel as though she gave him actual permission. She becomes willing to play his game, first out of necessity, then out of her own need. She knows what’s happening as it’s happening yet she’s as much a slave to it as someone who had no clue of the process. She becomes a victim of the syndrome she’s heard so much about but she comes to accept and crave both it and her captor.

Her captor, whose name we never learn, actually stirred something a bit like sympathy within me. I was so drawn in by the root of his problem (as hugely immoral as his problem was) and I really hoped for a breakthrough of some sort. There was, however, no such cliche; much like real-life cases, the sociopathic behaviour brought its own twisted reward, though I felt so connected with the story by this point, that I actually found myself hankering after the same ending as the victim, Emily, did. 

 

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Comfort Food

 

Emily Vargas has been taken captive. As part of his conditioning methods, her captor refuses to speak to her, knowing how much she craves human contact. He’s far too beautiful to be a monster. Combined with his lack of violence toward her, this has her walking a fine line at the edge of sanity. Told in the first person from Emily’s perspective, Comfort Food explores what happens when all expectations of pleasure and pain are turned upside down, as whips become comfort and chicken soup becomes punishment.

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

GENRE: Poetry | PAGES: 105

My rating: ★★★★

Bleak yet powerful and intense, Ariel by Sylvia Plath is, by far, my favourite collection of poetry. Undoubtedly, Sylvia Plath has a unique way with words. She transforms them into bewitching lyrics that resonate in endless and uniquely personal ways.

I read these poems over and over, caught up in the imagery she creates, the emotion she evokes. Each time, I take away a little more than I did the time before. Her work speaks to me (and countless others). Her open, uncensored outpouring of raw feeling is perfectly translated to the page.

Whilst each of her poems have meaning, I have some particular favourites in Ariel. The poem Elm spoke to me and so did Tulips, and since no amount of analysis can do her poetry justice, so instead, here’s my favourite piece from this collection:

Elm

I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root:
It is what you fear.
I do not fear it: I have been there.

Is it the sea you hear in me,
Its dissatisfactions?
Or the voice of nothing, that was your madness?

Love is a shadow.
How you lie and cry after it
Listen: these are its hooves: it has gone off, like a horse.

All night I shall gallop thus, impetuously,
Till your head is a stone, your pillow a little turf,
Echoing, echoing.

Or shall I bring you the sound of poisons?
This is rain now, this big hush.
And this is the fruit of it: tin-white, like arsenic.

I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.
Scorched to the root
My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.

Now I break up in pieces that fly about like clubs.
A wind of such violence
Will tolerate no bystanding: I must shriek.

The moon, also, is merciless: she would drag me
Cruelly, being barren.
Her radiance scathes me. Or perhaps I have caught her.

I let her go. I let her go
Diminished and flat, as after radical surgery.
How your bad dreams possess and endow me.

I am inhabited by a cry.
Nightly it flaps out
Looking, with its hooks, for something to love.

I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me;
All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.

Clouds pass and disperse.
Are those the faces of love, those pale irretrievables?
Is it for such I agitate my heart?

I am incapable of more knowledge.
What is this, this face
So murderous in its strangle of branches?——

Its snaky acids hiss.
It petrifies the will. These are the isolate, slow faults
That kill, that kill, that kill.

— Sylvia Plath

 

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Ariel by Sylvia Plath

 

“In these poems…Sylvia Plath becomes herself, becomes something imaginary, newly, wildly and subtly created. — From the Introduction by Robert Lowell