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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The City under the Skin

Geoff Nicholson

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To purchase The City under the Skin

Title: The City under the Skin
Author: Geoff Nicholson
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014
Length: 256 pages
Availability: The City under the Skin - US
The City under the Skin - UK
The City under the Skin - Canada
The City under the Skin - India

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Our Assessment:

B+ : very enjoyable storytelling, a decent story cleverly mapped out underneath

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 31/8/2014 Fiona Maazel
Publishers Weekly . 10/3/2014 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "In this novel, urban decay and renewal are the impetus for people to mobilize their darker selves in a quest to get control of the city, which might well be about getting control of who and where we are." - Fiona Maazel, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(Z)ippy yet predictable literary thriller (.....) Nicholson charms the reader with offbeat humor and unexpected narrative tangents, but he doesn’t trust his audience enough." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       With a title like The City under the Skin it's hardly surprising that this is a city-centered novel. Real estate development plans play a significant role, as do various locales, including abandoned buildings and subway stations. One of the character's favorite pastimes is:

     Urban exploration: investigating the city, creative trespass, going where I am not supposed to, getting into abandoned structures, factories, closed-down hospitals, derelict power stations.
       Despite all that, The City under the Skin is hardly a novel of place and home: one character is a squatter, others live in trailers; indeed, Nicholson doesn't even bother identifying his any-city by name. Instead, the vision here is more psychogeographic, the larger picture one of representation -- maps -- as much as reality. It is a story of people finding (and losing) their ways, along routes that appear unclear but come into focus -- futures coming together, a too-well-documented past weighing too heavily.
       One character, Zak Webster, runs the map-store Utopiates -- owned by real estate speculator Ray McKinley. Another character is the much-feared hit-man Wrobleski, whose reputation very much precedes him; he is a collector and student of maps -- an occasional Utopiates customer who also does some odd jobs for McKinley.
       The City under the Skin has the feel of a chamber piece: for all the open urban space (and the traversing of the city that goes on) there's a confined feeling to it, and only a limited number of characters come into play. Despite the seemingly disparate storyline, connections abound and draw the characters and their lives increasingly closer; even the resolution is found in these connections -- always there, but only slowly revealed, like a map that is finally figured out.
       Nominally, The City under the Skin is about decoding a map, or maps: several women have been kidnapped, taken someplace where a crude map or part of one was tattooed on their backs and then released. Wrobleski has become interested in these, and has started collecting the women -- his assistant, Akim, has a knack for ferreting them out, though the actual work of picking up the pieces, as it were, falls to Billy Moore, himself a small-time real estate speculator, currently living on a lot he's running as a parking lot with his twelve-year-old daughter, Carla. The first time Billy collects a woman for Wrobleski is in front of Utopiates, where Zak and a passer-by, Marilyn, witness the abduction; these two then team up to look into what is going on.
       It's a decent if ultimately a bit underfed little plot, but Nicholson weaves the stories together quite nicely. The pleasure here is as much in the enjoyment of the text, chapter by chapter, as it is in the larger story: what Nicholson excels at is the smaller exchanges, the quirky details, the incidental events. His familiar themes of obsession and obsessiveness are found here, nicely handled, and the mapping-idea works well, as Nicholson also plays with varieties of tattooing (and tattoos-as-forms-of-maps), including the neat one of dermatographia ('skin writing', a condition that allows marks to appear when the skin is scratched, but which eventually fade; in the novel, young Carla suffers from the condition).
       The City under the Skin is fairly typical Nicholson-fare. It is perhaps a bit less ambitious in its execution than the material and ideas might call for, but it's still a very enjoyable read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 May 2014

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The City under the Skin: Reviews: Geoff Nicholson: Other books by Geoff Nicholson under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       English author Geoff Nicholson, born in Sheffield in 1953, has written a flurry of novels. He lives in Los Angeles.

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