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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 20 August 2012
David Morris, a book valuer for a London auction house, lives a quiet and orderly life - or at least he does until he travels to Belmont Hall in Somerset to catalogue and value the library of the recently deceased Lord Buff-Orpington. At Belmont Hall, David spends hours immersed in his work in the library and in his spare time he walks in the lovely woods surrounding the house. Whilst he is out walking one day, David meets Professor Hunt, a seemingly eccentric and enigmatic man who lives in a cottage nearby, and when David calls at Hunt's cottage later, expecting a cordial welcome, he is surprised to be more or less rebuffed by the professor. As David turns to leave, he hears a terrifying and blood-curdling scream coming from one of the upper rooms of the cottage and, unsatisfied by the professor's explanation for the scream, he returns to the cottage later when the professor is not there. It is then that David meets Isabel, the screaming woman, and discovers the professor's rather diabolical secret. I can't say more for fear of spoiling the story, but I don't think I would giving too much away by saying there is something very much the matter with Isabel.

At one point later on in the story, Isabel asks David if she makes his skin crawl and he replies in the negative - well, I have to be honest and say that the poor woman certainly made my skin crawl - and I do mean that literally. However, that aside, after reading the synopsis of this novel on the Amazon page, I was looking forward to reading the book and I found the initial few chapters interesting and absorbing. It was enjoyable to read about the walks David takes in the woods, where Peter Benson richly depicts the English countryside, and the author also uses some amusing turns of phrase, especially when he describes how David's mother killed herself accidentally while polishing the house, and how the cats at Belmont Hall lie in wait for David, with their cruel eyes staring as if they were planning murder, but were just waiting for the time and the opportunity. It was also interesting, and quite poignant, to read about David's difficult relationship with his clergyman father, but once the book moved to Isabel, my enjoyment abated.

It could be that this is a little masterpiece of Victorian-style gothic horror, possibly tongue-in-cheek, and I, being rather squeamish, am not the right audience for it - and maybe my squeamishness meant that I missed a significant underlying message; however, I can only be honest and say that although this book was well-written and suspenseful, after the first few chapters, there were parts to this story that I really didn't enjoy. Peter Benson certainly appears to be a good writer and there is much to admire in his writing, I just wish he had chosen to a different subject to write about. I would be very interested to know what other readers thought of this book and I shall be revisiting this page periodically to see how other reviewers have rated it.

3 Stars.
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Beginning with a distinctly gentle and lyrical sequence of thoughts by a young man sent to catalogue the library of a recently deceased antiquarian book collector, this exquisitely beautiful writing gradually dissolves into a tale of grand guignol that never misses its mark or falls into mere horror. It is gorgeous throughout.

I'm not giving a hint of what is wrong with Isobel's skin, but something is. If it didn't have it's prescient narrator, it might fold into comical chaos, but Peter Benson keeps such a firm hold on the story that you know that's never going to happen.

Isobel has fallen into the hands of a madman, an experimenter, locked into his foul designs. It seems impossible that the narrator David Morris can rescue her, but an attempt to do so is made. The writing is simply gorgeous and I loved every page of this amazing book. If you think the genre distasteful or too testing, and forgo the pleasure of this book, you will miss an absolute dazzler.
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ISABEL'S SKIN is one of those books which start off well but then quickly take a tumble. The story is about a book valuer who is assigned to value the library of a recently deceased man. Whilst he is there, he stumbles across a house in a wood which is occupied by a seemingly eccentric scientist and a woman, who he keeps locked up.

Looking at the other reviews on Amazon, I decided to buy it because it was being described as gothic book with a murder mystery at its heart. Well, its isn't. There is a murder, but there is no mystery to it. Also, once you discover the secret of the woman who is locked away, there is very little to keep you reading. The main characters are quite insipid - David the book valuer spends more time telling you about his childhood and the relationship he has with his father, than actually focusing on the present and the main story. And Isabel, the lady at the centre of the story becomes more and more irritating as the book progresses. I do not feel that she was well thought-out or developed. The final nail in the coffin is that the ending to the whole book was sorely disappointing.

This is a book which I would struggle to recommend to anyone. Once read, it is one of those books you feel you don't need to return to. Such a shame; I was expecting so much more, based on the reviews I had read.
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on 9 December 2012
A beautifully written novel by a master of his craft. Peter Benson's evocations of place and atmosphere are superb. He is so observant and intelligent in his communication. I loved this novel and had to keep reading. It is quirky but incredibly moving. He deserves to be more widely read.
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Set in Edwardian England, Isobel's Skin tells the story of David Morris and his strange encounters when he travels to Somerset to value the library of a dead aristocrat. He is advised not to travel too far from the house but, of course, he does.....

This could have been just a gothic horror story but the author has infused a love story into it. The atmosphere is beautifully portrayed and the main characters surprisingly credible. It is macabre without being ludicrous and he maintains our sympathies for David and Isobel throughout - quite a feat.

This is not my usual genre but I thoroughly enjoyed. Peter Benson is a new author for me and I shall certainly read more of his work.
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on 27 September 2012
I was really surprised to see another reviewer on Amazon describing this as "tongue-in-cheek". In my view, this quietly unassuming novel has real depth. It can be read on two levels and, in this sense, it's a typical Peter Benson novel. Let me admit that I've been a fan of his since "The Levels" came out all those years ago. I've read all his books and, with one exception ("Two Cows..." which was fine, but not, to my mind brilliant), I've been very moved by everything he's written. Don't believe the blurb about this being a mock-gothic tale of murder. That's just the vehicle for a meditation (in PB's usual easy-on-the-ear but very thought-provoking style)on the nature of love and attraction, on how we can only truly love when we hold up a mirror to ourselves and shed the "skin" of our inhibitions ... only when we learn to accept our imperfections can we be "born again" and able to love and be loved. Isabel is much more than a curiosity, and much more than someone in need of help: she is the reflection in the narrator's mirror, through whom he learns how to love.
I was going to give it 4 stars but: a. I'm still thinking about it a few days after finishing it and b.he's earned the right to the benefit of the doubt for his body of work. So five stars it is! More important than whether this deserves three, four or five stars is the fact that PB deserves a wider audience. If you like this, you'll probably love "A Lesser Dependency", "Odo's Hanging" etc etc Keep those novels coming, PB ... I couldn't endure another seven-year wait similar to the gap between your early and later books!
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on 21 January 2013
This book will stay with me a while,made me think.I did guess the end but enjoyed getting there.Would recommend to someone who fancies a change from the norm.
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on 16 November 2014
This is a beautifully written book. It reads like poetry in places and has a most original plot. I thoroughly enjoyed the melancholic prose.
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on 14 December 2012
(Minor spoilers implied)

Isabel's Skin is probably best described as a Gothic horror but one that employs a style and featuring content that would have been anathema to Victorian authors. At its core is the story of a young book valuer, David Morris, whose journey to Somerset in pursuit of French enlightenment volumes leads him into a world of violence and grotesques resulting in a hurried pursuit across England. Interspersed with this are vignettes of David's early life, introducing his family and friends. These illuminate his character, thus providing a foil for the changes that the reader observers in him over the course of the novel.

The book features flashbacks heavily. In addition to the scenes of David's youth, Benson uses the device to expand on the relationship between the eponymous Isabel and Professor Hunt. The technique is largely successful, with none of the sub-plots particularly dragging. In such a slight novel, however, so many digressions do leave the main plot feeling fairly threadbare. The main narrative seems very linear with the only real twist being fairly obvious to an attentive reader from very early on. The consequence -for me at least- was a story about deep emotional and physical transformation that lacked any great emotional resonance.

There is still much enjoyment to be had from Benson's use of language, which is fluid and almost poetic. I knew from previous experiences with his books that he is particularly adept at evocating place but the particulars of this novel allow for some lovely character sketches, redolent of Keats' Lamia. The same fluidity is less apparent in the dialogue. The period setting demands nineteenth century language and syntax, which is present but sometimes seems stilted and occasionally anachronistic. The characters speak as if they are following the rules of a grammar not instinctively observing profound cultural and social norms.

Ultimately, I did enjoy the novel, I just felt that the thin plot didn't fully support the themes, despite introducing some nice rhetorical contrivances. Equally, the language seemed a draft short of the quality of which Benson is clearly capable.
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on 30 May 2013
a strange tale from way back and an easy read i would fully recommend this for something a little different....
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