- Published: 31 December 2020 31 December 2020
The Miseducation of Evie Epworth is one of my favourite books of 2020. Set on a farm in Yorkshire in 1962, Evie is sixteen-and-a-half years old and trying to decide what direction her future will take. Everyone around her seems to have an opinion, and while Evie may be naïve she is no pushover; she will make up her own mind.
Evie’s mother died when she was very young, but flashbacks help to keep her included in the narrative, and also show her father in a more sympathetic light. At the beginning of the book their housekeeper, Christine, has moved in, and is going to marry Evie’s father. Evie is not happy as she can see right through Christine, and is not fooled by the act her father has fallen for.
The Miseducation of Evie Epworth features a cast of sharply observed, strong female characters, each with their own unique voice. Matson Taylor has done a wonderful job of creating the voice of a believable and endearing teenage girl, and this is especially important because we see the world entirely through Evie’s eyes. Christine personifies the wicked stepmother stereotype with her scheming, plotting and downright nasty behaviour – for some reason she reminded me of the female character, Piella Bakewell, in the Wallace & Gromit film A Matter of Loaf and Death.
Evie enjoys spending time with her neighbour, Mrs Scott-Pym, who was a friend of her late mother and can share memories with her. When Mrs Scott-Pym is injured in a fall, her daughter, Caroline, comes home, and Evie suddenly has someone else fighting her corner. Caroline lives a glamorous and sophisticated life in London, and opens Evie’s eyes to all sorts of new experiences.
The period detail is spot on; even though I was slightly younger than Evie in 1962, I can still remember it all quite clearly. When she hears the Beatles for the first time, she is smitten and Adam Faith is consigned to history.
At times I laughed out loud while reading this book which has just the right balance between humour and sadness. Evie has her whole life ahead of her, and I look forward to reading the next instalment.
- Published: 30 December 2020 30 December 2020
Stone Cold Trouble is the long-awaited sequel to Brothers in Blood (still called Western Fringes when I reviewed it), and continues the story of Zaq and Jags. They don’t go looking for trouble, but it always seems to find them anyway.
Initially, Jags’s uncle asks them to help him retrieve a necklace, a family heirloom, he lost in a card game. This seems straightforward enough until they meet the man responsible, and he refuses to give it back. Uncle Lucky then has to explain why he can’t go to the police for help, and things take a darker turn.
Meanwhile, Zaq’s brother, Tariq, has been subjected to a brutal beating that has left him in a coma. Not knowing if he will recover, Zaq spends the next few nights at his bedside to allow his parents to go home and rest. By doing this, he is trying to build bridges with his family and win back their trust as he knows he has been a big disappointment to them. These scenes are repetitive, and slow down the narrative, but provide a bit of respite from the tension and full-on action of the rest of the book.
Part of the attraction of Stone Cold Trouble is that it gives the reader a glimpse into a world few of us will ever experience. There are brutal fight scenes, graphic violence and strong themes of loyalty and revenge. Zaq is intelligent and resourceful, and his strong moral code stops him sinking too far into this world of gratuitous violence.
At the heart of the novel is the friendship between Zaq and Jags; they have each other’s backs and their witty banter lightens what could have been a much darker tale. Once again Amer Anwar brings this vibrant area of London to life, although at times there was a bit too much repetitive detail.
Stone Cold Trouble depicts a predominantly male world; there are very few female characters, and the ones there are are underdeveloped. It will be interesting to see if Nina and Rita have larger roles in the next book – I certainly hope so.
Thanks to Dialogue Books and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.
- Published: 27 December 2020 27 December 2020
Jack is the fourth volume in the ‘Gilead’ series by prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson, which I did not know when I requested it, and started reading. Having said that, I have no desire to read any of the earlier books as most of the religious content does not interest me. I was drawn to the developing relationship between Jack and Della, and the difficulties they encounter.
Jack is just out of prison for a crime he did not commit, though there were many others he was guilty of. He helps Della when she drops some papers and, mistaking him for a man of the cloth, she invites him home for tea. Jack is portrayed as the black sheep of the family – not having read the other books I have only this story to go on. He does not seem to be a bad man – just down on his luck – but then we are seeing everything through his eyes.
I found the racial discrimination described in this story deeply upsetting. Despite knowing the history, and that segregation existed, reading about Jack and Della’s struggles made it all so much more vivid and real. What surprised me most was why Della’s family objected to their relationship.
Despite their obvious differences, they have things in common; both come from religious families with a preacher for a father, and they are united by their love of literature and poetry.
Almost the first third of the book consists of one long scene in a graveyard; Della is locked in overnight, and Jack is planning to sleep there as he has rented out his room to make some money. This is a bold move by the author, and contains some witty dialogue, but could have been shorter without losing its impact.
Despite believing that the only way he can ‘do no harm’ to other people is to isolate himself, he is repeatedly drawn to Della, even knowing that she has much more to lose than he does. We are not privy to Della’s thoughts, but she stands to lose her home, job and reputation and so is not entering into this relationship lightly.
Marilynne Robinson writes beautiful, lyrical prose that deals with a myriad of themes: racial prejudice, religious faith, family relationships, alcohol dependence to name but a few. Take away all the religious dogma, and it’s an almost timeless story of love and redemption. It is overlong with a bit too much of Jack’s repetitive introspection, but it gives us a fascinating portrayal of life in the segregated southern states of the US in the 1950s.
Thanks to Little, Brown Group and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.
- Published: 29 December 2020 29 December 2020
I don’t read many non-fiction books, but the attractive cover art of The Seafarers drew me in. In order to escape the frantic pace of life in London, Stephen Rutt heads off to North Ronaldsay in the Orkney Islands to study the seabirds, and find some welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.
The Seafarers is a wonderfully evocative celebration of the seabirds that visit our shores, and the beauty of the remote islands and coastline where they can be observed. Some of these places (and birds) are familiar to me, others not, but the atmospheric prose brings it all vividly to life, and I felt as if I was there.
The birds are described in fascinating detail, with lots of anecdotes from those who have studied them both recently and in the past. This unique book is a mixture of memoir, travel, science and natural history and, while not strictly necessary, some illustrations would have made it even better. I have not read anything by Stephen Rutt before, but I will definitely look and see what else he has written.
Thanks to Elliott & Thompson and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.
- Published: 18 December 2020 18 December 2020
The Less Dead is a stand-alone novel from award-winning Scottish crime writer Denise Mina. Following the death of her foster mother, GP Margo goes in search of her birth mother. She is shocked to discover that her real mother, Susan, was a drug addict and a sex worker; she was also brutally murdered, only months after Margo’s birth, and her body dumped at a bus stop in Easterhouse. She arranges to meet Susan’s sister, Nikki, and enters a world so outside of her comfort zone that she is not sure if she wants to go any further.
The story is split between the 1980s and present day, and highlights the contrasting attitudes between then and now; it also makes it obvious that some things have not improved. The title refers to those, like Susan, whose deaths are not considered to be important enough to warrant a thorough investigation, and, unsurprisingly, the killer has never been brought to justice.
Mina brings Glasgow to life – warts and all – in this gripping tale, and shines a light on the dark side of masculinity. The story is mostly told from Margo’s point of view, but there is another voice, anonymous, in the shadows, full of poison and hatred. Both Nikki and now Margo receive letters – taunting them – alleging that they are from the killer. It is unclear where the threat is coming from, and this makes for a very tense and unsettling read.
The characters are well written and thoroughly believable. At the beginning of the book, I found Margo unlikeable and hard to empathize with, but by the end she has changed and become stronger. I did find her treatment of her boyfriend Joe a bit puzzling though. In contrast, Nikki has sorted herself out but still no one will listen to her; all she wants is Margo’s help in catching her sister’s killer.
The Less Dead is not a police procedural, but an intelligent and gripping crime thriller that shines a sympathetic spotlight on attitudes to sex workers, drug addiction and deprivation in the dark underbelly of Glasgow. Full of menace and dark humour, this unusual book will definitely make you stop and think.
Thanks to Vintage and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.