All About Us by Tom Ellen

All About Us by Tom Ellen

All About Us is an unusual time-travel novel that raises the intriguing question of whether past decisions were the right ones. In this modern interpretation of A Christmas Carol, Ben is at a crossroads in his life, and contemplating action that will destroy his marriage.

As a university student Ben thought his future was with Alice. Then, while taking part in a Christmas drama production, he met Daphne. The story opens fifteen years later – he and Daphne have been together ever since, but are currently going through a rough patch, and Ben is wondering whether he made the right decision all those years ago. In the pub on Christmas Eve, Ben meets a mysterious old man who insists on giving him a watch that is stopped at 23.59.

He wakes up in his old room at university, on the day of the play, and relives the experience, with the benefit of hindsight, and realises that everything did not happen exactly as he remembered it. He then goes on to relive several other days around Christmas time, causing him to reassess what he previously thought had happened, and his own behaviour; he also gets a tantalizing glimpse of what his future might hold.

It is unusual for me to read a book in this genre by a male writer – a story about love, grief and second chances. Written from the point of view of Ben, we get an insight into his struggles with his mental health and self-esteem; also the long-term effects of his non-existent relationship with his absent father. Although he can’t alter anything that previously happened, he can change what he does next.

I really enjoyed this well-written, thought-provoking story, and will certainly be on the lookout for other books by Tom Ellen.

Thanks to HQ and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.

Rescue Me by Sarra Manning

Rescue Me by Sarra Manning

In Rescue Me by Sarra Manning, Margot has been rejected by both her boyfriend and her cat, and decides to get a dog from the rescue centre. She falls for Blossom the Staffie but can’t take her home right away. Will is only looking to volunteer as a dog-walker on the advice of his therapist, but agrees to take Blossom until Margot returns. This is where the trouble starts; they both want to keep her but agree to share, taking turns looking after her.

The pace is quite slow to begin with, allowing the main characters to get to know and like each other before they become romantically involved. Rescue Me also features a large cast of supporting characters who are well written and easy to differentiate. He may not always appreciate them, but Will has family behind him. Margot, on the other hand, feels her lack of family keenly, having been completely on her own since the death of her parents many years before.

Both Margot and Will are suffering – just in different ways – and the serious issues are dealt with sensitively, and seamlessly worked into the narrative. It is only as they become comfortable in each other’s company that they are able to gradually open up about their past experiences.

The story is told in alternating chapters by Margot and Will. This gives us a more rounded picture than if we only saw the world through Margot’s eyes, and helps to make the growing attraction between them more believable.

Towards the end, I felt the ‘miscommunication’ trope was taken a bit too far to be believable. Several times Margot cut Will off before he could explain how he felt, and this dragged the ending out unnecessarily. Right from the beginning I found Margot harder to like than Will, and just when I had started to warm to her, she reverted to being all prickly and brittle again.

I chose to read and review Sarra Manning’s Rescue Me because I had enjoyed several of her earlier books (Unsticky, It Felt Like a Kiss, 9 Uses for an ex Boyfriend), and not because of Blossom the Staffie – I’m more of a cat person. Having said that though, Blossom is a very endearing character – not to mention fairly integral to the plot – despite being such a handful.

Overall, I really enjoyed Rescue Me, and plan to catch up with the other Sarra Manning books I have not read yet. Neither of the main characters are particularly likeable at the beginning of the book, but having to communicate with each other while sharing responsibility for Blossom brings about a change for the better; Blossom really is the star of the show.

Thanks to Hodder and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.

The Sins of Others by Florian Schneider

The Sins of Others by Florian Schneider

The Sins of Others is described as fiction, but it reads more like a biography or memoir. Each of the eleven chapters deals with a different episode in the lives of Ingrid Heimlich, a left-wing terrorist in the 1970s, and her son, Ben, a photographer living in Los Angeles. The timeline covers the period from 1945 Berlin where Ingrid’s mother, Marlene, is starving and hiding from the Russians, to 2018 as Ingrid lies dying in a German hospital. The intervening chapters focus on specific events, allowing us to gradually piece together the stories of Ingrid and Ben’s lives.

Ingrid was a hard character to empathize with as she did not seem to have changed much over the years, and was still using the same tired political arguments at the end of her life as she had in her youth. Ben was a more interesting character who had worked hard to improve his life, and was lucky enough to have found a partner to share it with.

I suspect that English isn’t the author’s first language as often the narrative had a stilted quality, with the word order in some passages reminiscent of German, but maybe this was deliberate? There were also a high number of obscure words used, where a simple one would have easily sufficed.

A much larger hindrance to the smooth flow of the narrative was an overuse of parenthetical dashes. The large sections of text enclosed within these dashes really slowed down and interrupted my reading; I often had to go back and reread whole paragraphs to get the sense of what the author was trying to say.

On a positive note, I thought that the historical background was thoroughly researched, and painted a fascinating picture, particularly of Berlin in the months leading up to the end of WW2.  It was just a shame that the disjointed narrative made it a struggle to read.

Thanks to the author for a digital copy that I review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team #RBRT

The Coffinmaker's Garden by Stuart MacBride

The Coffinmakers Garden by Stuart MacBride

Seven years on from his last outing in A Song for the Dying, Ash Henderson is back. Along with Dr Alice McDonald, forensic psychologist, and the other members of the LIRU (Lateral Investigative & Review Unit), he is hunting a serial killer who abducts and tortures young boys. Understandably, they are under pressure from all sides to catch him before another boy goes missing.

Meanwhile, in the dramatic opening scenes, a violent storm and coastal erosion have exposed human remains in the garden of a house slowly subsiding into the North Sea; the owner of the house, Gordon Smith, has disappeared off the face of the earth. Putting his life at risk, Ash rescues polaroids from the cellar moments before the whole lot goes tumbling into the sea – the only clues they have to identify Smith’s victims. Ash is seconded to DI Malcolmson’s ‘misfit mob’ to help track him down. Left on her own to work on the child abduction case, Alice is slowly going off the rails; she is in a bad way and, ironically, needs professional help.

What follows is classic Stuart MacBride: A strong sense of place – Oldcastle may be fictional but it is firmly rooted in the northeast of Scotland, a bit like Aberdeen but with more crime and deprivation. Extreme violence – once again Ash takes such a pounding, at times it is necessary to suspend disbelief and remember this is a work of fiction. He really does have nine lives in The Coffinmaker’s Garden – I do not know how he is still standing by the end, considering what Stuart MacBride puts him through.

The large cast of characters are well defined, and easy to tell apart thanks to the writer’s skillful characterisation; the communications between Ash and Sabir, the computer expert, are one of many highlights. The use of gallows humour as a defence mechanism against the gruesome and traumatic scenes they encounter is not to everyone’s taste, but I think it works really well to alleviate what was otherwise a pretty grim story.

I have read and enjoyed all of Stuart MacBride’s books, and this does not disappoint. Although you probably could read it as a standalone, I think it would make a lot more sense to read the books in order, as a lot of significant backstory is not explained here. There were also a number of in-jokes, for eagle-eyed crime fiction fans, such as the book group in Rothesay criticising one of the Logan McRae books. I really hope that there will be another Ash Henderson book some time in the future, but hopefully we won’t have to wait seven years this time.

Thanks to the author, publisher and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.

The Miseducation of Evie Epworth by Matson Taylor

The Miseducation of Evie Epworth by Matson Taylor

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.   

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