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 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

Stone Cold Trouble by Amer Anwar

Stone Cold Trouble by Amer Anwar

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.

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.   

The Seafarers by Stephen Rutt

The Seafarers by Stephen Rutt

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.