When I put my schedule together for this year’s Five’s I’d planned on keeping Christmas Day and New Year’s day free. Christmas Day for obvious reasons and today because it wasn’t fair to any author to feature them on a day when most reader’s and bloggers were probably pre-occupied and not in sharing mode. This of course assumed it would be the morning after a pretty big night before.
However, nothing about last year was normal, and I suspect for most last night wasn’t either. Unless of course you were me, my normal New Year’s Eve is a glass of sherry (or three) in front of the telly, playing catch up with films we haven’t watched throughout the year. Assuming we’re both still up/awake (never a given), there’s a brief pause at midnight to say Happy New Year and watch the fireworks going off in London or Edinburgh. I should point out that for us, being the anti-social pair we are, that’s not only normal, it’s ideal! As I write this it even the fireworks are off, so it all augers well for an early night, albeit slightly tipsy.
So back to my Five. I did well with my reading this year, having set a Goodreads target of 40 I notched up 47 which was not to be sniffed at. Having read relatively few in comparison to many others it seemed wrong to go down the route of a top ten reads list, so I’ve opted for a Fabulous Five instead and they were really cracking reads. It was nigh on impossible to rank them as they were all different. However, there was one that just sneaked ahead because, as part of a series, it took up the story from another one of my 5* reads Crooked Heart, so it was like meeting old friends. Anyway without more ado here they are.
The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney
This book was declared winner of the 2018 McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year and I can see why. For me it was the perfect crime novel and I read it over 2 days. Anybody who is au fait with my current reading pattern will know this is highly unusual, but it’s a guide as to how gripping I found the book, from it’s opening page through to the reveal at the end.
The novel takes it’s inspiration from the real life murders that horrified Glasgow in 1968/9 by a perpetrator christened Bible John. In McIlvanney’s re-imagining his murderer is dubbed The Quaker. Like his real life counterpart he meets his victims at the Barrowland Ballroom, only to leave them dead in the crumbling tenements and courtyards of the city. It’s a story that is well told, with enough detail to portray the hideousness of the crimes and the fear it provoked, but without crossing the line into gratuitous voyeurism.
It’s a novel that also has brilliantly defined characters, not all like-able, but definitely realistic. It also has a sympathetic lead D.I. in the shape of highlander Duncan McCormack. He’s successful, popular and destined for great things and yet his dogged persistence ruffles feathers and his private life is problematic.
Perhaps the greatest character in the novel though is Glasgow. Admittedly it’s largely the darker side that’s perfectly evoked as it reveals the decay, the corruption and the gangland culture of the period. Yet like the city itself, it was not all dark, and it’s a portrayal with an underlying feeling of warmth and respect for the place and it’s people.
Old Baggage by Lissa Evans
What do you do next, after you’ve changed the world?
It is 1928. Matilda Simpkin, rooting through a cupboard, comes across a small wooden club – an old possession of hers, unseen for more than a decade.
Mattie is a woman with a thrilling past and a chafingly uneventful present. During the Women’s Suffrage Campaign she was a militant. Jailed five times, she marched, sang, gave speeches, smashed windows and heckled Winston Churchill, and nothing – nothing – since then has had the same depth, the same excitement.
Now in middle age, she is still looking for a fresh mould into which to pour her energies. Giving the wooden club a thoughtful twirl, she is struck by an idea – but what starts as a brilliantly idealistic plan is derailed by a connection with Mattie’s militant past, one which begins to threaten every principle that she stands for.
Old Baggage is a funny and bittersweet portrait of a woman who has never, never given up the fight.
Painted Ladies by Lynn Bushell
Paris 1917. For twenty-five years, the legendary Marthe has been Pierre Bonnard’s companion and muse. His new model Renée, lovely and captivating, thinks it’s time her rival stepped aside. But Marthe won’t give up her place in history without a fight. An artist may have many models but there can be only one muse.
I can heartily recommend this having devoured it on my recent holiday. I loved the evocation of Belle Epoque Paris and the social mores that defined the period. But it’s the fictionalised lives of Bonnard’s muses that sit at the heart of this captivating read. Its hard to feel anything but sympathy for both Marthe and Renée as they sacrificed reputations, families and more for the love of Pierre Bonnard.
The Miseducation of Evie Epworth by Matson Taylor
Sixteen year-old Evie Epworth stands on the cusp of womanhood. But what kind of a woman will she become?
The fastest milk bottle-delivery girl in East Yorkshire, Evie is tall as a tree and hot as the desert sand. She dreams of an independent life lived under the bright lights of London (or Leeds). The two posters of Adam Faith on her bedroom wall (‘brooding Adam’ and ‘sophisticated Adam’) offer wise counsel about a future beyond rural East Yorkshire. Her role models are Charlotte Bronte, Shirley MacLaine and the Queen. But, before she can decide on a career, she must first deal with the malign presence of her future step-mother, the manipulative and money-grubbing Christine.
If Evie can rescue her bereaved father, Arthur, from Christine’s pink and over-perfumed clutches, and save the farmhouse from being sold off then maybe she can move on with her own life and finally work out exactly who it is she is meant to be.
Moving, inventive and richly comic, The Miseducation of Evie Epworth is the most joyful debut novel of the year and the best thing to have come out of Yorkshire since Wensleydale cheese.
My Book of the Year
V for Victory by Lissa Evans
It’s late 1944. Hitler’s rockets are slamming down on London with vicious regularity and it’s the coldest winter in living memory. Allied victory is on its way, but it’s bloody well dragging its feet.
In a large house next to Hampstead Heath, Vee Sedge is just about scraping by, with a herd of lodgers to feed, and her young charge Noel ( almost fifteen ) to clothe and educate. When she witnesses a road accident and finds herself in court, the repercussions are both unexpectedly marvellous and potentially disastrous – disastrous because Vee is not actually the person she’s pretending to be, and neither is Noel.
The end of the war won’t just mean peace, but discovery…
These days I rarely take on review requests, but for this book I made an exception. I loved the first in the series Crooked Heart, and have only recently finished Old Baggage. Consequently I was delighted to be approached by the publishers and offered V for Victory ahead of publication.
Meeting Vee and Noel again, was wonderful. When we left them they were getting by as best they could, constantly wary of their deception being uncovered. Here, in the war torn Hampstead Heath of 1944, their back story is more established and Vee aka Margery Overs is running Green Shutters as a lodging house. It’s a move that gives her an aura of respectability and provides a ready made group of academically minded tutors for her ‘nephew’ Noel.
The book is very character driven, from the growth in confidence and blossoming of Vee and Noel, to the various lodgers and unexpected visitors, through to the re-emergence, of well loved characters (both real and remembered) from the preceding books.
Noel in particular, is a fabulous character, wise beyond his years, very sensible, literal, vocal and highly intelligent (he had Mattie as his role model!) but also thoughtful, kind, caring and always mildly anxious. The book sees him coming of age as he discovers that relationships can change, new ones can be forged and people are not always what they seem. His ability to forge a bond with those he meets results in a budding friendship with Winnie a local ARP warden. Another warm and wonderful character, made all the more important as she had been one of the happy band of Amazons in her youth – the group formed by Mattie (Noel’s deceased godmother). She becomes a gateway to Noel’s past with her memories of Mattie and also to the present via Ivy. That latter is a story you really do need to discover for yourself.
The character constantly lurking in the background is London itself. The author paints a very realistic picture of the chaos and loss wrought by the constant bombing raids, along with the stoic and heartbreaking work undertaken by the wardens, and the resilience of the community. It’s a well researched and evocative portrayal of life on the Home Front.
If you enjoy great storytelling, memorable characters and historical accuracy then this is one for you. While it can be read as a standalone, you’d be missing a trick not to read the preceding titles first. In fact I envy you, getting to read them for the first time. Lissa Evans writes with heart, and the joy of her books is that they are by turn comic, evocative and heartbreaking. She writes with an authenticity that envelops you into whatever scene she is describing so that you feel you’re there. V for Victory was no exception, it was full of Lissa’s warmth, wit and wisdom. There’s certainly scope for more to be written, so I’d like to think that this may not be the last we see of a growing cast of characters.
I read so many good books this year, that it seems unfair to only give a shout out to a few, but a perusal of my Goodreads account will fill in the gaps. With all the madness that has surrounded 2020, books have been a real saviour to many and certainly an escape. So thanks to all the authors who have certainly kept me occupied, entertained and amused.
Here’s to more in 2021 – Happy New Reading Year!!