Posted in Squad Pod Collective

We Are Animals by Tim Ewins.

I’m so happy to be part of the Squad Pod’s first blog tour for this unusual but uplifting book by Tim Ewins. To describe what it’s about is quite difficult, and I loved Tim Ewins’s own words in his interview with Emma from Emma’s Biblio Treasures blog: ‘I can tell you a bit about the book in a very literal sense: It’s about a bloke on a beach that meets a kid on a beach and tells that kid his life story. They both get drunk and watch a cow dance to dance music.’

Of course there’s much more to it than that, it’s philosophical, romantic, humorous and uplifting. A man called Jan and a teenager called Shakey meet on a beach in Goa. Shakey dismisses Jan as a ‘moustache’ – slightly boring, set in his ways and unable to have a good time. Jan dismisses Shakey as a vest. Vests are kids who come out to Goa and pretentiously think they have found themselves by visiting one beach and one club. They go back home, pretending to be enlightened and changed by their visit to Goa, despite having no experiences at all except alcohol and a bar. However, the two do meet and sit having a drink together. Shakey wants to know what has kept this moustache coming back to this beach time and time again. So he is told a love story, how Jan is in love with a woman (also called Jan). ManJan and WomanJan have come in and out of each other’s lives over the years, but this time she hasn’t come back in. So ManJan sits on this beach, that’s special to them both, and hopes for her to appear.

The only other living creature close to them on the beach is a cow and she gets her own short chapter. This may seem totally off the wall and quirky, but go with it. As I was reading I thought there were a lot of similarities between ManJan and the cow. Both have a set daily routine involving the beach and both are evolving alongside the place. When ManJan first came to Goa this place was unspoiled, much quieter and less commercialised. Now it’s full of vests like Shakey, dance music and glow sticks. Yet ManJan finds Shakey a good listening ear, so maybe there’s more to these vests than meets the eye? The cow meanwhile, weaves happily between tourists and even finds herself meditatively nodding along to the thumping dance music.

We hear ManJan’s story and the curious way certain things keep cropping up in his life, like the fishing he thought he’d left behind in England, but crops up again in Scandinavia. WomanJan also turns up for the first time in Sweden and steals his passport, leading to a caper through, Europe, Russia and India. Each destination is beautifully evoked, in very few words we know exactly where we are. In each location an unusual array of characters come into the orbit of this couple and have an influence on their journeys. Then between each section of the story are the animal scenes, throwing light on the human situation or a particular character in some way, which is so clever. Throughout, ManJan and WomanJan keep bumping into each other and eventually love happens. However, this is the longest time they’ve been away from each other, they’ve always found each other in the past. When tragedy ripped them apart, he assumed they’d simply run into each other again, but maybe they won’t this time.

I thought this was one of the more quirky novels I’d ever read and it is unusual in structure and characters. It’s a love story, travelogue, meditation, comedy and tragedy all in one. What Ewins does, rather brilliantly, is keep the balance between these elements, using the animal chapters as literary palate cleansers. In the end though, all these disparate strands come together to create a beautiful story about being human and doing what E.M.Forster suggested was our purpose on earth – to connect.

Meet The Author

Tim Ewins had an eight-year stand-up career alongside his accidental career in finance, before turning to writing fiction. He has previously written for DNA Mumbai, had two short stories highly commended and published in Michael Terence Short Story Anthologies, and had a very brief acting stint (he’s in the film Bronson, somewhere in the background). He lives with his wife, son and dog in Bristol. We Are Animals is his first novel.

Posted in Squad Pod Collective

The Miseducation of Evie Epworth by Matson Taylor.

Happy Paperback Publication Day to Matson Taylor for his joyous novel The Miseducation of Evie Epworth. I’ve wanted to read it again this year I’ve loved it so much. As a reminder here’s my review from last year and don’t forget to join the #SquadPodCollective @squadpod3 on Twitter for the celebratory #cakeblast on Saturday 1st May where we are all sharing our Evie themed bakes across social media.

I was only three pages in to this book and I knew that Evie was going to be one of my favourite literary characters. Favourite as in – on my list next to Jo March, Cassandra Mortmain and Adrian Mole, characters I’ve also experienced growing up and setting out into the world. The book was off to a good start anyway, then as we followed Evie jumping into her father’s MG to do the milk round there was a scene so funny I laughed out loud at 2am waking both the dog and my other half. I devoured this book in 24 hours, knowing part of me would be sorry when it ended, but not able to slow down either. 

We meet Evie when she’s at a crossroads in life. She’s in that limbo summer between GCSE and deciding what to do next. Evie’s plan, if she gets the right results, is to do her A Levels. Till then she plans to spend the summer delivering milk from the family farm, baking with Mrs Scott-Pym next door, and reading all the books she can get her hands on. There is only one thing in her way; her Dad Arthur’s girlfriend, Christine. Chrissie has moved into the farmhouse and is setting about making changes. This is 1962 and she’s all for embracing the new. She wants to get rid of the old unhygienic wood in the kitchen, because what they need is some nice modern Formica. She’s already replaced the Range with an electric cooker, because she couldn’t work it. As Evie says, it takes quite an intellect to be outwitted by a kitchen appliance. Worst of all she’s replaced Evie’s Adam Faith clock with a chicken! It has always just been Evie and her Dad, Arthur, as far back as she can remember. Her mum died when Evie was little and she has no memories of her. Chrissie needs to be dealt with, but how? Arthur is a disappointment. Mrs Scott-Pym says he’s like all men, weak and easily confused by a pair of boobs. 

I have lived in villages and on farms for my whole life so I can honestly say that the author’s depiction of the characters and events of country life are not exaggerated – no, not even that cow scene. There are still characters like this in rural villages. The comedy comes from the brilliantly blunt Yorkshire dialogue, the gap between what we as adults understand and Evie doesn’t yet, but mainly the amazing characters created by the author. Mrs Swithenbank is a comedy gem, always at the mercy of her explosive bowels. The long suffering Vera, Chrissie’s mother, who is never far behind her daughter like a human ‘buy one-get one free’ offer. Then, Mrs Scott-Pym’s daughter Caroline, comes into the village like a whirlwind and along with Evie shows that constant dilemma young people in villages face – do they stay put or go out into the wider world, perhaps needing to try the anonymity of the city? It can be hard to develop into your true self in a village where everyone knows who you are and any attempt to change is the object of ridicule. I remember a perm I had at 15, thinking I looked like Baby from Dirty Dancing, only to hear ‘ugh what have you done to your hair’ at every house on the pools round. I loved the depiction of the petty rivalries around the village show and what a surprise it is that Chrissie, who struggles with making toast, wins the best fruit cake. On top of everything else she does, the fact that she possibly cheated at the village show is viewed as the worst crime and given the last reveal. 

Chrissie though is the best comic creation of the lot, but isn’t left to be one dimensional either. Though she is truly awful in a lot of ways, it’s clear that she’s from a poorer family in the village and her upbringing hasn’t been easy. There’s class war over the Range cooker for sure. She lets slip in an exchange with Evie that she’d done every job going, from waitressing to wiping arses. While that might excuse her yearning for an easier life, it doesn’t excuse her way of getting it. There are times when it’s all out war at the tea table and Arthur stays behind his paper hoping it will blow over. I loved her ever present ‘pinkness’ and a crimplene wardrobe that Evie observes doesn’t end in Narnia, but at a bingo hall in Scunthorpe (I love seeing my birthplace in print). Poor Vera is always struggling a few paces behind, usually sweating and doing all the fetching and carrying. Chrissie is always exhausted – I need to put my feet up, Mum put the kettle on – and always rushing towards getting another grasping finger on Arthur, preferably a finger with a ring on it. This should have been a mild flirtation or dalliance at most, everyone can see they are not suited. 

There are interludes between Evie’s chapters where we see the meeting of her parents, Arthur and Diana. They are serene, even romantic chapters where we see them meet at a dance, get married in a rush during the war and settle at the farm. We see Diana form a friendship with Mrs Scott-Pym and rush round to tell her friend when Evie is on the way. There’s so much of this interesting woman left, hidden in plain sight such as a particular teaspoon in the drawer and the recipe book Mrs Scott-Pym has kept for Evie. It’s so sad that Evie and her Dad don’t talk about her more openly and honestly. If wishes and spells aren’t going to change this, there needs to be a catalyst. When Mrs Scott-Pyle falls down the stairs and her daughter Caroline arrives we see a force of nature equal to Chrissie. She wears elegant clothes, big black sunglasses and scarves tied round her neck like the French do. Evie is very impressed with her sophistication, but also her nerve. She cooks up a great scheme to get Evie out of working in the village salon, takes her to Leeds to shop in an Italian deli and has the means by which Chrissie’s true nature can be revealed. She is also the only lesbian Evie has ever met, leading to her asking visiting friends of Caroline’s whether they are a lesbian too as a conversation starter! Evie is trying on different futures, and may be adding Caroline as an extra role model alongside The Queen, Charlotte Bronte and Shirley MacLaine. 

This novel is an absolute joy. A great read to cheer you up and honestly, make you laugh out loud. Every character is beautifully drawn and the comic timing is perfect. I couldn’t believe it was a debut, because it has all the confidence and timing of Sue Townsend and also made me think back further to the blunt Yorkshire characters of James Herriot. On a personal level I needed a lift, after being very strict with lockdown rules due to my MS, and this was just the lift I needed. Thank you Matson, for such a great set of characters and for providing exactly the book I needed at exactly the right time.