Posted in Squad Pod

Nobody But Us by Laure Van Rensburg

I heard such great things about this dark thriller that I’ve been chomping at the bit to read it asap! It was our Squad Pod read for last month and as usual I’m late. The blurb grabbed me right away and my mind went immediately to Gone Girl so I expected some twisted people and storylines. That tagline is designed to draw us in, but also has a hint of humour as if she’s mocking the genre – meet 2022’s most f*cked up couple. I was waiting for a gap in blog tours and managed to get a sunny weekend, my day bed set up in the garden and a willing slave to keep me supplied with drinks and adjusting my parasol. It didn’t take long to hook me.

Ellie and Steven have finally managed to find a gap in their busy schedules to get away for a few days and celebrate their six month anniversary. They’re heading to an isolated cabin in the woods, many miles away from the hustle and bustle of New York. It will be the perfect opportunity to spend some quality time together and really get to know each other. A perfect weekend for a perfect couple. Except, that’s not quite the truth. Ellie and Steven are far from perfect. They both have secrets. They’re both liar. Steven isn’t who he says he is. But then neither is she …

The setting was clever too, usually I’d expect a log cabin in the woods or a period house as a background, but this is a contemporary, architect’s house. I didn’t think a modern house could be scary, but I found it’s glass and steel exterior very unwelcoming – there’s nothing cosy about this weekend. In fact the perfection, the materials used and the sheer amount of space seem strangely oppressive. The contrast with the forest outside is jarring, the natural surroundings make it feel like the owner is pitting his house against the elements, imposing man made order on the natural chaos outside. Yet, when the storm sets in, nature seems to be getting it’s own back, with the large glass panels showing the storm’s fury. Trees are lashing against each other and the snow is coming thick and fast. In fact the weather adds to the sense of isolation, no one is coming to save them, no matter how much they scream.

The story is told by the two characters in turn, relating the details of their weekend away, but also drifting into their pasts so we get some idea of how Steven and Ellie came to this point. Still, the biggest revelations are kept back from us so we don’t have the full picture. This drip feed of information kept me hooked. I needed to know what happened next and who the characters really were under their facades. Mostly though I wanted to know what had set these dramatic events in motion. I couldn’t love these characters, so I wasn’t invested in one side or the other at first, but as the flashbacks came I was surprised to find I did have flashes of sympathy for Ellie or Steven, depending on what had happened to them.

I enjoyed the way the author played with that edge, between what was once acceptable and now isn’t. In light of the #MeToo movement many women in my 40+ age group who can look back at events from the 1990’s and think they wouldn’t be acceptable now: a stolen kiss at a party; a hand on the backside while waiting on a table; pressure to go further sexually than we might have been comfortable with. Now, relationships where there is any form of power imbalance are viewed as wrong. The married man and the teenage babysitter, the older boss and young employee, or student and tutor relationships were happening around me at that time and I don’t remember thinking they were intrinsically wrong, just a bit dodgy. Now, thirty years later, the mood is very different. But of course that’s only one aspect of this complicated story. This is a gripping, atmospheric and explosive novel. If you love thrillers this should definitely be on your summer reading list.

Laure Van Rensburg
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.