Tag Archives: Beth Lewis

Bitter Sun by Beth Lewis

bitter sun

I adored the The Wolf Road, the debut novel from Beth Lewis, and I couldn’t wait to get stuck into her second novel, Bitter Sun.

The Dry meets Stand by Me and True Detective in this stunningly written tale of the darkness at the heart of a small mid-Western town and the four kids who uncover it.

In the heatwave summer of 1971, four kids find a body by a lake and set out to solve a murder. But they dig too deep and ask too many questions.

Larson is a town reeling in the wake of the Vietnam draft, where the unrelenting heat ruins the harvest, and the people teeter on the edge of ruin.

As tension and paranoia run rife, rumours become fact, violence becomes reflex. The unrest allows the dark elements of the close-knit farming community to rise and take control.

And John, Jenny, Gloria and Rudy are about to discover that sometimes secrets are best left uncovered…

Bitter Sun is a coming of age story set the early seventies in Larson – a small town in the American Midwest – and I thought that Lewis evoked this setting brilliantly, both from the perspective of language and speech, but also highlighting the economic trials facing the population and the impact of the Vietnam War and the drafting of the town’s young men. Against this backdrop, we meet Johnny, his sister, Jenny, and their friends, Gloria and Rudy. These four are inseparable, and at the ages of 12-13 as they are when the novel opens, they aren’t fully aware of what is going on outside of their little bubble. Times are hard, but it’s been such a constant in their lives that they don’t know any different, and to them it seems normal.

The summer of 1971 sees things change for these four when they discover a woman’s body in the river. Whilst the police investigate, they aren’t satisfied, and decide to solve the murder themselves. I think that at that age, this seems like something of an adventure, and they embark upon their quest with a huge amount of determination, and perhaps a little glee. They quickly run into trouble, however, and the mission that they’ve set themselves will take them until the summer of 1973 to get to the bottom of. Bitter Sun is a novel that is as much about the setting and the characters as it is about the mystery at its heart, and I loved the gradual reveal as the children grow into young adults and begin to understand what they are facing.

Bitter Sun is told from John’s perspective, and he is such a sweet boy – utterly determined to look after those around him if he can, and he wants nothing more than to take over the family farm as he grows older. He doesn’t see himself as particularly smart or handsome, but he is determined to do the best he can for those around him – particularly Rudy (who is subjected to beatings by his father and brother), and his sister, who is on a collision course with their mother, their constant fighting escalating as Jenny grows older and into womanhood. John comes across as being naïve, but in the sweetest possible way, and he doesn’t always see the bad in people. This does mean that he gets taken advantage of, and I hated the way he was treated at times, despite having fully expected it.

There are some novels where you read the opening paragraph of a novel and just have to get comfy for whatever ride you’re about to be taken on, knowing that you’re in for a good time regardless of what follows. Bitter Sun was one such novel for me. Highly recommended.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

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The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis

the wolf road

The Wolf Road is a novel that I’ve been wanting to read since its publication in 2016, and whilst it has taken me a little while to get to it, it did not disappoint.

Since the Damn Stupid turned the clock back on civilisation by centuries, the world has been a harsher place.  But Elka has learned everything she needs to survive from the man she calls Trapper, the solitary hunter who took her in when she was just seven years old.

So when Elka sees the Wanted poster in town, her simple existence is shattered. Her Trapper – Kreagar Hallet – is wanted for murder.  Even worse, Magistrate Lyon is hot on his trail, and she wants to talk to Elka.

Elka flees into the vast wilderness, determined to find her true parents.  But Lyon is never far behind – and she’s not the only one following Elka’s every move.  There will be a reckoning, one that will push friendships to the limit and force Elka to confront the dark memories of her past.

The Wolf Road is set in a post-apocalyptic landscape that reminded me a little of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  Lewis’ novel has a similar level of bleakness to it and I was hooked immediately – regular readers will know that if I describe a book as “bleak”, it probably means that I really enjoyed it, and such is the case here.  Since the “Damn Stupid”, people in BC (which I think is British Columbia), have reverted back to a lifestyle that I would associate with the 1800s, and the novel feels a bit like a Western, with characters carrying six-shooters on their hips, and a gold rush in the Yukon territory.  The novel isn’t specific about what the Damn Stupid actually was, and whilst I know that some readers may find this frustrating, I don’t mind it at all, and I certainly didn’t see it as a negative here.  I thought that there were sufficient hints for the reader to form their own conclusions, and I found the level of information appropriate to the nature of the story.

Elka’s parents are amongst those who headed north to find their fortune, leaving Elka behind with her Nan.  Following a storm, Elka is lost in the woods, and eventually stumbles over a trapper’s hut.  He takes her in, and teaches her how to hunt and survive in the wilderness.  (If you’re wondering what happened to Nan, don’t worry, it all becomes clear).  For ten years, it’s just the two of them, but on a trip into a local town for supplies, she spots a wanted poster, featuring Trapper’s (as she has come to call him) face.  And her life is turned upside down, as she realises that the man who took her in, who she had begun to see as a father-figure, isn’t the man she thought he was.

Elka is a fantastic character who is incredibly capable – she can forage, hunt, find or build shelter, and she is more than capable of protecting herself against the predators that she might encounter in the wilderness – whatever form they may take.  She is, in short, a survivor.  She has had little interaction with people, however, and her inexperience and naivety land her into trouble time and again, leading to some prickly situations.  This can sometimes be a little frustrating in a character, and yet for Elka it didn’t come across that way.  It fits so perfectly with her character that the reader has to go along for the ride, hoping that she will get out of her current fix more or less intact.

I’ve deliberately not gone into the plot in any detail, but Elka’s discovery of Trapper’s true nature prompts her to seek out her birth parents, who she hasn’t seen or heard from for 15 or so years.  There are many ups and downs in Elka’s journey, and the plot never lets up – there is always the feeling of Elka being followed, hunted even, that makes this a tense journey with an unforgettable protagonist.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐