The Lion Tamer Who Lost by Louise Beech

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I find myself once again sat on a bus wondering whether the other passengers have noticed the tears welling up in my eyes. Hopefully, they are too absorbed in their own thoughts, companions and mobile phones to have any time for a fellow passenger turning the pages of a book, occasionally wiping away the blurry dampness, finally closing the cover and sitting back.

Louise Beech’s first novel How to be Brave was published in 2015 and her fifth will be published in April 2019, the stories seem to flow from her but the quantity and regularity of her output in no way lessens its quality or impact. Maybe they have all been dwelling inside their author all along, jostling for position, waiting for freedom, for someone to release them from the safety of their compound into the wild.

“I had written four of my books when How to be Brave got me my book deal. I’d already written Mountain, Maria and Lion Tamer. I did edit them a lot after Brave, but they were there. Then in 2017 I wrote my fifth one, Call Me Star Girl. I guess, yes, that had been simmering there. I had for a long time thought I’d set a book in a radio station as I’ve spent a lot of time in them as guest presenter, and always thought what a claustrophobic and spooky setting it could make.”

Louise writes with such emotional integrity that her characters transcend the fiction as you share their stories, recognising their wounds in yourself and the people around you. She tells stories that break your heart, but she does it so exquisitely that you do not want her to stop, the pain paradoxically fuelling joy. Our existence is a mysterious tragedy. There is no life without death, no wonder without suffering, but when we accept our place in that cycle, somehow, we can hold the two together and live.

“Writing is healing for me. It soothes and comforts me to write. I find my own healing there. I guess I mend after a broken childhood/early adulthood. If you witness painful things, perhaps you have a natural empathy when exploring them? I do love humans. As a whole. Have great hope in them! So maybe that is why there’s always positivity there?”

And there is the crux. Hope is what sustains us and somehow when we lay ourselves bare, when we open ourselves to be vulnerable to the inescapable pain of life we find it, or at least we do if we have company. Is that ultimately our purpose? To be good companions, navigating the miracle and tragedy of being alive, together. If so, then Louise’s novels can help guide us.

“I do gravitate towards writing about pain/difficult things. I’m not afraid to explore any topic. This is why, despite jumping genres it would seem, I’m not a genre writer. I hate boundaries/rules/confines. I write what I have to. And I love every minute of it.”

The Lion Tamer Who Lost captures all of this. It is the story of Ben and Andrew, an enviable love but an impossible one.

Synopsis

Be careful what you wish for…

Long ago, Andrew made a childhood wish, and kept it in a silver box. When it finally comes true, he wishes he hadn’t.

Long ago, Ben made a promise and he had a dream: to travel to Africa to volunteer at a lion reserve. When he finally makes it, it isn’t for the reasons he imagined.

Ben and Andrew keep meeting in unexpected places, and the intense relationship that develops seems to be guided by fate. Or is it? What if the very thing that draws them together is tainted by past secrets that threaten everything?

A dark, consuming drama that shifts from Zimbabwe to England, and then back into the past, The Lion Tamer Who Lost is also a devastatingly beautiful love story, with a tragic heart.

The Author

Louise Beech is an exceptional literary talent, whose debut novel How To Be Brave was a Guardian Readers’ Choice for 2015. The follow-up, The Mountain in My Shoe was shortlisted for Not the Booker Prize. Both of her previous books Maria in the Moon and The Lion Tamer Who Lost were widely reviewed, critically acclaimed and number-one bestsellers on Kindle. The Lion Tamer Who Lost was shortlisted for the RNA Most Popular Romantic Novel Award in 2019. Her short fiction has won the Glass Woman Prize, the Eric Hoffer Award for Prose, and the Aesthetica Creative Works competition, as well as shortlisting for the Bridport Prize twice. Louise lives with her husband on the outskirts of Hull, and loves her job as a Front of House Usher at Hull Truck Theatre, where her first play was performed in 2012.

The Lion Tamer Who Lost is available now.

Thank you to Louise Beech for answering my questions for this review, included in quotation marks above.

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Changeling by Matt Wesolowski

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It is nearly two years since I reviewed Six Stories, the first instalment of the series by Matt Wesolowski that follows a podcast format of six episodes to share six different perspectives on a cold police investigation. I was immediately impressed by the format, which fitted perfectly with host Scott King’s revisiting of an old, unsolved mystery, interviewing key people in each episode, shedding new light on events and uncovering old secrets.

Changeling is the third novel in the series and the format continues to work perfectly, but the emotional pull of the narrative has seen a step change. I missed Hydra, the second instalment, so I cannot say whether the trajectory has been consistent but although the original was a gripping thriller this story of the disappearance of seven-year-old Alfie Marsden is a fist around the heart, relentlessly squeezing until the final devastating release.

Alfie Marsden goes missing in Wentshire Forest on Christmas Eve 1988. His parents have separated and his father breaks up an attempt at a family Christmas concerned that Alfie is no longer safe with his alcoholic mother. He pulls over on the Wentshire Forest Pass to investigate a tapping sound in the engine of his car but within a few minutes of his head being under the bonnet he finds Alfie is gone. Organised searches fail to find the lost child but his father returns to the site every year to visit a shrine and hope that his son might somehow return from the trees.

Alfie was officially declared presumed dead in 1995. A case gone cold and ideal material for Scott King to investigate, but he does so reluctantly. Something unnerves him about this particular case. Is it the strange stories about Wentshire Forest that are unsettling him or the people creeping out of the shadows, guiding him like a chess piece through a Six Stories that seems to have moved out of his control?

The picture builds throughout the episodes, which make up equally balanced chapters. You start to sense the elements that don’t quite add up, but who can you believe and how is their perception of events distorted by their perspectives? The speculation inevitably begins to take hold of you as you digest each new insight. By the time the final chapter loomed I knew what was coming but it didn’t lessen the impact at all.

Sometimes you can feel what the author has invested emotionally into their writing and this is one of those cases where it clearly mattered to Matt Wesolowski that he tell this story. It’s a book that you won’t want to put down as each episode leads a little further into a nightmare of psychological manipulation. What stays with you at the end is the people, the voices of the lives that have been affected. Good work Matt, a vital story beautifully told.

Synopsis:

On Christmas Eve in 1988, seven-year-old Alfie Marsden vanished in the dark Wentshire Forest Pass, when his father, Sorrel, stopped the car to investigate a mysterious knocking sound. No trace of the child, nor his remains, have ever been found. Alfie Marsden was declared officially dead in 1995.

Elusive online journalist, Scott King, whose ‘Six Stories’ podcasts have become an internet sensation, investigates the disappearance, interviewing six witnesses, including Sorrel and his ex-partner, to try to find out what really happened that fateful night. Journeying through the trees of the Wentshire Forest – a place synonymous with strange sightings, and tales of hidden folk who dwell there, he talks to a company that tried and failed to build a development in the forest, and a psychic who claims to know what happened to the little boy…

The Author:

Matt Wesolowski is an author from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the UK. He is an English tutor for young people in care. Matt started his writing career in horror, and his short horror fiction has been published in numerous UK- an US-based anthologies such as Midnight Movie Creature, Selfies from the End of the World, Cold Iron and many more. His novella, The Black Land, a horror set on the Northumberland coast, was published in 2013. Matt was a winner of the Pitch Perfect competition at Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival in 2015. His debut thriller, Six Stories, was an Amazon bestseller in the USA, Canada, the UK and Australia, and a WHSmith Fresh Talent pick, and film rights were sold to a major Hollywood studio. Hydra, was published in 2018 and became an international bestseller.

The blog tour for Changeling featured a short interview with the author that you ca read here:

Matt Wesolowski Interview

Beton Rouge by Simone Buchholz

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I have missed Orenda Books during my enforced sabbatical from reading and reviewing. The consistent quality of the authors is a tribute to the talent and commitment of the publisher’s driving force, Karen Sullivan. Her ability to pick a book is uncanny and most excitingly of all she has introduced me to writers I would never have found on my own. This is certainly true of German author Simone Buchholz whose novel Beton Rouge arrived last week and immediately caught my attention with its striking cover.

Short, sharp chapters rattle by in this crime novel featuring Public Prosecutor Chastity Riley. This is the second novel in the series to be translated into English, but although I came to this one without having read Blue Night, I immediately took to the character despite my lack of  back story. Written in the first person the novel puts you inside Chas’s head and despite the darkness that sometimes lurks there it’s an appealing place to be. She’s intelligent, quick and engaging, whilst also being sardonic, biting and a little neurotic. I liked her a lot.

At 186 pages it’s a quick read that could be taken in one sitting, but it shouldn’t be skimmed as that could miss the opportunity for relationship. The book’s strength is that you get to inhabit Riley, her thoughts and her take on the people and events that surround her. It’s that intimacy that keeps you turning the pages and reading just one more chapter, the sense of knowing whilst wanting to learn more.

Most of the people that you meet in life are projections of something that they hope to be or think you might like to see. It’s refreshing to dwell within the blurred lines and vulnerability of another, albeit fictional, person’s reality. Very little actually resolves into a nice, neat finish either in the lives of the characters or in the case being investigated. We observe the detail of events and we participate through the thoughts of the lead protagonist, not to judge but simply to share the experience.

I didn’t need to have read Blue Night, the earlier release, to enjoy Beton Rouge but I will definitely be reaching for it now.

Synopsis:

On a warm September morning, an unconscious man is found in a cage at the entrance to the offices of one of the biggest German newspapers. Closer inspection shows he is a manager of the company, and he’s been tortured.

Three days later, another manager appears in similar circumstances.
Chastity Riley and her new colleague Ivo Stepanovic are tasked with uncovering the truth behind the attacks, an investigation that goes far beyond the revenge they first suspect … to the dubious past shared by both victims. Travelling to the south of Germany, they step into the elite world of boarding schools, where secrets are currency, and monsters are bred … monsters who will stop at nothing to protect themselves.

A smart, dark, probing thriller, full of all the hard-boiled poetry and acerbic wit of the very best noir, Beton Rouge is both a classic whodunit and a scintillating expose of society, by one of the most exciting names in crime fiction.

The Author:

Simone Buchholz is an award winning crime writer who lives in Sankt Pauli, Hamburg. I found this interview with her from the blog tour for Blue Night which gives a nice introduction to the author and her work.

Interview with Simone Buchholz

Beton Rouge is published in paperback on 21 February 2019, thank you to Orenda Books for my review copy.

Feral by George Monbiot

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A fabulous way to end the month’s books that sits very nicely with the earlier reading of Wendell Berry and Neil Ansell. Monbiot’s thesis on re-wilding provides an exciting and hopeful look at how letting go of our need to control nature could benefit the planet, the wondrous variety of creativity that inhabits it and ultimately ourselves. He makes a strong case for letting nature run its own course and deliver an environment suited to our climate and sub-structure rather than interfere with human land management that has (sometimes unintended) negative consequences.

Monbiot writes with a level of historic and scientific rigour, that gives his thinking credibility, and personal anecdote, that allows him to write with the dirty hands of experience. His passion for the subject and for transferring his arguments from the page into reality is infectious and inspiring. The coming together of some key threads for our times, in terms of finding ways in which we can inhabit the planet without destroying it and at the same time live meaningful lives, offers genuine hope for the future at a time when it feels like we really need it.

Globally there is currently a growing issue with identity in a world that has been shrunk by technology but at the same time divided economically. Different ideologies are claiming that they can change things for the better but at the political level it feels like there is nothing radical enough to turn the tide of industrial capitalism. Governments and corporations are seeking the big answers to their big questions, but the reality is that it will be small solutions, that exclude those monolithic organisations, that hold the key.

I have found many voices, from a range of traditions and backgrounds, over recent months that have inspired me to believe in an another world and another way of human life. Increasingly I am convinced that a movement towards radical localism, in which we care for the place in which we are and all the life within it, will take us there.

Lost Summer by Bill Reynolds

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lost summer#“The ’67 Red Sox and the Impossible Dream”

The Boston Red Sox feature in my baseball experience predominantly as the opposition. They were the team that the New York Mets beat in the 1986 World Series to secure my support in my first introduction to the game as a teenager, and they were the humiliated visitors to Yankee Stadium when I saw my first, and currently only, live baseball game on a family holiday in 2015. The advantage of being a distant fan of the game, however, is that any team can be of interest as they lack the stain of intimate battle that a local rival would have.

Lost Summer is the story of the 1967 Red Sox and their “100 to 1 shot” at winning the American League pennant. As with all my favourite baseball books there is a developing history that sits alongside the game with the shadow of the Vietnam War looming large, as well bubbling racial tensions and a growing generational divide, but this was a book in which it was the sporting narrative that really grabbed a hold of me.

This was a new era of the game for me with different teams coming to the fore and new heroes stepping up to the plate. I didn’t need to have seen the Red Sox play to understand why the fans idolised Carl Yastrzemski, who played the season of his life to lead the Sox to the pennant. Reynolds painted all of the pictures and Lonberg, Scott, Smith, Petrocelli and manager Dick Williams, the right man at the right time to turn around a failing club, came alive on the pages.

The relationships that develop between the players as they sense that they are moving from being perennial losers to a side that is genuinely challenging for the pennant provide real insight into the strong bonds that being part of a successful team create. The growing excitement of the city of Boston and surrounding state as they recognise that something special is happening and they are drawn to Fenway and to their team captures so much of what it means to be a sports fan.

Although this was a baseball book and the teams involved were not only playing a different sport but in a different country and a different era, as its pages drew to a close I found myself reflecting more than anything on my own support for Nottingham Forest, my local football team. I felt a greater understanding of the bonds that must exist between the “Miracle Men” who won back to back European Cups and some of whom I have interviewed for the fanzine Bandy & Shinty. I also felt more than ever a burning desire for Forest to achieve what has increasingly become their own impossible dream, returning to the top flight of English football.

Deep Country by Neil Ansell

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I have to admit that this really was not what I had expected it to be. The book is about Ansell’s five years living in an isolated, rundown cottage in the Welsh hills. As a result, I was expecting lots of practical advice about living an alternative lifestyle combined with reflection and introspection resulting from spending so much time alone. In reality, much of the book is a bird spotter’s journal as the author charts the coming and goings of the various creatures that share his wilderness home.

This is interesting in itself to be fair but there is a limit and it was not until the point that I was tiring of the birdlife commentary that the revelation of the book came through. Ansell explains that the longer he spent in isolation the less time he spent thinking about himself. In fact, rather than finding his true self as he might have expected, he actually became irrelevant. This experience of becoming so much a part of his environment that he essentially lost his own identity is fascinating and something that I would love to have been able to explore in more depth.

For most of us, our egos are central to who we are and how we feel about ourselves. We feel good about what we have achieved in our lives, the things we have done and the places we have seen. We judge each other based on the jobs that we do, the houses we live in, clothes we wear and the cars we drive. We worry about how we measure up to the people around us and what the future will hold for us. If we stop to think about it seriously, however, what does any of it really matter?  Is our self-importance reducing our quality of life?

If we were able to unplug ourselves from the cultural expectations that we face in our lives would we actually find ourselves happier, free to live a simpler and more natural life? Would we strip away the lies and projections that help us survive “civilisation” leaving merely our true character? Essentially, that is what the author has done but it has taken an extreme action. The challenge for those of us who are unable to remove ourselves so dramatically is how we experience some sense of separation from ego that might then draw us on.

The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry

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Every time I pick up a Wendell Berry book, I want to change the way I live. The Unsettling of America was first published in 1977 and in it Berry, more than forty years ago, warned of the damage being done not only to the environment, but also to our communities and to ourselves by big agriculture. He explains, dissects and offers hope against the damage done by agribusiness that puts short term yields and profits first and the health, well-being and futures of people and planet right at the bottom.

His writing is diverse, covering academic argument, anecdotal storytelling, fiction and poetry, but its impact is always the same. He points to the intrinsic connection between people and place that many of us have lost sight of as we push relentlessly into faster and bigger consumerist lifestyles. Our disconnection from place has taken us away from the land, from food, from the essential cycle of life and death, from meaningful, worthwhile work and from the satisfaction of being what we are supposed to be.

The best thing that we can do with our lives is to live in a place and care for our patch of land. That is the core theme that I take away from Berry’s teaching and it is hugely countercultural. In our culture we value mobility, rarely live where we grew up, often work in a different place to where we live and pepper our lives with holiday escapes from them. Berry highlights the problems that this creates as we lose local knowledge and culture in our settings and how work away from where we live inevitably devalues what we do.

Perhaps even worse is the tendency for people to be able to profit from their use, or misuse, of a place they do not have to live in. There are no consequences as corporations destroy habitats and communities in the pursuit of profit and then move on, extracting their profits and leaving devastation behind them.

Several of the chapters are very specific arguments with leading agricultural leaders and policymakers of the time, but at its heart the book is really about questioning our values and what really matters in the brief time that we spend on this earth. What is truly striking about it is how strongly Berry’s words still speaks into our culture decades after their first publication. His is a prophetic voice with much to offer us as individuals and as a species.

 

Wait Till Next Year by Doris Kearns Goodwin

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“Wait Till Next Year” was the refrain of Dodgers fans back in the days when they still resided in Brooklyn and were perennial bridesmaids at the Yankees’ many weddings. If you were a regular reader of this website then you’ve had to wait a little over a year as other aspects of life have pushed reading to one side for me. Heading into 2019, however, I am back on track and space has opened up for books once more with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s childhood memoir getting me off to a strong start.

I’m a fan of football and baseball, but when I read books about them I like an author to mix in a bit of social history and context that takes them beyond being simple sports books. Wait Till Next Year takes us back to the author’s early years and combines a love for the Dodgers, inherited from a father who taught his daughter to score games while listening to the radio, with the changing world of the 1950s.

Goodwin is a celebrated historian so it is no surprise that she seamlessly blends the Dodgers legends of Robinson, Campanella, Snider and Pee Wee Reese with major historical events such as the Cold War, McCarthyism, Korea and perhaps most engagingly the development of suburban America. The movement of families from the city to the newly built suburbs, the development of friendships, a Catholic upbringing and deep connections within a new local community are all well drawn, as is the place of baseball in the culture with key games broadcast into school.

The ‘50s Dodgers have featured quite heavily in my baseball reading to date so the names are familiar and it was nice to share in the author’s memories of them. It’s a time that is hard to imagine from the perspective of both the struggles to overcome racism and also the impending departure of legendary teams to the opposite coast. Racism continues to cast a shadow over football in England but segregation thankfully seems completely alien, whilst the one experience of franchising in the game continues to stoke anger in many football fans.

The Giants and Dodgers continue their rivalry in California now but as a result of my reading it is hard for me not to associate them with New York and Brooklyn. I’ve visited the AT&T stadium in San Francisco but I pine for the Polo Grounds and Ebbett’s Field even though I will never see them. My relationship with baseball is like that, rooted more in a sentimental association with the history of the game and its place in culture than the latest round of games, and formed from the writing of eloquent fans like Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Reconciliation for the Dead by Paul Hardisty

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I love a good thriller. I have always been a Bond fan, even though there are aspects of the books that have not aged well and of the films that are downright silly; Bourne in print enthralled me, even though the films reduced him in their retelling. Claymore Straker is up there with Bond and Bourne when it comes to sheer entertainment but he is also self-aware and multi-layered and although the violence is brutal, it is deeply rooted in story and always questioned.

Reconciliation for the Dead has Straker seeking some peace for the sins of his past, fallen friends and the country of his birth. As a young man he served in the South African army and he has been fleeing both the real and the existential threats of that service ever since, but it seems that there may be some things that the Truth and Reconciliation Council just do not want to hear.

Reading Straker’s confession to the Council whilst in the real world white supremacists barely feel the need to veil their racism, whether wielding international power or peddling hatred in the streets, made the novel’s themes all the more stark and harrowing. The setting switches between his hearing in 1996 and the events he is explaining in the early part of the 1980s. The scale of the trauma he experienced giving his listeners just enough leeway to cast doubt on his testimony, unwilling to own its meaning.

Clay’s personal journey shows simply how being born into an oppressive system blinds you to its reality. His upbringing, education and training as a soldier were all informed by a worldview that marked him out as superior and, though the apartheid government in South Africa has fallen, it cannot be denied that this remains a dominant worldview across the western world. Straker travels to the very edge of physical and mental destruction before he finally sees the truth and one wonders how far the rest of us will have to go before we can honestly say we do too.

Hardisty’s writing is utterly gripping. Within a few paragraphs, the story consumes its reader; surrounded by the vivid landscape of Africa and completely cut off from their day-to-day world, a physical effort is required to withdraw from the narrative. Now a university professor and Director of Australia’s national land, water, ecosystems and climate adaptation research programmes, his author’s bio reads like a character from his novels and it comes across in his absorbing settings and convincing narratives.

The Claymore Straker series is the full package, containing a solid core of real life moral reflection that truly enriches its adrenalin fuelled, edge of your seat entertainment. It is full blow thriller writing for the thinking reader that can only be improved by a final page confirming “Claymore Straker will return”.

Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski

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If you want the executive summary Six Stories is a cracking read, just go straight out and get your hands on a copy. It has energy and tension that keeps you racing through it, but its structure also gives natural space for pause. The premise is that the story is told over the course of six podcast episodes, each of which gives a different perspective on the same event – the disappearance of a 15 year old boy and the discovery of his body a year later. As a result the book breaks up nicely into six sections that can be read as instalments or taken as a box set binge together.

It’s a structure that fits nicely with my commute. One story per bus journey, leaving a sense of what will follow that helps to build the tension, although Matt Wesolowski’s writing does that itself in reality. The podcast has a homespun feel that is reminiscent of a Blair Witch camcorder style and there is an element of crossover between crime and Matt’s more traditional home ground of horror. Teenagers, all of them to some extent outsiders, taking trips into the country to a wild location filled with myths and legends of witchcraft and monsters – solid horror territory.

A group of parents looking for positive experiences for their children formed the Rangers as an activity group meeting regularly in a local hall and venturing into the countryside to experience the great outdoors. Scarclaw Fell adventure centre became the focus of their trips and over the years new members joined. By the late 1990s the older members had formed a tight group and would use the greater freedom of trips away to smoke, drink and explore the area, until tragedy tore the group apart.

Twenty years later Scott King’s popular podcast picks up the story and interviews with all of the key protagonists shed light onto events that have lain dormant and forgotten. The characters are well drawn with the changing perspective giving us fresh insight into each of them as they step forward to tell their part of the story, and around the edges of each of them is the shadow of a dark creature that looms over Scarclaw Fell. But was the monster conjured into life by their fears to stalk the fell or does it rather reside within them?

The writing feels fresh, the tension is palpable and I was hooked from the opening pages to the final revelation. Six Stories is quite simply a belting read that grabs you by your nerve endings and holds you tight in its pulsating grip. It is also now available as an audio book which isn’t normally my thing but on this occasion has genuine appeal with a full cast of 17 different voices. Keep an eye out for Matt Wesolwski, it feels like he’s another one to watch from the impressive Orenda stable.