Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski

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.

Seal Skin by Su Bristow

In order to get the most from Seal Skin it probably helps to be comfortable with mystery. It draws strongly from legend and also from spiritual truth and as a result requires the reader to mine beneath the surface narrative to a deeper strata of meaning . Without that it is a novel that may prove a little strange, frustrating or mundane but once embraced there is a powerful and transformative message to be absorbed.

The story is based on the legend of the Selkie, mythical creatures who live as seals in the sea but can shed their skins and become humans on land. Seal Skin is a beautifully written retelling of the legend that carries ancient wisdom in an accessible read, but it is a story of tensions that is not easily understood by our modern rational minds which like the Selkie’s skin we must learn to set aside if we are to truly hear.

Donald is a loner in a tight and isolated fishing community, he has never really been comfortable either with himself or the people around him. One day he comes across the Selkie who have shed their seal skins and in human form dance among the rocks. He reacts instinctively hiding one of the skins and as the group return to the sea one is left behind unable to go home. Donald acts out of lust and frustration forcing himself upon the stricken Selkie then panics. Filled with fear and regret he takes her back to his home where a plan is hastily formed with his mother for a new human life.

It is a strange and violent start to a novel that immediately casts doubt in the mind of the reader, is there any way that this dreadful start can be resolved in a meaningful way? Rationally it can’t. There can be no way back for a man who has so appallingly assaulted an innocent and so what follows can only be understood from some other level, from a space in which grace can be both offered and accepted but not without cost to all concerned.

Mhairi, as the Selkie is later named, does what many spiritual traditions call all of us to do, she forgives and in doing so she transforms the people around her; but she does not forget. This is not a frivolous act, she truly lets go of her valid claim against Donald and the world that he has forced her into and though she has been wronged and she carries the enormous pain of mourning for the life she has lost, she serves her new community in a way that they cannot resist.

As the story unfolds no one can come into contact with such pure forgiveness and not themselves be changed by it. Donald becomes somebody that Mhairi can genuinely grow to love and in doing so he sets off ripples of his own as grace begins to flow. But do not expect a soppy ending, this is a story about love not romance and love costs. In the end there will be a reckoning, a price that has to be paid, and it is here that the true mystery of grace is revealed, if you can accept it.

 

The Exiled By Kati Hiekkapelto

the-exiledThe Exiled is the third novel by Kati Hiekkapelto (following on from The Hummingbird and The Defenceless) and continues the development of a complex and forthright detective and an outstanding crime writer. Right from the start this author has felt like she brings something different to the genre with her engaging female lead and sharp social conscience and these strengths are now set in compelling and rounded crime investigations.

The setting for this novel has changed from Anna Fekete’s adopted home of Finland to the Balkans, from where she was displaced as a child by war. Anna’s personal history as a refugee fuels both her struggle for identity, as she is pulled emotionally between these two very different cultures, and her empathy with outsiders in their various forms; and both of these aspects are crucial to Hiekkapelto’s writing. Throughout her work the dispossessed are humanised in direct contrast to the pervading Western media portrayal of the other.

The story begins with Anna visiting her family and friends in Kanisza, a Hungarian community within the borders of Serbia. Out with friends shortly after arriving ‘home’ her bag is snatched and later the thief is found dead. Although it seems like an opportunist robbery the discovery of a body pricks Anna’s detective interest and she starts to look for a trail. As obstacles are put in her way she begins to distrust the local authorities, scratching at their veneer, and a thread emerges running all the way back to the death of her father, also a police officer, many years before.

It is clear that Hiekkapelto is at home in this setting and as a result there is a satisfying feeling of immersion into the culture, with the various characters and archetypes feeling real and rounded. We also learn more about Anna herself as she mingles with childhood friends and rubs against the cultural norms that matter so much to her mother. The setting brings another dimension to Anna Fekete through both her pleasure and frustration with an alternative identity; her choices, others expectations, even the weather, this place is so different to the Finland of the first two books and as a result it poses questions.

This is the appeal of the Fekete novels; you have a tight procedural investigation that runs through an absorbing human narrative, connecting you empathetically with the real people that surround you, either in your own community or on your news channels. Maybe it is the combination of punk singer and special needs teacher that allows Kati to both energise the reader and open their eyes. Wherever it comes from this is a talent that is now in full bloom.

A Suitable Lie by Michael J Malone

a-suitable-lieSometimes you have to read difficult stories in order to learn a little more about the world around you. A Suitable Lie is a difficult, unnerving story but it is written with such a sense of humanity that it is not impenetrable. It starts as a love story, single dad Andy Boyd, who has to balance his love for his son with the knowledge that it was childbirth that took his wife from him, finally seems to have a chance of new happiness when he meets Anna. But gradually this perfect picture takes on a dark, unsettling hue as the reality of control and abuse takes hold and a battle to survive begins.

Domestic violence is not an easy subject to face up to, even though the statistics scream at us that we should, but taking it on in a situation that reverses the traditional view and places the man on the receiving of an abusive relationship is perhaps even harder. This cannot be a gimmick, to do that would be an insult to all those who have suffered at the hands of violent partners, so it has to be authentic. Thankfully A Suitable Lie is exactly that.

To give some background, domestic abuse will affect 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men in their lifetime. It leads to, on average, two women being murdered each week and 30 men per year. It accounts for 16% of all violent crime, however it is still the violent crime least likely to be reported to the police and it has more repeat victims than any other. It is the single most quoted reason for becoming homeless and  approximately 400 people commit suicide each year who have attended hospital for domestic abuse injuries in the previous six months, 200 of these attend hospital on the day they go on to commit suicide. (Source: http://www.lwa.org)

It’s easy to like Andy, he’s a big friendly giant of a rugby player who cares for his son Pat with a deep love and attention that acknowledges the price that was paid for him. It is also easy to see why he is swept up by Anna’s energy and how the deeper he sinks into this relationship the harder he finds it to pull out, despite the enormous risks involved. Even in the reading I found myself not hating Anna but rather hoping for her, I could understand why Andy wanted to absorb her anger in the hope of freeing her from it, even though beneath it all he knew he could not succeed.

This is brave writing from Michael J Malone. He is a pretty imposing guy himself in the flesh but he writes with a moving, emotional tenderness that befits an award winning poet. Reading A Suitable Lie is a draining experience that takes you to the deepest, darkest depths of the human experience where there can be no happy endings, only release. It is not light entertainment to ripple the surface of frivolousness; it is heart rending, soul building, consciousness raising writing that sits you in front of a black mirror and beckons you deeper.

The Mountain in my Shoe by Louise Beech

mountainIt’s hard not be a little bit in love with Louise Beech. She tells stories, and although her novels are fictional they are rooted in human experience. I can’t help but think that the world would be a better place if we all told our stories and more importantly, if we all listened to other people’s. How often do we pass our judgment on someone, who they are or have been, or project our own anxieties onto others, rather than listen to them tell us for real? Stories have power and with both How to be Brave and The Mountain in my Shoe Louise proves it.

The core relationship in How to be Brave was between a mother and daughter as they came to terms with a life changing illness. In The Mountain in my Shoe the focus is on Conor, a child moving through the care system, and his befriender Bernadette. Both of them need love and Bernadette provides stability to Conor by always returning and never letting him go in the way all the other adults in his life have, whilst she also receives a “saving” relationship herself that prevents her from sinking in an abusive marriage.

The story is told from three perspectives. Third person prose takes us through Bernadette’s experience as she desperately searches for the missing Conor whilst also reflecting on a life trapped within lost dreams. Conor tells his own story of a night of adventure and discovery, whilst between these two narratives, segments of his Life Book reveal his bigger journey through a series of looked after experiences since separation from his mother and siblings.

There is a sense throughout the novel of wounded people internalising their issues and struggling to deal with them, until they are faced with the most broken of them all and he heals them. As a society we do not deal with our wounds well, generally transmitting our pain to others rather than transforming it within it ourselves. This is reflected in the story as Frances inflicts hers on her children, Richard on his wife and Bernadette on herself, but Conor, who has been rejected time and again and hurt most of all, transforms each of them with the honesty of his love.

It’s important stuff that in Western culture we have largely pushed to the side and avoided. All of us suffer pain of some sort but it is in the vulnerability of accepting our wounds, and those of other people, that we can turn them into gifts. Bernadette had suffered great loss in a miscarriage but in time she was able to hold that pain and transform it into a love that could overturn a lifetime of rejection for Conor. Richard projected his pain onto his marriage resulting in an abusive relationship, but in Conor found a way to transform that negativity into something beautiful, saving both of them in very different ways. And somehow Conor manages to hold his suffering, despite his undoubted frustration, in a way that lights up the world around him.

Once each character was able to accept their own pain they were able to transform themselves and those around them. It is a novel, written well and with warmth, and it is also a window into a truth that can permeate our own lives. That’s why we need good writers to tell good stories.

This book is a gift.

And your story can be too.

The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn

the-bird-tribunalFor one reason or another I have not had much reading time recently. As a result this blog has fallen into a slumber with no books read, so none to review. And then another flurry of new releases from Orenda Books comes through the letterbox and I know I will regret not reading them. Somehow I have to find the time, but I don’t want to squeeze them in begrudgingly, I know that they will deserve to be absorbed fully.

The Bird Tribunal appealed initially because it is a slim volume, a shorter way back into reading than the other two, but on opening up its 185 pages they are filled with beautiful prose. Agnes Ravatn is a Norwegian author and her novel has been translated by Rosie Hedger with what feels like a very empathetic and true hand. An intriguing but simple, at least on the surface, narrative is utterly absorbing through a skilful use of language that feels very natural in English.

The cast of characters is small, tiny, but you spend quality time with them and their troubles. This is a thriller of psychology, not action, its builds slowly and surrounds you. At times it feels run of the mill but even as you think nothing is happening you feel unsettled, convinced that you could scratch the veneer off their relationship with even bitten back nails.

Allis was a television historian until her willingness to do anything to get to the top destroyed her marriage and he career. Fleeing her very public humiliation she responds to an advert for a gardener and housekeeper despite lacking the skills. From the start her relationship with Sigurd Bagge, her new employer, is peculiar and awkward, but maybe there is a sense that they also need each other.

The story is narrated by Allis so we hear her thoughts clearly but his only through her speculation. Both are seeking redemption for past failings but we are never certain whether they could accept it even if it was offered. A tense, fragile relationship develops held together by half-truths and desperation as it builds to a climax that reveals all and nothing. Do we really know Allis and Sigurd by the end? Do they really know other? And have either of them found what they need? That is what we are left to ponder and even at the end it feels awkward, unsettling and painfully beautiful.

Where Roses Never Die by Gunnar Staalesen

where-roses-never-dieWhen you pick up a novel by Gunnar Staalesen you know that you are dealing with a professional. His private investigator Varg Veum has been solving crimes since the 1970’s and the author leads you through his investigation with the expertise of a well-practised hand. The biggest crime here is that English language readers have been largely denied the pleasure of his work up to now.

The first person narrative, which perhaps in part inspired Jo Nesbo’s description of the author as a Norwegian Chandler, puts us right into the mind of the detective and at the start of this second novel from Orenda Books that is a pretty dark place. Veum is dealing with grief, badly. For three years since the devastating events of We Shall Inherit the Wind the aquavit has taken a grim hold and drinking has become a way of life, so it will take a pretty special case to draw him out of the darkness and back to work.

Maja Misvær has just the sort of story to tempt him back. It is nearly 25 years since her daughter Mette disappeared from the community project where they lived. Since that day the community has largely unravelled and Maja herself has been tormented. With the statute of limitations date fast approaching when the legal aspects of the case will expire she wants to make one last desperate attempt to find the truth. But how can a PI with an alcohol monkey clinging to his back hope to find the answers that eluded the police all those years ago?

There is a line in the book where Veum says “I talk to a lot of people” and this holds the key to his work. Each conversation releases another little piece of information and leads to another question for another person. Gradually a story unfolds as Staalesen gives you hints that have you working ahead looking for the solution but always a step behind his protagonist. His art is to reveal just enough to keep you chasing your own conclusion whilst throwing in twists that have you questioning what you really know.

The intersections of lives are handled brilliantly as Veum moves through the cast of residents and builds up a frightening picture of dark secrets and unintended consequences. No one is entirely free from deceit and as they each try to shift suspicion to another the secrets start to seep out. It is a huge leap from a few supressed regrets to committing a crime that plays right into the fears of any parent though, so who is hurting so bad that they can close their eyes to the horror they are committing?

This is the second Varg Veum novel from Orenda books and already he has established himself as a favourite leading character. Staalesen has created a sharp and intelligent but also vulnerable PI with whom the reader builds a strong rapport. The end of We Shall Inherit the Wind was a devastating blow to both parties and Where Roses Never Die is a shared recovery. Whilst many of the authors in the Orenda stable are embarking on relatively new careers Staalesen is an expert of his craft and once again he has delivered an absorbing mystery expertly solved by his endearing PI, Varg Veum.

 

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