Light From Other Windows by Chris Chalmers

Light From Other WindowsLight From Other Windows is a wonderful examination of human nature and relationships. Josh Maitland takes off for a round the world trip before starting his university degree. As he reaches the final leg of his journey disaster strikes in the form a tsunami which devastates the Canary Islands and takes Josh’s young life with it.

Back in England his family must come to terms with his death and their relationships with him and each other. When a friend makes them aware of a private blog that Josh was keeping as he travelled the family discovers that they didn’t know him as well as they thought they did and each of them is confronted by secrets from their past.

As I read two things struck me immediately. Firstly how quickly I was drawn into the world of the Maitland family and became attached to the different family members. It was something about the timing of the writing that pulled me into their lives and kept me turning page after page to reveal more of their story. Secondly was the use of description which overflowed with similes conjuring sparkling imagery and fitted perfectly with the tone of the novel. These elements of style combined to make for a completely absorbing and entertaining read.

The key philosophical thrust of the book though is family and family relationships. All of the Maitland’s are very much focused on their own lives and can happily talk about how they have been affected by the actions of others. Where they are not so strong, however, is in understanding how they have affected others, including the subconscious impact of things they consider to be secret about themselves.

Josh’s death and the family’s mourning heighten the tension and bring emotions to the surface so when combined with the shocking revelations of their deeply buried secrets no one can come out the other side unscathed. In many ways it is the things that have been hidden and have remained unsaid that has had the biggest influence on family relations and as this sinks in it becomes apparent that everyone is missing out on true relationship as a result.

This is where the book can speak directly into our own lives. Where in our lives and relationships do we hold back for fear of being vulnerable in front of another and how does that subtract from the depth of experience that we have? The Maitland family all thought they had a meaningful relationship with Josh but none of them was actually invested enough in that relationship to understand the truth.

Chris Chalmers has brought us a novel that will undoubtedly entertain a reader for a few hours but he also presents us with an opportunity to reflect on our own lives. What do we run from and where do we hide? What aspects of ourselves do we try to sweep under the carpet? Who do we pretend we are close to but really only know in superficial chatter that barely scratches the surface of their realities? What’s nice is that he’s wrapped all of that up in such an enjoyable read.

The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto

DefencelessKati Hiekkapelto’s second novel has fully delivered on all of the promise of her first. The Defenceless is a gritty crime novel with a pulsing vein of social realism. It is entertainment with a conscience, fiction with heart-rending insight into the real lives of people on the fringes of our own societies.

Life in the Violent Crimes Unit isn’t getting any easier for Anna Fekete. Having tracked down The Hummingbird serial killer in her first major case since adopting detective civvies she is now faced with a complex trail when a man is found dead on the road, apparently run over; but not everything is at it seems.

As Anna connects the pieces between this death, drug dealing and an illegal immigrant her troubled partner Esko is trying to foil an immigrant gang that is attempting to take a foothold in Finland, having successfully established itself in Denmark and Sweden. It is a tense thriller that is extremely well constructed as the cases overlap and collide, but it also has a depth of observation and empathy that lifts it above a simple crime novel.

Hiekkapelto is adept at weaving realities into her stories and her insight into the lives and struggles of immigrants and refugees could not be more relevant and timely. Anna has successfully integrated into Finnish life after her family fled war in the Balkans when she was a child, but she still feels confused about her identity and where her true home is. Sammy is a young Pakistani Christian fleeing the Taliban whose quest for asylum in Finland has been rejected and we see the impact of this legal decision on his life and the choices that are available to him.

These are two very different experiences of seeking refuge and we begin to understand a little through them of what it means to be displaced. Kati speaks with an authentic voice, born out of the lived experience of working with refugees in Finland, on issues that are right at the centre of European debate at the moment. The political aspects of her character are important to her as an author but she manages to work them naturally into her storytelling without compromising the plotting.

Esko is a counterpoint to Anna’s temptation to become personally involved with her work, her need to help. He is an experienced detective, good at his job but set in his ways and clear in his opinions. As a result he is often hard to like but you can see why the department head, Virkkunen, overlooks some of his bad habits to keep him in the team. His context and perspective are different and as a result he is important to Anna’s development and also to the reader’s comprehension. We are all formed by our experiences and Esko requires understanding just as much as Anna or Sammy.

Pull these threads together and they speak urgently into our real world crisis of displacement and the arguments taking place across the continent about how we respond to a mass movement of refugees. The author, through her characters, calls us to see the person who needs our help and not allow divisive political rhetoric to break the bonds of common humanity. Across Europe many people are responding, hopefully politicians will follow suit.

Kati is in the process of writing the third book in the series which will take Anna back to her roots in the former Yugoslavia. It will be a change of setting and scenery that is likely to bring to light further depths to her character. It will be fascinating to see how she responds to the culture of her homeland that appears to simultaneously bring her to life and constrain her with its rigid roles for men and women. It feels like Anna Fekete still has plenty to say to us and the next instalment of her story cannot come quickly enough.

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The blog tour for The Defenceless runs from 11 to 24 September. You can follow it, and catch up on dates you may have missed, via the calendar below.

Defenceless Tour