Deep Country by Neil Ansell


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


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


“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


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


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:

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.