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.

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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Roses Never Die Blog tour

Deadly Harvest Blog Tour – Why Botswana?


I am delighted to host a guest post by the writing team that is Michael Stanley to kick off the blog tour for Deadly Harvest. I have been reading the novel and found Detective “Kubu” to be a very endearing lead character.

Michael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, both South Africans by birth. Both have been professors and have worked in business, Michael in South Africa and Stanley in the USA.  Their novels – set in Botswana, featuring Assistant Superintendent David “Kubu” Bengu – are A Carrion Death, A Deadly Trade, Barry Award-winning Death of the Mantis, Deadly Harvest, and A Death in the Family.

A question we’re often asked is why we choose to set our novels in Botswana.  Doesn’t South Africa have enough opportunities for murder mysteries with one of the highest murder rates in the world?  Certainly South Africa is fertile ground for the crime fiction writer, and it comes with a fertile context – a new country struggling to reinvent itself in the aftermath of apartheid.  Indeed, there are several excellent crime writers in South Africa taking advantage of that context – for example Deon Meyer with his detective Benny Griessel series.  However, that rich environment is also restrictive.  The South African police force battles with affirmative action, corruption, and distrust from both the black population (inherited from the previous regime) and the white population (who often resent the changes).  Other issues important in the subcontinent somehow seem out of place in the South African context.

Beyond that, Botswana is a wonderful country and one in which we have spent time, both as visitors and professionally.  It has varied landscape ranging from the arid Kalahari to the magnificent wildlife areas of the north, and amazing Okavango delta.  The people are delightful, combining a respect for tradition with a forward-looking policy and stable government, which is among the least corrupt in Africa.  The vast diamond wealth generated mainly by the De Beers discoveries at Orapa and Jwaneng has mainly gone to building schools and other infrastructure instead of into politicians’ pockets.

Too good to be true?  Well, nothing is perfect.  The country is landlocked, surrounded by South Africa to the south and east, Namibia to the west, and Zambia and Zimbabwe to the north.  Their problems spill over, Botswana has many of its own, and the diamonds are not without their own issues.

Bushman woman Photo Stan Trollip

Our books explore themes in the regional context not constrained by the legacy of apartheid.  The first book – A Carrion Death – revolves around blood diamonds and the lengths to which people will go to get their hands on the rich, natural resources of the region.  The second – A Deadly Trade – explores the fallout of the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe civil war on the region.  The backstory of the third book – Death of the Mantis – is the plight of the Bushman peoples of the Kalahari and their struggle to maintain at least some aspects of their culture as they are forced into the modern world.  A Death in the Family – which will be published by Orenda Books in July, looks at the impact of the Chinese in southern Africa.  They have been called the new colonialists of Africa, buying up land and resources with little regard for the locals or the environment.

These are all issues of significant importance to the region, but, of course, our books are fiction and driven by the characters and the plot.  Having these different stage settings allows us to have new types of stories and even different types of crime.

Deadly Harvest

In our current book – Deadly Harvest – released by Orenda Books this month, that crime is murder to obtain human body parts for magic potions, often called muti.  Unfortunately, far from being a fictional invention, it’s a growing horror.  Despite the region’s move into the modern world, the old beliefs and old fears are ingrained, and our novel is based on an actual case that was never solved – the 1994 murder of schoolgirl Segametsi Mogomotse.

witch doctor courtesy of Alex Zaloumis

Shangaan fetishes Couresty of Alex Zaloumis

Kubu faces a difficult time unmasking the supposedly invisible witch doctor behind the murders.  Similarly to serial killers, the murderers are not connected to their victims so there’s no trail.  Worse, there is a pervasive fear of the power of black magic and everyone -including many of the police – is too scared of the witch doctors to get involved.  Finally, the people who use these witch doctors are rich and powerful.  We add a new character – supposedly the CID’s first woman detective and school friend of Segametsi Mogomotse – to help Kubu.  He needs it!

So, perhaps the answer to the question of why we set our books in Botswana is why not?

Follow the Deadly Harvest blog tour using the calendar below:

Deadly Harvest Blog tour

Epiphany Jones by Michael Grothaus


Epiphany JonesWhen a novel takes you to the darker places of the world it is important that the reader can trust the author. Epiphany Jones takes us to perhaps the darkest places of them all and it is a great testimony to both the skill and the emotional intelligence of Michael Grothaus that he is able to do this in a way that honours the victims and educates the reader whilst delivering a great story. Somehow he approaches his subject with exactly the right tone so that you can be confronted by it but also cope with it within a disturbing but also deeply moving narrative.

Sex trafficking is a very real problem in our world but it is a difficult subject to read about. According to Stop the Traffik 1.2 million children are trafficked each year and human trafficking (of which sex trafficking is the largest contributor) is the second largest source of illegal income worldwide, exceeded only by drugs.

Epiphany Jones is a deeply damaged person who has suffered greatly over a sustained period at the hands of brutally evil men. Grothaus does not shy away from that reality, he does not try to dress up the horrors that are happening to make the reader’s journey more comfortable, nor does he allow his protagonist a superhuman ability to overcome that damage. Instead he shows us the abuse that she has suffered and the damage that it has created and lets us absorb and consider it.

Before Epiphany storms into his life with all of the chaos and destruction of a tornado, we meet Jerry Dresden. He’s a screwed up guy and not everyone is going to immediately warm to him with his psychotic hallucinations and his porn addiction, but stick with him, he’s worth it. The novel opens with the line “Tonight I’m having sex with Audrey Hepburn.” and on first reading that may offend, shock or simply humour you, but by the end it will have swollen with an emotional power that should probably haunt you.

Jerry is accused of stealing a famous Van Gogh from the museum he works at and killing a colleague in the process. The evidence looks convincing and he is forced underground where alongside his figments (hallucinations who have become both friends and tormentors) he becomes trapped in a relationship with a woman on a mission that the voices in her head tell her is from God. As Jerry narrates his story we see Epiphany Jones through his eyes and like him we sway between sympathy and judgment the more we learn about them both.

They set out to confront their pasts and to find a surprising shared hope for the future on a trail that uncovers the full cycle of the trafficking system. Those out purely for personal profit, those tied into an abusive system they support and cannot escape, those whose entire lives have been forged in the fires of other people’s depravity and those at the end of the line who create the whole sickening industry

This is not by any means an easy read but it is a powerful and affecting one. Grothaus acknowledges that you cannot just flick a switch and wash away the effects of sustained abuse and we have to deal with that as a society that tends to deify celebrity and wealth but struggles to meet victims in the reality of their situations. He will get inside you and mess with your comfortable preconceptions and as a journalist who spent years investigating sex trafficking in Hollywood he is well qualified to do so. It is an emotionally difficult experience but journeys of discovery are never easy and this is one that collectively we will surely benefit from taking.

The Evolution of Fear by Paul E Hardisty


Evolution-of-FearIt can be difficult going about a review of a second novel in a series. What are you going to say about the second instalment that you didn’t say about the first? Have you already used up all of the best comparisons and contrasts and so you can’t help repeating yourself? Given that we are talking here about a thriller you begin to wonder did you use “adrenalin rush” or “rollercoaster” for book one.

All of those concerns lie before me as I try to put together a fair and yet fresh review of The Evolution of Fear by Paul Hardisty. Last year I reviewed his first novel The Abrupt Physics of Dying and told you that in Clay Straker he had given us a leading man who could one day compare with Bond and Bourne. What can I tell you now, other than that day has already come.

I hardly want to say anymore. You don’t want me giving away any of the intricacies of the plot but I can tell you that we quickly sail from Cornwall to Turkey and Cyprus. We are again faced with not only brutal international criminals but also environmental disaster and Clay Straker is again taken to the very limits of human endurance as he tries desperately to maintain his own sanity and the safety of those he loves.

The action starts straight away with Straker in hiding with a price on his head. Discovered and possibly betrayed he is forced to move and try to grab the initiative. He seeks out Rania fearful that he has made her a target, with the intention of going into hiding together, but neither of them can realistically run away from a matter of conscience and always in the background is Clay’s torment from the sins of his past.

From the pages of this novel comes a high powered adrenalin shot that has you diving into an adventure fraught with danger. Occasionally you will come up for air, to remind yourself that this is not happening to you but to characters on a page, but those characters will so grab your attention and your concern that they will come alive as you cling onto them for a ride into a murky world of politics, capitalism and crime.

This is dynamite thriller writing and Clay Straker is an affecting and memorable lead character and it is the drawing of the characters that is crucial to elevate Hardisty’s work from set piece action to something you genuinely care about. I have said previously that Straker was made for the big screen but perhaps there is an example in Jason Bourne of how the transference from novel to movie can diminish that depth of involvement that the original trilogy possessed but which the films could not capture.

Hardisty is already an award winner and surely more recognition will follow as he proves now that he is not a one hit wonder but can deliver some longevity. More than awards though his writing deserves to be read and enjoyed, thriller fans should be waiting excitedly for every new release knowing that with Hardisty on the spine they are guaranteed something special. I would happily position him as a Ludlum for a new time, he provides us with classic thrills in an up to date and relevant context. He should be on the best seller lists and thriller fans should be queuing up to put him there.

In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings


In Her WakeWhen I go to the theatre I am utterly transfixed by the magic of it. I remember all the way back to a Robin Hood play at Nottingham’s Playhouse Theatre as a child which had me gripped. Robin made the pantomime villains give away their ill-gotten riches (chocolate coins) to the gathered poor (us children sat around the fringes of the stage) and I tried to give mine back in sympathy for this frightened soul handing over his treats at sword point. Even now as a more cynical adult I am captivated by the wonder of story.

Reading In Her Wake, the third novel by Amanda Jennings, transported me to that same magical place as her wonderful writing pulled me right into the midst of her devastating story of loss, grief and resurrection. I didn’t just read In Her Wake, I experienced it; the vacuum of loss, the exhilaration of new life; the frustration, the pain, the exploration and the hope. Just like a good play, a good book is an immersive experience with no need for virtual reality technology, just words on a page mysteriously laid down by an artist to enthral.

Bella Campbell returns home to bury her mother, a woman she loves despite a controlling nature that in turn led her daughter to marry David, who accompanies her and himself takes charge of her life. Bella has always had strong influences in her life who she could lean upon, but a family secret brings her world crashing down around her and she must strike out on her own to make sense of who she really is. As she is uprooted by a series of horrifying shocks she sees old relationships in new lights and begins to understand herself and those around her with a clarity and depth that changes everything.

Through Bella’s sharing of her journey, interrupted occasionally by the memories and writing of Henry Campbell, we see the power of love, obsession, grief, despair and hope to transform people and lives, individually and collectively; one all-consuming, visceral need that sends out overwhelming and exponential consequences into a complex web of lives. It is for each reader to discover the truth of this psychological thriller which questions the very nature of who we are, so I will give no more away about the plot. Suffice to say that it is a hurtling rollercoaster of emotions rooted in authentically crafted human characters.

Years ago I saw a production of Hamlet, by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford, which began and ended with a snippet of black and white home movie. With Hamlet avenged but also slain the stage went dark and on the screen a boy ran into the open arms of his father. It was an ending heavy with palpable emotion that left me captured in the story, for a brief but powerful moment I was unable to return to the reality of the theatre around me. A book has no visual props but Jennings draws her characters and story with such expertise and beauty that she achieves the same engagement and I genuinely cannot recommend her writing enough.

In Her Wake Blog tour