Monday, 8 May 2017

Book Review: Reconciliation for the Dead by Paul E. Hardisty

Strap yourself in for a white-knuckle ride because Claymore Straker is back, in the third of Paul E. Hardisty's thrillers to feature the justice-seeking action hero. The Abrupt Physics of Dying saw Clay tackle environmental disaster and corporate corruption in Yemen, while by The Evolution of Fear,  he was fleeing for his life across Europe - in search of Rania, the woman he loves - only to become enmeshed in ecological devastation and murderous land grab on the divided island of Cyprus.

Now Reconciliation for the Dead takes us back to the beginning of Clay's story and his involvement as a callow young South African soldier in the Angolan border war of the 1980s. For those who've read the first two books, this is particularly satisfying; fleshing out events that shaped the flawed but driven man we've come to know, scarred both physically and mentally by the atrocities he witnessed. Yet, if this is your first encounter with Clay, the story still stands alone as an immersive and gripping thriller, that never lets up on the tension.


At the novel's opening, we find Clay returning to South Africa in the 1990s to testify to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about events leading to his dishonourable discharge from the army and enforced exile. He has a debt to pay, to tell the truth on behalf of those who died for their beliefs. But, at the same time, he's forced to face up to his own actions 15 years earlier and to question whether he could have done more to save those he loved.

It's 1981 and the Cold War is at its height. As young paratroopers, Clay and his friend Eben are fighting the communist insurgency in Angola that threatens South Africa's Apartheid regime. Deep in enemy territory, they find themselves caught up in a conspiracy that undermines a previous unthinking faith in their country's cause. Bearing witness to ever greater and more visceral inhumanity, unable to stand by passively, they begin to reconsider their own allegiances. It sets them on a trail delving into a web of such unimaginable immorality, not only their own survival but that of an entire population is at risk.

What's really shocking is that the cold brutality depicted here is not the product of an unusually febrile and twisted mind, but, like Hardisty's previous books, based on true events. The level of detail from this ignominious period of South Africa's history is astonishing; from the terror and confusion of battle to the precise and horrific reasons for having specific items of equipment in a laboratory. It brings the story vividly to life; a corrupt regime doing whatever it can to protect its ideology. Those in positions of power killing without compunction to hold on to what they have. Faced with such ruthlessness, how far is Clay justified in using violence himself to defeat it?

Such philosophical questions raise Reconciliation for the Dead from being merely a hard-hitting, entertaining read to something more profound. It's interspersed with transcripts from Clay's interviews with the Commission; is he a reliable witness or has post-traumatic stress warped his memories and confused what really happened? The Commissioners seem divided; we find out little about them, but by their names discern they might be adopting different positions along ethnic lines.

There's less romantic distraction than in the first two books, with Rania only featuring at the beginning and end. Clay's relationship with fiancée Sara is unpromising - you can tell this, from the moment she visits him in the hospital and 'she looked heavier than he remembered her.' The most prominent female protagonist Vivian is a likely candidate but comes with her own troubled background and agenda.The storyline is all the better for it, concentrating instead on what Hardisty does best; tautly written, meticulously researched action and reaction in a spiraling collision of opposing forces, that has you hooked until the final page.


Reconciliation for the Dead by Paul E.Hardisty is published by Orenda Books in paperback on 30th May 2017. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Book Review: Strange Heart Beating by Eli Goldstone

Eli Goldstone's Strange Heart Beating has one of those singular covers that never fails to draw comment, even though reactions in my small sample veered between captivated and unconvinced. Maybe its contents will prove equally divisive, but I for one adored this striking debut novel from a bewitching and deceptively complex young voice.


Leda Kauss has perished in a bizarre North London boating accident involving a swan. From the outset, her death has an air of inevitability. Women in her family frequently die young in unusual circumstances; freezing to death in the 'javelin of a pine tree's shadow' or from the sepsis caused by the shard of a fallen chandelier.

Leda's husband Seb, the story's narrator, is undone. Robbed of a future with his beautiful, sophisticated artist wife and struggling to cope at work, he lashes out at those around him. He is alternately arrogant and apathetic, driven to extremes by his grief. Sunk in a morass of memory, he begins to research Leda's Latvian childhood:
I've taken it upon myself to learn more about her. Even in death, why shouldn't I get to know my own wife? I'm unlikely to find a woman to interest me more. I take a trip to the library. It's the first time I've set foot in the place, even though I signed a petition to save it.
Sifting through her belongings, he comes across photographs of people he doesn't know and a packet of unopened letters from Olaf, a man Leda never mentioned. He decides to travel to Latvia, to find out more about the enigmatic woman he married.

This is a book of layers to become immersed in, tumbling away from the sharp edges of reality down the rabbit hole of Leda's origins. The title is taken from W B Yeats' poem and references to the classical mythology of Leda and the Swan, are threaded through the narrative, although - as Seb discovers - it is his wife's identity that appears to have changed its shape.

Seb's narrative is interspersed with extracts from Leda's adolescent diary; meeting those she grew up with, he becomes increasingly unsettled by what he didn't know, finding more fresh questions than answers. At the same time, he is absorbed by Leda's forested homeland, so different from his own intellectual life in London. Finding Olaf, he is gradually drawn into the sinister and near-feral tensions of an exclusively male circle of hunting friends.

Strange Heart Beating is distinctive in its imagery, filled with the bitterness and melancholy of lost love, darkly witty and immersive from the first page. Eli Goldstone, a graduate of the City University Creative Writing MA, has produced a remarkable debut. She anatomizes grief from the inside out, stripping it back to the sinew, hinting at the magical realism of Angela Carter's writing but establishing a penetrating and fearless style that is firmly her own.


Strange Heart Beating is published by Granta Books on 4 May 2017. Many thanks to the publishers for my review copy.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Opera Review: WNO's La bohème at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was written for The Reviews Hub


Welsh National Opera (WNO)’s evocative 2012 production of Puccini’s La bohème returns to the stage for a well-deserved revival, as part of the company’s Love’s Poisoned Chalice season. Here, Annabel Arden’s original combination of strong vocal performances, atmospheric staging and clear storytelling is continued under the direction of Caroline Chaney.

In a fin de siècle Paris recreated from projected rooftops and star-lit skies, the poet Rodolfo and seamstress Mimi, both penniless, meet on Christmas Eve and fall in love. There’s an instant chemistry between Jessica Muirhead’s Mimi and Matteo Lippi’s Rodolfo that convinces from the start; both are dramatically and vocally assured, as they combine with passion in the duet O Soave Fanciulla (Oh Loveliest of Maidens). Muirhead’s sweet soprano soars above the orchestra with a celestial purity that foreshadows her demise, while Lippi embraces the complex range required for an empathetic portrayal of Rodolfo.

To celebrate, they leave the humble garret Rodolfo shares with his fellow bohemians and join the warmth and excitement of Café Momus in the Latin quarter. Here, Rodolfo’s artist friend Marcello is reunited with his former love Musetta, who has tired of her elderly, rich admirer. In this most tempestuous of relationships, Gary Griffiths as Marcello is a charismatic presence, well matched with the flirtations of Lauren Fagan’s spirited Musetta, who waits until the final Act to reveal her tenderness of heart.

There are delightful supporting performances from Jihoon Kim as the philosopher Colline and Gareth Brynmor John as the musician Shaunard, who provide a palpable sense of friendship and joie de vivre alongside their technical skill. Act II in the Café Momus is a visual feast, festooned with coloured lights. WNO’s always admirable chorus is richly detailed and augmented by the lively, skittering presence of a group of children, in thrall to the toy seller Parpignol (Michael Clifton-Thompson) and his wares.

Design and lighting by Stephen Brimson Lewis and Tim Mitchell contrast the riotous colour of the café with the snowy austerity of the tollgate in Act III, as Mimi and Rodolfo’s relationship sours under the weight of his unwarranted jealousy. Conductor Manlio Benzi’s interpretation ensures that WNO’s orchestra always enhances the rousing emotions on stage, as Mimi’s illness takes hold and she is reunited in Act IV with Rodolfo and his friends for one final, fleeting time.

WNO’s La bohème may not push the boundaries of what opera can do, but its traditional retelling focuses on the beauty of Puccini’s score and vividly brings to life the tragedy of the lovers’ story. This is a memorable revival that sates the senses, imprinting in the mind both the searing joy of friendship and love and the poignancy of loss.

Reviewed on 29 March 2017 | Image: Robert Workman


Monday, 10 April 2017

Theatre Review: What The Butler Saw at Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub



2017 marks the 50th anniversary of Joe Orton’s death, and this brand-new version of What the Butler Saw, a joint production between Theatre Royal Bath and Leicester Curve, commemorates his final full-length play. But as a dark farce, this work is now showing its age; shocking at the time for its anti-establishment sentiment, today the aspect that strikes the most jarring note is the inherent sexism and gender stereotyping of the 1960s.

Viewed through this filter, there’s still enjoyment in a story that takes place entirely in the white box of a psychiatrist’s clinic. Here, the initial calm and order quickly descend into mayhem, as Dr. Prentice’s attempted seduction of his new secretary is thwarted by the untimely arrival of his voracious wife, fresh from her own suspect dalliance with a bell-boy in a linen cupboard.

Characteristically, it’s the cover-up that provides the greatest comedy; the handiest solution to most problems being to adopt a cross-dressing disguise that involves plenty of farcical stripping-off and trouser-dropping. A vase becomes a useful receptacle for all manner of clothing and there are moments of exquisite hilarity with the flowers it should innocently contain. Doors are entered and exited at great speed. Throw in a maniacal government analyst, a none-too-observant police sergeant and a diagnosis of insanity; the accompanying strait-jackets, guns and bloodshed all provide a galloping inevitability.

Orton’s text is dense with fast-paced words and wit and – apart from one or two fluffed lines in this performance – the timing in Nikolai Foster’s production is generally immaculate. Rufus Hound and Catherine Russell as Dr. and Mrs. Prentice are well matched in both sexual predilection and quick delivery, while Jasper Britton revels in his role as Dr. Rance, the single-minded spin-doctor of a pre-determined outcome: ‘I’m not interested in your explanations, I can supply my own!’ Dakota Blue Richards is a study in the downward spiral from enthusiastic young employee to gibbering, casually abused wreck.

Michael Taylor’s curved, raked set is a thing of beauty; adapting first to the width of Leicester’s Curve Theatre and now the traditional proscenium in Bath, it accommodates the unfolding story – and its requirement for doors to burst in and out of – while denying any specific time frame.

If only the narrative of this otherwise plot-driven, witty work could do the same. What must have been subversive in the 1960s verges on jaded in the twenty-first Century and its relevance is hard to discern. In this unadulterated form, What the Butler Saw resembles a misogynistic period piece lacking context, presenting rape as an acceptable extension of intense sexual desire and incest as its jolly consequence. The fine performances and clearly delivered merriment may still find an appeal with lovers of the genre, but ultimately this farce feels uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons.

Reviewed on 28 March 2017 | Image: Contributed




Monday, 3 April 2017

Book Review: Faithless by Kjell Ola Dahl

Kjell Ola Dahl is known as one of the founding fathers of Nordic Noir but, unlike the widely translated thrillers of Jo Nesbø or Henning Mankell, opportunities to read his crime fiction in English have been limited. Now Faithless, a new translation by Don Bartlett of one of Dahl's best known Gunnarstranda and Frølich series, takes a step towards bringing his complex, twisty police procedurals to a wider audience.


Inspector Frank Frølich of the Oslo police is devastated when the victim of a brutal murder is identified as Veronika, fiancée of his oldest friend, Karl Anders. His colleague Gunnarstranda is brought back early from holiday and, as the investigation takes shape, lines between the personal and professional are increasingly blurred. Karl Anders' alibi doesn't seem to stack up and his relationship with the dead woman is far from straightforward. There are secrets she was withholding that the police must uncover to find her killer.

Why was Veronika arrested shortly before her death on a drugs charge? Who is the unidentified man who seems to have been stalking her? And is there any connection to a similar murder several years earlier in northern Norway? The possibility that the police have a serial killer on their hands adds even greater urgency to finding him before he has the chance to strike again.

Meanwhile, Frølich also has to grapple with the case of a beautiful young Ugandan student, who arrived in Norway to attend a university summer school but quickly went missing. Under pressure to downgrade the importance of this investigation, he finds it dredging up distressing memories of a night many years ago, that led to his long estrangement from Karl Anders.

As Faithless is not the first book in the series, there's an established back story to the flawed relationships between the characters: Frølich, Gunnarstranda, and their co-workers Lena Stigersand, Mustafa Rindal and Emil Yttergjerde. Their methods of policing rely heavily on instinct; they gossip between themselves and try to palm off the banalest of tasks. Yttergjerde is routinely too busy studying the pictures in Autocar to answer the phone. The bubbling undercurrents become clearly discernible as you read, and the novel still works as a standalone.

The narrative crackles with atmosphere; the oppressive heat and long sunshine hours of an unusually warm Norwegian summer swelter and daze its protagonists, only breaking in a symbolically dramatic storm towards the end. And, reminiscent of Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus thrillers, music adds an important element;  Frølich listens to the Dandy Warhols while Gunnarstranda favours Mack the Knife as sung by Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Buffett. 


Faithless is an elaborately plotted, well-constructed and gratifying read that questions the basis of friendship and reflects on wrong actions being taken for the right reasons. Dahl always has a confident grasp of his material, even while he is demonstrating the eggshell-thin fragility of the line between good and evil.

Faithless by Kjell Ola Dahl (translated by Don Bartlett) is published by Orenda Books in ebook and paperback format on 15 May 2017. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy. 

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Theatre Review: Escaped Alone at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub


It’s all too easy to dismiss four women of 70 years or more, sitting in a garden on a summer’s afternoon. At this time of life, women are often condemned to a cloak of creeping invisibility – good for a little childcare, but otherwise functionally irrelevant. In a compelling 50 minutes, Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone turns this trope on its head; enriching her all-female cast with profound interior lives and the jaggedly recurrent theme of an apocalypse, as told by an elderly woman sporting baggy leggings and a self-inflicted haircut.

It begins with Linda Bassett as the seemingly unshakeable Mrs Jarrett, spotting three women she vaguely knows behind a high garden fence, and popping through the gate to join them. After hardly a murmur, she’s accepted by the others; Deborah Findlay’s Sally, who used to work in medicine but whose charming exterior masks an extreme aversion to cats; phlegmatic ex-hairdresser Vi (June Watson), who doesn’t like kitchens any more for murderous reasons that will become apparent and shy retired office worker Lena (Kika Markham), who thinks it would be better to be in an empty room because ‘then there’s fewer things to mean nothing at all’.

Under a blue sky, they sit and chat about grand-children and TV serials, but their conversation is elliptical, sentences unfinished and pauses non-naturalistic. Then, as the others fade away into darkness, each woman has their own moment in the spotlight to portray their innermost thoughts and deepest anxieties. When it’s her turn, Mrs Jarrett is the least articulate, only able to utter of her ‘terrible rage’.

Her words, it seems, have already been spat out in the episodic retellings that punctuate proceedings; director James Macdonald combines with designer Miriam Buether, as he did in The Father, to create a sharp blackness framed by a coil of sputtering light, in stark contrast to the serenity of the garden. Here, Mrs Jarrett speaks of an apocalypse; ‘songs were sung until dry throats caused the end of speech’; ‘the obese sold slices of themselves until hunger drove them to eat their own rashers’. She conjures up a dystopia that Margaret Atwood might be proud of, but a bewildering one; is this a parallel universe or a prediction of future destruction? Churchill leaves it to her audience to decide.

As an established director of her plays, Macdonald knows how to bring out Churchill’s playful moments, too; in one joyous scene, the perfectly attuned cast sing The Crystals’ 1960s hit Da Doo Ron Ron, as well as discussing aspirations of flying to Japan. These women possess authority, look forwards as well as backwards in their lives and encompass both the domestic and the anarchic. Escaped Alone may be short, often perplexing and obscure, but long after you’ve left the theatre, it still contains a whole world of complexity to contemplate.

Reviewed on 22 March 2017 | Image: Johan Persson


Thursday, 30 March 2017

Book Review: Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski

In Six Stories, Matt Wesolowski tears apart the traditional narrative thread of murder mystery and challenges the reader to pull it back together, piece by piece.


The unexplained death of a teenager in remote woodlands twenty years ago is the subject of investigative journalist Scott King's latest series of podcasts. Tom Jeffries' body was found near an outward bound centre in Northumberland's haunting Scarclaw Fell. The official verdict was misadventure, but too much is still unknown.

Concealing his identity, the enigmatic King specializes in investigating unsolved cases and in six podcasts, interviews those closest to Tom during that fateful excursion to the fell. With each episode, he examines different testimonies of events leading up to Tom's disappearance, recounted by witnesses from Derek, the trip's organiser, to Harry, the centre owner's son, who stumbled across the body a year later.

King builds a picture of tension among a group of teenagers; drug and alcohol misuse, petty jealousy and resentment. But, does this reflect the normal behaviour of a typical group of young people, or something more sinister? What is the involvement of vulnerable local misfit Haris Novak, initially the prime suspect in the case? And is there any truth in the tales of horrific supernatural encounters with a creature known locally as the Beast of Belkeld?

As the podcasts become an Internet cult sensation, the story twists with insidious revelations that wrong foot and unsettle the reader, leading to an explosive final instalment that calls into question the whole basis of what's gone before.


What English tutor Wesolowski has created in his debut novel is a tense, dark tale of destruction, delivered with innovative style. Initially, the narrative in its podcast format with frequent changes of viewpoint and typography can be difficult to unpick, although there's no doubt it would make an instantly accessible audio book. However, it's worth sticking with the printed version, not only for the eerie beauty of its cover but also because you become drawn ever deeper into the secrets unlocked in each suspenseful episode and finally gratified by Six Stories' devastating ending.

Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski is published by Orenda Books in ebook and paperback format. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy.