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Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski (Orenda Books)

Today I am honoured to be a stop on the blog tour for Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski. I was really looking forward to reading this latest Orenda Books thriller, so was very excited when it dropped through my letterbox for me to read and review.

Six Stories is written around a series of podcasts by Scott King (a pseudonym), a podcaster who interviews his interviewees wearing a mask to maintain his anonymity. The Six Stories series looks into unsolved murders and interviews those involved to try to glean some truth about what actually happened. This Six Stories series is an investigation into the death of 15-year-old boy, Tom Jeffries, whose body was found on Scarclaw Fell, a foreboding and ominous fell, 12 months after he had been reported missing. As Scott King interviews the various main players in events leading up to Tom’s disappearance, the reader is drawn into the mystery to discover the real story about how and why Tom came to be partially buried on the fell, only to be found by Harry Saint Clement-Ramsay, son of the new landowner, and his friends.

The structure of this novel is a really unusual, but very effective concept in building up the tension throughout. Using the six podcasts as the main structure, with a side narration by Harry, as he too tries to get some answers by returning to the mysterious and dangerous landscape, we have a series of untrustworthy narrators, all of whom could be lying or at least omitting important information, which gives the reader a multitude of potential explanations as to how this young boy met his demise. The comments of Scott King as narrator of the podcasts, as he questions the stories told by these friends and witnesses to events leading up to Tom’s disappearance, feeds the reader with more questions too, so even when a story rings true, the reader can be thrown off course by the doubt that Scott King casts on their interviews, or provides validation to our own thoughts that may match those of Scott King.

The location of the events is foreboding in itself and appears to hold many secrets. Scarclaw Fell is created beautifully by Wesolowski and is undoubtedly an extra character, and suspect, in this story. In every scene, the fell looms as a secret-keeper. Indeed, as Harry is wandering the fell, this sense of potential answers being held within the landscape adds another layer of possibility for the reader, as its dark and dangerous presence is felt throughout.

There are contradictions in every story and every time it seems that you are getting nearer to the true story, another interviewee will cast doubt. Wesolowski creates the tension very effectively as each interview adds pieces to the puzzle, maybe. Scott King thinks the answers lie in the dynamics of the group of friends that Tom was with during the run up to his disappearance and as this is laid bare, Wesolowski cleverly creates the wonderful twists and turns that make up a fantastic thriller.

I absolutely loved this novel. Unusually, the danger to the individuals involved has passed, but even in investigating what happened to lead up to the tragic death of Tom Jeffries, the tension is palpable throughout. Wesolowski has taken a unique structure and used it to create a brilliantly written, enigmatic novel that draws the reader into the mystery of this story. Whilst Scott King focuses on the past, the inclusion of Harry returning to the fell weaved throughout, provides the reader with a multi-faceted narrative that keeps the reader fascinated. I loved the structure and what it brought to the mystery of this tale, bringing a modern twist to a traditional “whodunnit”. I will be happily recommending this novel to anyone who loves a good thriller.

The Evolution of Fear by Paul Hardisty (Orenda Books)

Last year, I read and reviewed The Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul Hardisty. Hardisty displayed his skills as writer so well, it was a joy to read. Claymore Straker, the main protagonist, is just what I love in a male lead character – brooding, flawed, slightly arrogant but caring, despite his determination to remain detached. I have been very much looking forward to the next Clay Straker novel and I have absolutely devoured it from start to finish.

Clay begins the novel in hiding in the Cornwall countryside, trying to avoid the heat caused by his recent assassination of Rex Medved in the last novel. He finds himself on the run, and trying to find and protect his love interest, Rania, who is working under her alias, Lise Moulinbecq, to write articles on the political wranglings in Cyprus between the Cypriots and Turks, including underhand dealings on land development and it’s connection to the mysterious decline of the turtle population as the number of turtles breeding on the Cypriot beaches has reached an all time low. With an enormous price on his head by Medved’s sister, Regina, he has to try and keep under the radar of would-be bounty hunters and find out why Rania has come out of hiding to report on this particular story. Clay finds himself, and Rania, embroiled in a web of political and murderous situations that threaten the lives of them both.

While The Abrupt Physics of Dying was more ebb and flow of action, The Evolution of Fear is fast paced and gripping from the off. Even in the first chapter, Clay is in danger and this sets the tone for the rest of the novel. I polished this book off in three days, only stopping for work and sleep. There never seemed a good place to lay it down, to read at the next opportunity, so each time I had to stop, it was a real challenge to put the book down. (Sign of a good book, for me!)

We get to grips some more with Clay’s psyche in this novel. As he battles with his emotional connection to Rania, Hardisty wonderfully illuminates Clay’s evident PTSD from his time as a soldier in Angola. His conscience about atrocities committed during this time repeatedly dog Clay, often at the most inopportune moments. Crowbar, his former commanding officer and friend, is a great parallel for Clay, in that he has suffered the same atrocities but his way of dealing with it is to carry on regardless and drawing a line under what happened to some extent. However, Clay just cannot ease his conscience and is suffering because of it. Indeed, he doesn’t think himself worthy of love or happiness, which affects his decision making processes and the relationships he has with others, in particular, Rania. I particularly liked Hardisty’s approach to describing how Clay is overcome by memories of past traumatic events and it becomes another enemy for Clay to fight against.

As with the first book, Hardisty excels in his use of the landscape as a sometimes unforgiving backdrop to the action, or as a perfect setting for a particularly pleasant moment. His descriptive narratives are beautifully rich and vibrant, giving multi-sensual pictures in the mind of the reader of the various places Clay visits. He puts real passion into describing the natural elements of the landscape, and the novel is all the better for it.

Not only do you get a gripping plot with a Paul Hardisty book, you get an intelligent narrative that educates, informs and showcases Hardisty’s scientific background as an environmental scientist. He uses his extensive knowledge of his chosen field to add authenticity to the story line by giving the reader some scientific fact to highlight the problems faced by the characters.

The Evolution of Fear is a fantastic tale of political espionage and underhand tactics that provide a brilliant vantage point for Clay Straker as he battles to control his inner demons from past experiences. Hardisty has written a very fitting sequel to the first novel that, for me, is better than the first (and I really enjoyed The Abrupt Physics of Dying). Clay Straker is a formidable main protagonist with plenty of stories still to tell (I hope). Certainly the sneak peek at the end of this book implies so. Hardisty has again shown himself as an excellent creator of twists, turns and ploys to take the reader on a journey where they have no idea who Clay should and shouldn’t trust. Add to that mix his stunning descriptions of the landscapes and settings plus his careful application of scientific fact to the plot, and you have a perfect adventure story. I am certainly looking forward to reading and reviewing further Clay Straker adventures. Orenda Books is on fire at the moment, and with writers like Paul Hardisty, amongst others, signed up with them, it is no surprise at all.

House of the Lost Girls by Carissa Ann Lynch

In September, I read a great book called Have You Seen This Girl?  by Carissa Ann Lynch. Although it’s subject matter disturbed me, it was a wonderfully written book that, although very dark in content, was gripping from the beginning and had twists and turns aplenty with one massive twist at the end that I just didn’t see coming at all. Knowing that this was the first book in a series, I didn’t really know where Lynch was going to take it but I didn’t have long to wait to find out.

House of the Lost Girls picks up 20 years later, with teenager Marianna, who has arrived in Flocksdale with her mother and step-father, the new judge of Flocksdale. Unhappy at having to move away from her home and her friends, Marianna is sullen and irritable. She takes herself off to get to know her new home and quickly makes friends. However, Flocksdale’s macabre history is ever present, and when a young girl is kidnapped, it seems that history may be repeating itself. 

This book was much better than the first book. I couldn’t put it down, as I found myself ensconced in the mysteries of Flocksdale. Lynch excels at building up the tension, feasibly leading her characters down the wrong path, leaving the reader mentally screaming at the characters “Don’t do it!”whilst baffling the reader so that they do not see the big reveal coming at all. As with the first book, this book has a surprise in store at every turn.

 That being said, some of the novel is a little predictable. I’m not going to go into how, because perhaps it is just how I read the book that I managed to guess at certain involvements throughout (though not all, I might add!) Knowing the story of the first book gives a lot of clues to the second book, which maybe explains why I had an idea of who was involved in what. Perhaps this book may have worked better as a standalone, in terms of retaining the mystery.

However, I enjoyed this book more than the first one, which although well written, left me feeling uncomfortable with it’s plot. Lynch builds up her characters well and, of course, the return of feisty Wendi Wise, the main protagonist of Have You Seen This Girl?, was a good device to aid the link of the two books.

I don’t know if there will be more Flocksdale Files to come, given the way this book ended, and also I’m not sure how much mileage is left in the storyline but I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I didn’t necessarily expect to, given the way I felt about the first book. Yet, this book did not give me that same feeling of ickiness as the first one did. Instead, I enjoyed the journey and wouldn’t hesitate to read future Carissa Ann Lynch novels, or to recommend them. 

The Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul Hardisty

I’ll be honest. I feel like I’ve been reading The Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul Hardisty (Orenda Books) for a month! In actuality, it’s only been a week but what an adventure it has been!

Set predominantly in Yemen, the main protagonist, Claymore Straker finds himself literally “between a rock and a hard place” when he is kidnapped with his friend and driver, Abdulkader, by a terrorist organisation, and told to use his position as a contractor for oil company Petrotex to investigate a mystery illness that has befallen the locals and is killing their children. A notorious terrorist, Al Shams, gives Clay a deadline and an ultimatum: find the cause and expose this illness that he suspects has been caused by the activities of Petrotex or Abdulkader dies.

Clay has had a troubled past, having had a stint in the South African military that has left him with some mental battle scars and a financial commitment: the healthcare costs of his comatosed best friend. Nursing a desire to right some wrongs from his past, Clay uses his scientific expertise to test the local waters to find out if Al Shams is right. As Clay faces a serious conflict of interest, (the life of his friend against his career) he begins to wonder who the bad guys really are.

I’m not really sure how I would categorise this novel. It is a thriller of sorts but with a political and scientific tone. What I will say is that it certainly gives food for thought. At a time where terrorism, corporate and political corruption seem to be commonplace in world news, this novel suggests a link between them, albeit in a fictional sense. As Hardisty tells a story of various political and corporate agencies working in cahoots for a supposed “greater good”, the (perhaps cynical) reader can’t help but consider if there is some truth in the fiction.

Hardisty also describes the how the faith of the locals provides them with an envious sense of freedom in their belief that Allah determines everything. Abdulkader is a perfect example of this sentiment. As Clay remonstrates and fights to control the next course of action, Abdulkader is calm in the knowledge that he will die when Allah determines it. He shows no fear or panic. He seems to find an inner peace in the thought that he has no control of his fate, that what will be, will be. Clay denies this deterministic ideology but comes to realise that his own fate is controlled by the people he is surrounded by and powers beyond his reach, again to maintain the “greater good”.

As the reader follows Clay’s plight, they are treated to some glorious descriptions of the Yemen landscape. This novel is rich in detail, reminding me of Charles Dickens’ narratives. Obviously the settings are very different to Dickens’ locations but the intricate description of the geological landscape is articulate and beautiful. The multi-sensory journey through the country enhances the reading experience considerably and is well worth the extra pages. The contrast between the materialistic western lifestyles and the simple lifestyles of the Yemeni people further enhances the sense that the Western world is invading this country for its natural resources at any cost, including the lives of the poverty-stricken Yemeni people. Clay doesn’t concern himself with the part he plays in the process of manipulating the locals with bribes to facilitate Petrotex’s extraction of Yemen’s spoils until he is faced with the reality that children are dying as a result. Haunted by reminders of his past mistakes, he is determined to expose the corporate “fat cats” who make decisions based on financial gain with no concern for the human life cost.

There is, of course, the obligatory love story, which shows Clay’s vulnerable side.His love for Rania is fraught with difficulties, as she fights with her religious beliefs and her mission in the Yemen and Clay wonders if she can be trusted, as he suspects that there is more to this beautiful journalist than meets the eye. However, any reader would undoubtedly want their relationship to succeed as they work together to try to solve the mystery of this strange illness.

There is definitely a sense that just as you think you have worked it all out, Hardisty throws in a curve ball which throws your entire theory out of the water, and just as you think that Clay has found someone who can help him blow the situation wide open, there is another layer of corruption to unearth. As a reader, I was willing Clay to find that one person who he could completely trust, just so he wasn’t alone against the corporate and political machine.

This is a fantastic novel and the character of Clay Straker holds great promise for future novels. Hardisty writes with incredible passion and technical precision and the reader can never be quite sure who is good and who is bad, which keeps the reader gripped to the end. His exquisite descriptions of Yemen and the extensive scientific knowledge that he brings to the narrative provides the reader with an epic reading experience that will have them yearning to know what happens next. I’m certainly looking forward to future Clay Straker adventures, but for now, I’m going to spend some time recovering from this one!