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Welcome to Holyhell by Math Bird

There is an uncertainty that one can pick up in a writer’s first novel, a lack of assurance in some key elements of a novel whether it be plot, structure, changes in point-of-view, and narrative pace. The first-time novelist usually can handle a few of these, but rarely all. With “Welcome to Holyhell” (All Due Respect), in internet-speak, Math Bird nailed it. Bird’s first novel shows a maturity in the writing that most rookie novelists don’t have, let alone those that have written several books.

“Welcome to Holyhell” opens with Bowen traveling in Wales. It’s evident quite quickly that Bowen is a criminal and a tough guy returning home while on the run. In his hands at all times is a briefcase that turns out to all the money that Bowen and his partner, Nash, have earned in various nefarious and criminal ways.

What makes “Welcome to Holyhell” work well is the character of Jay, a put-upon middle-schooler trying to survive his mother’s bad choices of men, teenage bullies, and the heat of the 1976 summer in Wales. Incorporating a kid into a crime novel in a genuine way is fraught with difficulties. But like Polly in Jordan Harper’s “She Rides Shotgun”, Math Bird’s Jay is full of anxiety and teenage dreams as he tries to make his way through the obstacles that adults place in front of him. Fair warning, there is one bullying scene in particular that utterly brutal and shows the searing callousness of teenagers.

Unlike Bird’s “Histories of the Dead and Other Stories”, the setting of Wales didn’t play as big a factor in “Welcome to Holyhell” as it did in his short story collection. But that’s a quibble as the remoteness of Hollywell, the correct name of the town, is part of the Welsh charm and boredom. 

The book’s description says that it “is a coming-of-age story about loneliness, hope, the past that haunts us, and the fear of growing older.” There is that, but there are crimes and the criminals that deeply embroider the story. One of the elements that Bird handles well is the change in character POV from Jay to Nash and we even get a peek behind the curtain on some of the supporting characters like Mich, Shane, and the others as they all race for the money.

“Welcome to Holyhell” is unlike any other crime fiction book you’ve read this year. My comparison to Harper’s “She Rides Shotgun” is not happenstance or unfounded, it is that good. Math Bird’s “Welcome to Holyhell” is a remarkable work that will have you dreading as well as eagerly turning the page. 

Buy: Amazon

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Histories of the Dead by Math Bird

Histories of the Dead by Math BirdMath Bird’s Histories of the Dead (All Due Respect Books) is a collection of crime stories set in Wales, all published over the last four years. If the characters are not directly involved in crime, their lives are skating along the periphery of lawlessness. The book opens with the eponymous short story about a man dealing with his friend’s murder. Should he try to get revenge or not?

The realizaiton that Stevey is dead returns to me in flashes. Like a rotten tooth, it suddenly strikes a nerve and throbs inside me. It’s nothing anyone says that brings it all back. It’s these old Beatles songs he used to love. They keep playing them on the radio.

In “All the Hungry Ghosts”, a scar-faced underling on an old boss not only has to deal with his boss’ demands, he has to stomach the outrages behavior his boss has towards the boss’ new mail-order bride.

Usually, Wales is just a detailed backdrop to Bird’s stories, but in “This Land of the Strange”, the countryside becomes a player in helping or hindering the escape of the main character from the pursuit of two London criminals.

Jernegan marched towards the trees, then stepped into the woods. He breathed deeply, inhaling the sweet smell of pine. He carried on walking, following the trail, his feet squelching in the mud. Occasionally, he gazed up at the sky, at the huge grey clouds drifting over him. He hoped the rain would lead them here, running for shelter, like two lambs to the slaughter.

I only had problem with the reading on one story and that was “The Devilfish” which is told from the point of view of a woman with dementia. This is most likely more problem in my reading and not the writer’s issue. The moments of Bird’s Histories of the Dead that stuck with me the most were honest looks at people on the fringes of society.