The pure lemoncholy enjoyment of time-travelling nonsense

The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster
by Scott Wilbanks
Pub: 4 Aug 2015

Buy from Amazon UK

I expect the word whimsical will be used a lot in reviews of Scott Wilbanks’ debut novel . It is and that should also alert you to the fact that some folks are going to really love this book, whilst others will find things to get annoyed with, which probably make them tut loudly. It is, I’d say, possible to find yourself doing both. It’s a book about five misfits, a magic door and a lot of time travel.

Our main protagonist is Annabelle Aster. Adopted, obsessed with Victorian clothing, she’s also ill and in need of a bone marrow transplant. She also has a Kansas wheat field and a small cabin in her garden that wasn’t there before. She’s not alone.

Elsbeth Grundy, a loner (“She’d been happy once, but a bitterness had set in”) who lives in a cabin in middle of nowhere in Kansas has also awoken to find a strange house in her back garden. “Rising about the wheat in the distance sat a purple and gold mountain of a house.” Riled by this she attempts to knock on the door, but finds she can’t so instead pens a letter and posts it in a brass letter box that sits on the picket fence around the house.”You can imagine my surprise then when I woke up to find that overbearing piece of conceit you might otherwise call a house sitting in my back forty”

Annie too seems unable to knock on the door. But she can see the letter and an exchange begins.

How is this happening? It seems to have been sparked off by the purchase, by Annie, of an antique door. A old newspaper cutting soon reveals the door was a stage prop designed by illusionist David C Abbot, and also the fact that Abbot was murdered. Whilst this clearly happened in Annie’s past, in Elsbeth’s it has yet too. Should they try to interfere, warn him? Will doing so change the future?

This event and the battle for the ownership of the door lies at the heart of this wonderfully enjoyable novel.

I mentioned five misfits at the start. In addition to Annie and Elsbeth we also have Annie’s friend Christian: a handsome, socially awkward stutterer with a heart of gold. A man who spend his entire life with his head in a book. He also suffers from some memory loss as the result of a car crash, and has hallucinations and keeps seeing that face of another man everywhere; Edmond (that man); and a little pickpocket called Cap’n. Add to those the murderous Ambrosius Culler and his henchman Danyer – who cuts off the pinkies of his victims; a gallant suitor, called Nathaniel and David C Abbot and you’ve got yourself the cast of characters that keep you turning the pages

I have to admit early on I wasn’t sure about this book and I was, indeed, verging on tutting. But then I just decided to let myself be swallowed up by the tale in the same way I did when I read The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Night Circus, both books which share things in common with Wilbanks’ novel. Once I did that it was hard not to like this quirky whimsical story. Also how can you not like a man who chooses the make such a huge Wizard of Oz joke by having a house from Kansas appear in Annie’s garden.

Yes, you could argue that the final third of the book tries to crams just too much stuff in, so feels a little rushed and that has a level of coincidences that would make even Paul Auster blush, but the characters are well drawn and likable, the plot buoyant and the overall effect is one of enjoyment. Expect it to sell by the bucket load and for the film rights to be snapped up quickly.

Review copy supplied by Sourcebooks Landmark/Netgalley

PM’s latest attempt to ‘protect children from porn’ doomed to failure

So, Prime Minister David Cameron is apparently determined to introduce age verification mechanisms to restrict under 18s’ access to pornographic websites. This will be popular with the tabloid press who love this kind of crusade. You know the thing, moral outrage about protecting our children from this filth, whilst running newspapers/website versions full of young girls in as few clothes as possible.

Anyway, according the press release from number 10, the PM is prepared to legislate to do so if the industry fails to self regulate.

The PM said: “Our one nation government is working hard to make the internet a safer place for children, the next step in this campaign is to curb access to harmful pornographic content which is currently far too widely available. I want to see age restrictions put into place or these websites will face being shut down.”

I suspect the prefix of ‘one nation government’ will be this season’s ‘hard working families’.

Now, I don’t necessarily think this is bad idea: it is ridiculously easy to access hardcore porn. BUT, even if the PM legislates, he can only target companies based in the UK or actively targeting the UK. Basically he would regulate what would amount to a drop in the ocean of sites producing porn.

No child with a web browser would be prevented from accessing the same levels of porn they might do now. It would be pointless. The PM and the government know this. But, it pays to be seen to do what looks like the right thing, even if the reality is that nothing would really change.

In the meantime we can look forward to the consultation to be launched in the autumn, where the government will seek views on how best to introduce measures that will further restrict under 18s’ access to pornographic websites. Let the pointless exercise begin.

Ishiguru’s giant stirs the memory

The Buried Giant
Kazou Ishiguru

“Yet are you so certain, good mistress, you wish to be free of this mist? Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?”

What a fascinating writer Kazou Ishiguru is. After a ten year hiatus he returns with his seventh novel, The Buried Giant, and it is – at first glance – a historical fantasy novel…”every so often, an orge might carry off a child into the mist. The people of the day had to be philosophical about such outrages”. We are in a sixth century Britain (?) that has seen King Arthur succeed in uniting the country with the once warring Britons and Saxons now living side-by-side, in harmony; a country of orge’s and dragons, knights and warriors. Is this really the author of Remains of the Day and The Unconsoled ?

It is indeed, but whilst this novel nods to Tolkien, Beowulf, and the Arthurian legend, this novel is a different beast. It contains the kind of action you’d expect in a fantasy genre novel, but here it is relayed matter of factly and without excitement. And that is the point, because that is not what the book is about. This isn’t meant to be competing within the genre. Instead it is a book about memory, trust and deception; love and tenderness; war and vengeance.

The book is essentially the story of a journey (hello Tolkein). In this instance a decision made of a couple of Britons – Axl and Beatrice, and elderly couple – to walk to a nearby village to reunite with their son. He is a son they barely remember but they are sure he must reside at a nearby village and that they will all immediately recognise one another when they are united. This may sound like they are Alzheimer’s suffers but actually it’s the whole of England that is afflicted with a collective amnesia. A mist, literal and figurative, has descended. “It’s queer the way the word’s forgetting people and things from only yesterday and the day before that. Like a sickness come over us all.”

The couple encounter a number of people on their journey, in particular: A boatman, a Saxon warrior called Wistan, a young boy, who has been bitten by a dragon, and old knight, Sir Gawain, nephew of Arthur.

The boatman, who we first encounter early on is the key figure. Like most classic depictions he is clearly a man tasked with taking souls to the other side. Most travel alone. Only if a couple can convince him of their devotion will he allow them to travel together.

Axl and Beatrice seem devoted to one another and believe that if all their memories were restored they would surely meet this standard and be allowed to cross together, but they are similarly haunted by a fear that they would fail if the truth of their memories returned. “Axl and I wish to have again the happy moments we shared together. To be robbed of them is as if a thief came in the night and took what’s most precious from us.” They seem to know that they will meet the boatman again.

Their journey becomes entangled with that of Wistan and the boy and a quest to slay a dragon – the possible source of the collective amnesia. But the book asks – are some things better off forgotten?

Can we really just forgive and forget? ‘who knows what will come when quick-tongued men make ancient grievances rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest’. A look around the world about us shows this statement to be still alive and well.

The Buried Giant is a fascinating, if detached, novel about love and memory. There are moments where the book gets a bit too Lord of the Rings and rather silly, and I’m sure many people will see Tolkein and Shakespeare here and there but I was also reminded on a number of occasions of Jose Saramago and his particular storytelling style – often involved yet totally separate from the story. The Idea of collective memory loss, was one also explored recently in a similar way by Howard Jocobson’s J. Here, though, it is the Saxon’s who are forgetful of the terrible acts of slaughter that had enabled King Arthur to ‘unite’ the country. We know from our recent past that globally there are many nations that have buried dark memories and often with good reason, but it’s also clear how close to the surface things can remain and how quickly friends and neighbours can become murderous enemies.

It’s a book I’ve thought about a lot since finishing it.

“The giant, once buried, now stirs. When soon he rises, as surely he will, the friendly bonds between us will proves as knots young girls make with the stems of small flowers”

Booker Prize 2015: Anne Tyler – A Spool of Blue Thread

The Booker long-list has been published today, which means the start of my annual attempt to read the entire list before the eventually winner is crowned. Last year I managed 12 of the bakers dozen – leaving out only the actual winner. This year, I’m off to a good start having already read one of the books, and having been saving another nominee for period where I have a day to devote to it and it alone.

So Booker 2015, here we go, with my re-published review of Anne Tyler:

A Spool of Blue Thread
Anne Tyler
Random House UK, Vintage Publishing
Chatto & Windus
Pub Date: Feb 10 2015

When announcing she was working on her twentieth novel A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler – who has spent a career avoiding interviews and self promotion – told the press that this was going to be the last book she planned to finish. For fans, such as myself, this was not news we wanted to hear. I became a fan in the early eighties when I read her ninth novel, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. This book immediately preceded what I believe was Tyler at her best in a flawless five novel period between 1985 and 1998 featuring: The Accidental Tourist (1985), Breathing Lessons (1988), Saint Maybe (1991), Ladder of Years (1995) and A Patchwork Planet (1998). This is not to say I haven’t liked or, indeed in some instances, loved her most recent five: Back When We Were Grownups (2001), The Amateur Marriage (2004), Digging to America (2006), Noah’s Compass (2010), and The Beginner’s Goodbye (2012), but those thirteen years between 1985 and 1998 delivered some of my favourite books of all time. I dare say they were also key reasons why both Roddy Doyle and Nick Hornby nominated Tyler as ‘the greatest novelist writing in English’ around a decade ago.

Still, she is not everyone’s cup of tea. A common criticism of Tyler has always been that she writes gentle repetitive and formulaic novels about relationships, which has always seemed a bit lazy to me, akin to dismissing the works of Jane Austen on the same basis.

I think writing convincingly and warmly about relationships is actually quite hard to do. It is hard to take characters and just make the daily minutiae of life the main driver of your plot, but that is often the case with Tyler [Marilynne Robinson is probably the only other current writer I think does it as well]. Her writing may seem simple and economical but that simplicity in Tyler’s writing can, at first, delude you into thinking that she is not the literary master craftsman, she is. There is a deep warmth to her writing, and though her world (Baltimore) is packed with quirky, irksome, and often exasperating characters, there has always, for me, remained a believability to both her character’s dialogue and humanity.

As such, A Spool of Blue Thread, doesn’t really offer up anything new: it is a typical Tyler novel. In it we take a journey through three (or four depending on how exacting you wish to be) generations of the Whitshanks family. At the centre of the story is the family home built by Junior Whitshank. It is this house and its entry into, and exit from, Whitshank history that provides the bones upon which the story is fleshed out. It is here that Abby and Red bring up their four children – Denny and Stem and daughters Jenny and Amanda; it is here that Red’s parents Junior and Linnie Mae had laid their roots against the backdrop of a disagreement over a porch swing; and it is here that Abby and Red’s children return as Abby starts to show signs of dementia and Red gets progressively more deaf. It’s about love, death, obligation, the secrets we keep and the petty jealousies we harbour: about family essentially.

The book touches on themes that are common to many of Tyler’s books in particular that common tension between familial responsibility and independence, as reflected predominately in this book though the character of Denny. He’s the restless son, hoping from place to place and job to job to avoid merely following his father into the family business. He feels he should be the most important family member despite regularly casting his family aside and vanishing from their lives for periods of time. He is then jealous and unreasonable about the position of those who stayed. He’s a classic Tyler character.

People do sometime forget when talking about Tyler than is has always been a lightly comic writer, pouncing on absurdities and quirks. One of my favourite moments in the book is where she actually casts her net back to The Accidental Tourist and Macon Leary in one amusing passage discussing Amanda’s husband Hugh. A man never short of an idea on how to make it rich, Hugh owns a restaurant called Thanksgiving that just serves Turkey dinners, but his latest idea is to make travel easier for the reluctant planner/traveler. This made me smile.

It is by no means a flawless book. I finished it not sure the structure totally worked for me. I also felt slightly disappointed that Amanda and Jenny were less well drawn than Denny and Stem, and that the book’s initial sections gave the false impression that the book was going to be all about Denny. That said, these are minor quibbles and if A Spool of Blue Thread does indeed turn out to be the last book we see from Tyler, it is still a worthy exit piece, so saviour the final time you can tell people you’re reading the ‘new’ Anne Tyler. And, with no new novels to look forward to, I guess it will give us all a better excuse to re-read some of the old ones one more time and reconnect again with the likes of Ian Bedloe, Delia Grinstead, and Macon Leary. Here’s to that.

Elly Griffiths’ tale of magicians provides diverting summer read

The Zig Zag Girl
Elly Griffiths
Quercus / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Pub Date : 16 Jul, 2015 (Paperback UK): / 15 September (Hardback US)

Buy from Amazon UK

When the body of a girl is found, cut into three, DI Edgar Stephens recalls a magic trick that he saw as a boy called the Zig Zag Girl…So begins this enjoyable post-war mystery centred around the world of magicians and English seaside Music Hall and Variety Theatre.

Edgar is a young man who has chosen the law as a career rather than returning to education after the war. In the war he’d been part of a secret unit called the Magic Men. Made up of a handful of magicians they were tasked with using the power of illusion to fool the German’s into thinking the coast of Scotland was better protected than it was. One such magician, Max Mephisto, was the inventor of the Zig Zag Girl illusion, that Edgar is reminded of when the body is found.

Edgar tracks down Max and asks for his help. Max is still a headline act, but is finding things are charging on the circuit and would rather not have anything to do with the grisly business. However, he changes his mind when he discovers the dead girl is an ex assistant .

When another gruesome death follows, once again staged to resemble a magic trick, Edgar and Max become convinced that the answer to the murders lies back in their army days and with the Magic Men. But who would want them dead and why?

I must admit Griffith’s work had passed me by up until now – she writes the successful forensic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway, thriller series – but this was fun to read, and I raced through it.

The novel, unlike the first girl, comes in four parts: The Build Up; Misdirection; Raising the Stakes; and The Reveal. Each is told by our dual narrators Edgar and Max, giving us a different take on both events and the priorities in both men’s’ lives. It also acts as a brilliant means to inject lovely touches about 1950s Music Hall and Variety Theatre into the story, via Max, such as: mentions of the emergence of television and the growing power of comedians – even within magic: the appearance of Tommy Cooper in particular, the reputation of the Glasgow theatre scene and the Herald’s critics “He imagined that God would be a stern critic, worse even that the Glasgow Herald”; and the changing face of theatre with the opening of The Mousetrap.

The plot itself rattles along, though my only gripe would be that it did seem fairly obvious to me who the murderer was early on in proceedings, but I was interested enough in the characters and the manner of the storytelling for this fact not to spoil my enjoyment.

The description on Net Galley describes it as the first instalment of a compelling new series, so it looks like this will not be the last time Edgar and Max get an outing. Whilst my inclination would have been the keep this as a one-off, I’ve no doubt a second helping could tempt me to see where she takes the characters from here.

All in all Griffiths has conjured up a summer holiday treat. One for the beach, though perhaps not Brighton’s stony one.
Review copy provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Quercus) / Netgalley

Kuhlmann’s ‘Moletown’ a visual delight

Torben Kuhlmann
North South Books Inc.
Pub Date: Oct 1, 2015  

Every now and again you come across a picture book that is so beautifully illustrated that you simply marvel at the work of the illustrator/author. Moletown is such a thing. By its very nature it is a children’s book, but these 32 pages containing just two short text passages at the beginning and at the end is so much more.

Torben Kuhlmann’s visual story tells the history of Mole City. Initially we see a single mole digging his hole under a nice meadow. But soon he is joined under his meadow by more and more moles. But these moles need more and more ‘things’ comforts. Soon an underground world of mole homes, jobs, transport and  energy needs develops.

This is a delightful visual parable about human kind and industrialisation and how we have effected and treat the  wider environment around us. Anyone who knows anything about moles will know you can spot their presence by the increasing number of mole hills on your lawn, field etc. Kuhlmann merely posits, what would happen if they then had our access to technology. He may not to the first author to have moles as underground ‘miners’, but here that basic concept is expanded.

As a warning about the destruction we are doing to our environment it works a lot better than Jostein Gaarder’s more heavy handed ‘The World According to Anna’ which I will review here soon. Perhaps it is because due to the lack of text you never feel your being lead somewhere. You are being encouraged as a ‘reader’ to tell your own story. This means it probably will get most of its fans in the six (or 46) and over category.

What I presume will be endpapers depict possible solutions ( From ‘The Moletown Times’ ) to the situation the moles have found themselves in: ideas that could very well save the moles’ world and ours.

This is the kind of book the word ‘delightful’ was invented for.  I’ve spend a week pouring over it and purring about it.

If you can’t wait for publication, you can enjoy some of the illustrations from the book in this clever and enjoyable ‘trailer’

You can also  visit the author’s website:

Review copy provided by North South Books Inc / Netgalley