Contrasting Fortunes

4:12 PM 26 JUNE 2020

One of the things I adore about Kevin Ansbro’s writing is the assured way in which he reconciles the seemingly incompatible. Few authors can so effortlessly weave together the incongruity of a European serial killer with a SE Asian mythical being, trapped in a two thousand year purgatory at the bottom of the Andaman Sea. Yet, the remarkable journey on which the author takes the reader also enmeshes very familiar human themes of attachment and loss, romantic love and platonic friendship, alongside Buddhist notions of karma. It makes for a heady mix!

This blending of perceived contrasts, the exotic and mundane, is exemplified perhaps in the main locations for the tale. With all due respect to the inhabitants of East Anglia, Norwich (UK) and Phuket (Thailand) are, on the face of it, very different! Still, through the travails of the main characters, the author suggests that human experience is not entirely shaped by location, or culture. If not ‘fate’, sometimes things are just ‘meant to be’.

Take the British couple, Calum and Hannah, they are close friends at school, but then are separated by the vagaries of family moves, but it is Calum’s solo visit to Thailand that proves the catalyst for a potential reunion with his ‘true love’. As well as developing an immediate affinity for this unfamiliar territory, Calum befriends a young local man, Sawat Leelapun, with a shared interest in martial arts, but a very different trajectory in life. As a boy, Sawat has survived the 2004 tsunami, but experienced the attendant tragedy and challenges that followed. He too has a significant other (‘Nok’), but more central is the bond formed between the two men and the influence of Sawat’s humble nature on his hot-headed British friend. As well as helping Calum reflect on his own approach to life, like the knock-on effect of dominoes, Sawat also confides in his friend an incredible secret he has harboured since childhood and introduces the reader to the mythical Kinnara.

This diversion into supernatural elements is not new for the author, but offers a very helpful vehicle for expressing the clear affection with which Mr Ansbro regards the people and culture of Thailand. ‘Klahan Kinnara’ is a prince among the mythical swan people, cast into the sea, spellbound and destined to be alone for eternity. Klahan is also separated from his beloved and like his human counterparts shares a profound sense of loss. The question posed by the story is whether the three couples can all rely on fate/karma/good fortune, or perhaps the invincible nature of their collective love, to generate similarly happy outcomes?

The fly in the ointment, of course, is the serial murderer I mentioned, but whilst the author has a penchant for a dash of the macabre, it is never arbitrary. Rather the latent threat is a further development of the contrast between good and evil. Just as the reader might hope for good things to happen to good people, the reverse can also be quite satisfying. With ‘Kinnara’ , the author has skilfully delivered another exhilarating and emotional ride for the reader and has secured another spot on my favourites shelf.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Forget Me Not…

5:15 PM 14 OCTOBER 2018

I was recently introduced to the work of David Baldacci by my Dad, who has enthusiastically devoured the Amos Decker thrillers in quick succession. This first in the series introduces the gruff and unlikely hero – ex NFL player and police detective, decimated and made destitute by the collapse of his private world some fifteen months before. However, what makes the rather tragic character of Decker so unusual and compelling is his experience of ‘hyperthymesia’ (excessive autobiographical memory/perfect recall). On the one hand, it does seem like a convenient way of giving ‘superpower’ to a detective, but the narrative actually describes the burden equally as a curse, for the man unable to erase some haunting memories. Still suffering under the weight of his loss, Decker is barely functioning, but is drawn back into his painful past when a man hands himself in and confesses to the murder of Decker’s family. And so the blue touch paper is lit on an explosive tale of murder, intrigue and a battle of wits to prevent further killing and seek justice for the growing number of victims.


Despite being a brilliant detective, Amos Decker is an emotional shell, no longer able to process as he once did. Yet, as well as a triumph of complex plotting, the author’s skill lies in his ability to make the reader care about how it turns out for the flawed main character. Former police partner, pushy journo, FBI special agent are all excellent supporting characters and each realizes Decker is the key to the case and prop him up along the way, recognizing his vulnerability.

It is a masterful example of the genre. Perhaps, the fact that, like my Dad, the final page had me seeking out the title of the sequel is testament to this book’s impact as a ‘page-turner’. Quite dark, the rattling pace is maintained, despite the convoluted twists and turns and in an interesting symmetry the criminals are as unusual as the pursuer. Well worth a read.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A Little Light Charming…

1:50 PM 18 FEBRUARY 2018

“Delightful and charming” was the cover description of this book, attributed to the Daily Mail, which to my mind is not a ringing endorsement. As adjectives go they seem….bland, like ‘inoffensive’ or ‘nice’. Still, set in the 1970’s, the author does successfully evoke a sense of other-worldliness, before technology shrunk the globe and ‘gap years’ made the pursuit of ‘adventure’ and ‘experience’ more…. ordinary. Moreover, by relating his experience of life in South America, in particular pre-Falklands conflict Argentina, there is a certain curiosity value. However, since Michell is relating time spent as a young master at an English boarding school in Buenos Aires, it does also, at times, smack of rather dated colonialism at work.


Undoubtedly what saves the book are the antics of a Magellan penguin, named Juan Salgado, which/whom the author rescues from an oil slick washed up on a beach at Punta del Este. This, we discover, is on the Uruguayan side of the mighty River Plate (Rio de la Plata) and so one of the funniest anecdotes tells the tale of the necessary border crossing. Of course, we humans seem to have a universal soft-spot for penguins, they are after all inherently funny in their permanent tuxedo get-up. Still, the experience also sealed the perception, among the locals, of Michell as another eccentric Englishman abroad.


Though the relationship the author builds with his feathered friend is quite touching, I couldn’t quite shake off a sense of déjá vu and then I recalled the 1960 novel “Ring of Bright Water”, in which the author (Gavin Maxwell) described how he brought an otter from Iraq and raised it in Scotland. Different species, different continent but the crux of the story is similar, man’s capacity for connecting with the wild and a means of lubricating the wheels of human interactions. A pleasant read, perhaps sometimes such light relief can be just what’s needed.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Protective Nature of Imperfect Memories…

11:51 PM 1 FEBRUARY 2018

I am a self-confessed admirer of Sebastian Faulks and any additions to an already impressive body of work are typically to be savoured. For me, the author has consistently delivered novels that are both interesting and evincing a silky use of language, but two themes have repeatedly captured Faulks’ imagination. Indeed, he excels at books involving wartime experiences – WW1 or WW2 (think ‘Birdsong’ or ‘Charlotte Gray’) and mental illness (think ‘Human Traces’ or ‘Engleby’). What these themes tend to have in common is the prospect of turmoil for the characters involved, elements of unpredictability for the plot and untidy conclusions – the legacy of both can be far-reaching. It is also true that these two themes can profoundly define individual lives and, in the case of the world wars, whole generations. In ‘Where my heart used to beat’ Faulks has created (almost inevitably) a tale that deftly merges these themes and brings together two survivors of their respective generations’ global conflict, bound by the shared curiosity and insights of trained psychiatrists.


The British psych’ is introduced first. In New York for a medical conference, he uses his friend’s flat to use a prostitute, before hurriedly leaving for his home in London. This is a peculiar opening, which reveals much about the character, very quickly, including an ongoing affair with ‘Annalisa’, but without naming Robert Hendricks, until he takes his messages off the ansaphone in his London flat. Before the end of the opening chapter though, he’s also had an argument with his aforementioned girlfriend and feels quite alone. This struck me as a really clever means to sketch out this central character and in a sense prepare the canvas for the layering of colours to follow. Still, Hendricks’ assertion that, “I was an habitué of loneliness, which was in any case the underlying condition of mankind from which the little alliances and dependencies we make are only a diversion.” alludes to the complex psyche of the man and the torturous nature of his life’s experiences.


Among the letters awaiting Hendricks’ return is one from the unknown Alexander Pereira, who explains that he knew Hendricks’ father (he died just before Armistice Day, when Robert was just two) and invites him to stay at his island home off the coast of Toulon. Pereira is familiar with Hendricks’ acclaimed book and offers him a job collating his memoir, but over time the two develop a relationship in which they foster mutual help, without any progress on the older man’s book. Instead, at times the pair seem to be indulging in reciprocal counselling, each divesting himself of historical baggage. We discover, for example that Hendrick’s tragic war-time love affair, while recuperating from wounds sustained in battle in Italy, proved every bit as debilitating as the physical injuries. Yet, while both men are struggling with the burden of aspects of their respective pasts, their professional insights into the working of memory and emotions cannot shield them, but they are able to bare their vulnerability and over time work towards a truce with their troubled consciences.


Along the way, the author provides much food for thought for the reader and suggests limitations for rationality in the life of men. Love, Hendricks asserts has similarities to drug addiction. It is the “only emotion we granted the power to change our lives; no other feeling – if by ‘feeling’ we meant the release of unruly chemicals in the brain – was allowed to sit in judgement bedside our reason and our intellect.” Moreover, Pereira argues that we cannot necessarily rely on the mercurial nature of human memory either, since “a man’s life is not made up of things that happened, but by his memory of them and the way in which he remembers.” Our capacity to repress memories and fashion self-protection is fascinating, but for the two central characters it seems likely that a diagnosis of PTSD would offer the most compelling explanation in contemporary psychiatry. Still, the reshaping of the men’s respective burdens to something more bearable is an interesting journey and perhaps reinforces the notion that only at our most vulnerable, at our most human, can we be truly alive and know that our heart is beating. This is not my favourite book from Faulks, but worth the effort and I think may bear re-reading for some of the subtle nuances.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Detonating a Taboo

8:15 PM 24 OCTOBER 2016

This book was listed for World Book Night 2016 and though an unusual storyline (at fist glance recovery from teenage mental illness may not seem fertile territory for humour), Holly Bourne has successfully woven together a really positive ‘rite of passage’ novel, which reinforces the notion that a diagnosed condition need not define the person. In this instance the sixteen year old person is Evie and the start of a new college offers the prospect of a chance to re-boot her adolescent life, no longer identified as ‘that girl who went crazy’. Still, in her efforts to re-invent herself with new girl friends and prospective boyfriends, Evie is cautious about how much she reveals about the past, or even her experience of the present. By contrast, her family have lived with Evie the darkest lows and with her psychologist, try to help navigate the return to ‘normal’.

Indeed, the book is something of a roller-coaster from emotional highs to poignant lows, the reader follows the central character’s progress and setbacks in her burgeoning relationships and ongoing mental health challenges, but the author deftly avoids any mawkish tendencies. Alongside some laugh-out-loud moments, Bourne also explores interesting insights and manages to balance the interplay between the potentially crushing effects of illness, with the shared ‘madness’ that so often characterizes the human condition. A thoroughly enjoyable and compelling read, it turns out we are all a unique version of ‘normal’, just moving along our respective paths. If we are lucky, there are people who care alongside us on the journey. 

I’m passing my copy on, fully endorsing the World Book Night listing as a genuine celebration of reading and books in all its diversity. Remember the name. Holly Bourne is a very promising young writer.

Rating: 4 out of 5.