Fate or Coincidence – a COVID Read

7:21 PM 12 APRIL 2020

Cometh the hour, cometh the book! Just when we had lapsed into the nightmarish ‘social isolation’ that has attended the COVID-19 pandemic, I happened upon this novel through the vagaries of Twitter and the #WritingCommunity. Perhaps, in keeping with the book, it might almost have been fated to rescue me from a state of pervasive gloom and offer a literary balm to a bruised psyche. Indeed, Kevin Ansbro’s tale of love and devotion, in a variety of forms, is teeming with the ‘feel good factor’, but also succeeds in realizing the author’s self-confessed penchant for “handcuffing humour and tragedy to the same radiator”. It is hard to pidgeon-hole this book neatly into a single genre. Thrilling – certainly, philosophical at times, but it is also brimming with pathos, humour, suspense and love rather than romance, juxtaposed with far darker strands of human life and even the hereafter.

To revel in what man (and woman) is capable of, is to wonder at a fathomless capacity for altruistic good and yet also recognize a breathtaking instinct for selfishness and even unalloyed evil. In “The Fish that Climbed a Tree” the author deftly traverses that continuum in a cleverly conceived plot that draws upon the experience of an impressive range of characters, whose respective journeys are influenced by an active (or in some cases very redundant) moral compass.

The heroically named Ulysses Drummond, vicar of St Cuthbert’s, Hackney, and Iraq war veteran, was of a good family and with his diminutive wife Florence had made a very positive contribution to their community. They were also proud parents of Henry, aged 10, when the couple were brutally murdered in front of their young boy. By contrast, the murderers – Ukranian gangster, Yuri Voloshyn and Rwandan war criminal, Pascall Makuza, are on a very different trajectory towards judgement day. Still, whether by fate, or a series of coincidences, the Drummonds will be dogged by that fateful day, as Henry passes into adulthood and a date with destiny foretold in the book’s prologue.

Along the way, through boarding school and into his life in London, Henry’s timid, shy naivety ensures he is bullied and beaten, nurtured and comforted, encouraged and feted, but it is the relationships that he forms and the decisions he must live by, which intrigue the reader. That and the heady blend of supporting characters, so well drawn, as to remind me of Dickens, long before the author’s nod to “A Christmas Carol” in the final chapter.

While I accept that, at times, Ansbro’s extravagant use of language, with a liberal sprinkling of adjectives, similes and metaphors may not be to every taste, for me such flourishes added to the charm of this book. The underground train’s “doors closed with a matron’s shush…”, simply an example of well-crafted writing. Indeed, the style (except for the repeated use of “Omigod”) felt part of some glorious former era, which of course may say as much about my reading preferences.

However, in a happy coincidence, my review also now chimes with #IndieApril and pays tribute to an often neglected well of writing talent. Moreover, I am grateful to Kevin Ansbro for a tremendous diversion in these troubled times and do not hesitate in loading this novel onto my ‘favourites’ shelf. I hope that when I return to it in future, I shall recall the contrasting real-life circumstances surrounding this first reading.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Echo Chamber?

9:18 PM 16 FEBRUARY 2020

As a longstanding admirer of Sebastian Faulks’ work, simply the title of this latest novel (2018) stirred the reader’s imagination and the prospect of a return to the original site of the author’s reputation. The ‘French trilogy’, published between 1989-98 (‘The Girl at the Lion d’Or’; ‘Birdsong’; and ‘Charlotte Gray’) established Faulks as a major British writer, wherein he used the common backdrop of war and explored the immediate impact and legacy of conflict for the characters involved. This has proven fertile territory, partly perhaps due to the historical gravity of such events, which continue to weigh heavily on the scarred psyche of our continent, but partly also to Faulks’ unerring capacity to evoke a gallic essence in his novels, which transports the reader with such panache.

This latest novel is set in contemporary Paris, but through the contrasting encounters of an American researcher (Hannah) and Moroccan immigrant (Tariq), the author develops a vehicle to observe the modern cosmopolitan metropolis, as well as allude to difficult, past wartime and colonial memories that have yet to be fully expunged from the national consciousness.

Tariq is nineteen and though able to speak french (a legacy of his late, Algerian mother who was raised in Paris), he abandons his education in Tangier, to follow tentatively in her footsteps, arriving homeless and penniless, his first venture abroad. By contrast,Hannah has been dispatched by her US university to research a book and is returning to Paris, to the scene of her ill-fated and only love affair, ten years earlier. And with both main characters thus deposited, the stage is set.

The disparate experiences of Hannah and Tariq are driven largely by the stratified socio-economic groupings of the Fifth Republic, and that they apparently have little in common. Still, what limited overlap exists offers each insight into the other’s world and over time their respective curiosities satisfied, lessons learnt, fragile hearts restored, they can move on. However, what the main characters do have in common is their status as ‘outsiders’. Notwithstanding the undoubted magnetism of Paris, the ‘echoes’ emitted by the city resonate differently, even between native generations and the absence of that shared history suggests that visitors may be untainted, but surprised, by a sometimes troubled past.

Intertwining such complex themes, on the back of a fairly weak plot left me with the sense of a book that didn’t quite deliver on its potential. Faulks writes beautifully and with his customary affinity for all things French, but this book has a nebulous quality, which I found hard to fathom. Perhaps it is an inevitable bugbear that having produced a universally lauded ‘modern classic’ in ‘Birdsong’, readers wait impatiently for those heights to be repeated (incidentally I am a great fan of Faulks’ novel ‘Engleby’). In the meantime though, I am curious to read some alternative reviews of this novel, to see if I have missed the key that unlocks some hitherto hidden depth.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Social Capital?

3:47 PM 13 JULY 2019

“City Crime” is another debut novel and I bought a copy at a talk by the author, Ian Richardson, at our local library. The title might give the impression of misdeeds in the affluent financial sector, but while the action is perpetrated in the hallowed square mile, the real novelty factor is the involvement of detectives from the City of London police, which seems akin to the unusual challenge of policing Beverly Hills. Still, DCI Gould and newly promoted DS Phillipa Cotterell preside over an investigation that is more well-versed than its setting, driven by familiar human frailties of jealousy, greed and lust. Family in-fighting, organised criminals, drug-dealing, blackmail and tainted money, are deftly woven within a plot that belies the veneer of affluent success and culminates in brutal murders and the exposure of baser instincts.


In essence the reader can find little sympathy for any of the cast of victims or the numerous suspects, nor for that matter the police officers. Notwithstanding the rather naïve ideals of Ms Cotterell, one gets the feeling the more tempered cynicism of her superior also has its place, when unpicking layers of deceit. In what seems destined to be a short-lived partnership, the clandestine coupling of the police officers outside of the investigation also appeared likely to heap pressure on their relationship, rather than support it, but in or out of work, their collaboration seems to have a limited shelf life. This may be disappointing if the reader is looking for the next ‘crime-fighting duo’, but the chemistry, á la Morse and Lewis; Poirot and Hastings; Holmes and Watson, has to be right in order to evolve, though such novels also need to be able to stand alone and this it does.


In truth, I found the plot more convincing and developed than the characters, but the twists and turns of the story were absorbing and as the introduction of a new voice in criminal fiction, this book was an enjoyable and promising light read. I hope the author continues to write into a well-earned retirement.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Busman’s Holiday

12:07 PM 26 AUGUST 2018

My 100th review and I’ve been mulling this over for a few weeks. I’m an admirer of indy author, Jane Davis’ work, so much so that I bought my Kindle copy in advance and looked forward to the launch. The author’s customary style is again deployed to good effect and the narrative is engaging and draws the reader into the respective experiences and feelings of the characters, but I think herein lies my difficulty and I stress it is my problem.


The story-lines centre on the aftermath of a major incident at a London underground station (St. Boltoph and Old Billingsgate), in which fifty nine people lost their lives. “For over thirteen years the search for truth – for the undoing of injustice – has eaten up everything. Marriage, friendships, family, health, career, finances.” Such a devastating, albeit fictional, loss of life is clearly fertile territory to examine the sense of loss, anger and despair of those bereaved family and friends left to mourn and the aching instinct for answers (‘why’?), accountability and the public vilifying of the blameworthy.

Unfortunately, this fictional account of a disaster, in which so many perished, has coincided with such an array of actual disasters, still etched in the public consciousness and pored over in the media that we are, sadly perhaps, all too familiar with the post disaster landscape (Grenfell fire; Manchester bombing; Hillsborough; 7/7; 9/11). I’m not suggesting that a novel is an inappropriate platform for exploring the human response to sudden catastrophic loss and the enduring impact that ripples outward. It just seems to me to be an emotional devastation, which may lack appeal if the reader is seeking ‘entertainment’, or an escape from ‘reality’. Though here I should probably record a ‘conflict of interests’, in that having trained as a crisis support worker for such eventualities, it is difficult not to read this book through a professional lens.


In any event, this ambitious book is very well written and the respective discoveries and cathartic journeys of the key bereaved characters are also cleverly offset by the experience of Eric, a law student who comes without the emotional baggage of those directly affected, but nonetheless is grounded in his own life’s challenges. Naturally the experiences of surviving partners, parents, siblings, and friends will be different and Davis handles this diversity well via the delicate parallel plotlines. In some senses the one ‘unknown victim’ is the saddest of all. However, while the toing and froing, pre and post- incident and across the multiple perspectives does confer a certain fragmentation within the storytelling, the narrative is successfully woven to a satisfactory conclusion.


On balance, I think Jane Davis pitches the tone about right. Not so bleak as to trigger compassion fatigue, but not so sanitized as to run the risk of appearing implausible. Fortunately perhaps, most of us can overlook the licence granted to the fiction writer, to fashion an interesting account and Davis has certainly made good on a tricky theme. For me, it’s proved a bit too much like a busman’s holiday, but I acknowledge I don’t have a neutral perspective and shall ponder other reviews to get a more balanced view. That the author should tread here at all does her much credit.

Rating: 4 out of 5.