“The Beginner’s Goodbye” by Anne Tyler (2012)

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“The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.”

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days in Winchester. It’s a city with several affiliated historical residents, such as King Arthur, William II and Jane Austen, the latter two I encountered the graves of. But there was a name I came away with instead: Anne Tyler. She’s more associated with Baltimore, where all her books are set. On the first day there, I stumbled into her books in a bookshop and was oddly captivated by the covers. I put her on my tertiary list: will buy one day. In the pub the next evening, the people on the table next to me started a conversation about Anne Tyler. The following day, a woman was reading Vinegar Girl over her breakfast. I know when the universe is talking to me, so I went back to the bookshop and selected one at random.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying, “Hey guys, I’ve just read some Anne Tyler.”

The Beginner’s Goodbye introduces us to Aaron Woolcott, an editor who has recently lost his wife Dorothy in a freak accident involving an oak tree and their sunporch. Hampered by grief and not quite sure what he’s meant to do with his life now, he moves in with his sister, Nandina, and ignores the damage to his house and his heart. Eventually, after Nandina nags at him, he hires a contractor to start rebuilding the house, and soon things are moving on.

At his publishing house, Aaron’s team are working on adding to their Beginner’s series; a set of books that deal with an introduction to any topic you can imagine, from The Beginner’s Wine Guide to The Beginner’s Kitchen Remodelling. As they seek out more ideas, Dorothy begins to reappear to Aaron, and he starts to wonder if there shouldn’t be a book on how to get over a spouse.

Short and sweet, despite the subject matter mostly being about the death of the loved on and the grief that stems from that, it’s actually weirdly beautiful and uplifting. Oh, the emotions are raw and it feels a very realistic exploration of what happens when you lose a spouse. Neighbours and friends tip-toe around the subject. Aaron is besieged by casseroles and cheesecakes piling up on his doorstep from people in the street who want to feel like they’re helping. And there’s the inevitable attempts of friends to set him up with new people, most often a woman called Louise who lost her husband on Christmas Eve. People seem to think that widowhood is a good basis for a relationship, but as Aaron says, “It’s not as if losing a spouse is some kind of hobby we could share.”

Aaron and Dorothy’s relationship is also fascinating. They’re both intelligent and independent people, who marry after a quick courtship despite seeming to have very little in common and then continuing their lives as if they were both single, rarely displaying affection. Aaron doesn’t like being mollycoddled, and Dorothy, a radiologist, has no intention of doing so. Their marriage is a happy one, though, if not perhaps completely healthy. But then again, I’m single, so what do I know? Whether Dorothy is really coming back to see Aaron or if it’s all in his head is never quite explained, but I know which interpretation I prefer.

I’m also particularly fond of the scenes set in Aaron’s offices. The staff form a strange little family but they’re all oddly familiar. In some ways they’re cliches – the fussy secretary, the beautiful colleague, the solid family man – but Tyler writes with great economy and I feel we get to know them quite intimately with just a few words. It’s clear that the stuff they publish is hardly going to change the world – they’re mostly a vanity – “private” – publishing house, but it’s great that they still feel they want to help old soldiers get their memoirs out there, even though they’re identical to every other military memoir on the shelves.

Honest and sometimes brutal, I think it served as a good introduction to Anne Tyler. I’ll be back.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“The Last Family In England” by Matt Haig (2004)

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“Dogs like to talk.”

Broadly speaking, if we’re sticking with the insistence that you can split the population into “dog people” and “cat people”, I fall down unapologetically on the side of cats. I’ve nothing against dogs at all – I will always fuss over a dog if given the opportunity, and some of my friends have utterly adorable dogs – but if I had to have one of the two, I’d opt for a cat. However, this weekend I read a book about dogs. Or, more accurately, a book narrated by a dog.

Prince is a black Labrador, the central point of the Hunter family. He ensures that he upholds the Labrador Pact, a solemn oath sworn by all Labradors to keep the Family together for the sake of all humanity. Prince keeps a careful eye on Adam and Kate, and their teenage children Hal and Charlotte. But not all is well in the land of dogs. Some of the other breeds, led by the Springer Spaniels, have turned against the old ways and now seek out a hedonistic lifestyle, rather than trying to protect a Family. Prince, however, is earnest in his insistence that the Pact must be upheld, and he’s mentored by Henry, an old Labrador who knows a thing or two about it.

Things take a turn for the worse in the Hunter household, however, when Simon, an old friend of Adam’s, moves back into the area, and Adam finds himself tempted by this man’s wife Emily. What only Prince can detect, however, is that Simon’s scent seems to be on Kate an awful lot since his return too. Their dog, a Springer Spaniel mongrel called Falstaff, is determined to lead Prince astray, but Prince knows his duty. He must keep the Family together so he can help save humanity. Duty over all…

This is Matt Haig’s first book, and already there are the hallmarks of the supremely honest and magical writer he is today. A lesser author would have dogs speaking to one another in English when humans were out of earshot, but here, all the sniffs and tail wags and barks that dogs make constitute a language of their own. Dogs can smell emotion on one another, and on humans, and use wagging as a way to do anything from communicating annoyance with their own kind to calming down a potentially explosive situation in the family home. The book is centered around a nuclear family seen from a slant, which seems to be a common theme in Haig’s work. The Radleys features a family of suburban vampires, and The Humans deals with an alien taking over one of the family roles. Haig has an amazing way with truthfulness, and isn’t afraid to bring up the nastier aspects of humanity. Looking at them through the viewpoint of a dog makes them all the more interesting.

The dogs are really the stand out characters here, with none of them being anthropomorphised any more than necessary. They have their own codes and systems, chiefly the Labrador Pact, and each of them makes for good company, even if they do broadly subscribe to cliches (Labradors are loyal, Rottweilers are aggressive, etc). That would be my only complaint on that front, and you can even make a good case that that doesn’t ring true for the whole tale, but I can’t go into that more without spoiling things. The humans are vastly flawed, as all good characters should be, with Hal and Charlotte typical teenagers and Adam and Kate the struggling parents, trying to cope with their responsibilities as parents while their relationship seems to be breaking down, a process that appears to be speeding up thanks to the interference of Simon and Emily.

The novel’s ending is beyond heartbreaking, and really rather a brave option to have chosen. In context, it makes sense, but there remain many unanswered questions that we aren’t allowed to know answers to. The family will continue to make their mistakes, and Prince has learnt that perhaps the Labrador Pact isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I wouldn’t recommend this book to you if you’re prone to crying easily, but it remains a raw, beautiful and tragic tale. I adored it.

Good boy.

“Wonder” by R. J. Palacio (2012)

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“I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid.”

Many of us don’t even realise how privileged we are. We have money, security, health, and we only notice we’ve got it once it’s gone. Books have that amazing ability to transport us into someone else’s way of life and see how things might be different for others. I’m not even talking about fighting dragons or hurtling through space this time, just simple things about people who are just like you and me, but society treats very differently.

Wonder introduces us to August Pullman, a ten-year-old boy who has Treacher Collins syndrome, which has caused his life thus far to be one of homeschooling, endless operations, and constant stares and whispers from people on the street when they see him for the first time. His unusual appearance has completely changed how he sees the world, and he prefers to hide under an astronaut’s helmet than endure the looks he gets.

His parents, however, have decided that it’s time for him to go to middle school, and he is introduced to the kind Mr Tushman and three students who have been selected for being particularly kind, and gets a tour of the school from them. But once he starts, it’s clear that perhaps those students weren’t the best start and after a rocky few days, August begins to wonder if he should just give up and drop out, as it seems that no one can see past his face. Or at least, almost no one…

I thought I was going to end up coming here today to write this and complain, as ever, about the child narrator. The book actually is in several parts, with most of them being narrated by August, but other characters also step forward and give their versions of the events. My usual complaint – the children talk like adults – stands, but for one, it really doesn’t seem to matter. There is something a lot more important going on here. Palacio says that she was inspired to write the book after a real-life incident involving a young girl with TCS. She was stood next to the girl and, convinced her children were about to say something embarrassing, she hurried off, thus making the whole situation worse. This incident appears within the book, too.

Many people may not think anymore about an incident like this, but Palacio obviously couldn’t let it lie. She thought long and hard about what it must be like to be stared at constantly, for something you have no control over and have people unable to look past. While the book naturally deals a lot with the idea that you shouldn’t judge a person by their appearance, it’s also keen to consistently point out that kindness is perhaps the most important trait someone can have. As Mr Tushman quotes later in the book from J M Barrie, “try to be a little kinder than is necessary”. All sorts of kindnesses are shown within the text, from the children who do look beyond August’s appearance and find a funny, charming and clever boy beneath, to the story of how Mr Pullman rescued their dog, and Miranda’s act of sacrifice to save an old friendship.

Children are shown here, as is so true in real life, to be far more honest than adults, although that honesty isn’t necessarily always welcome. Children can get used to anything though, and it really is older people who struggle with change and the unfamiliar. Just look at the amount of basement-dwelling nerds who have nothing better to do on the weekend than complain about why Doctor Who isn’t as good as it once was, or feel the need to irrationally argue on Twitter with anyone who espouses a different worldview.

As August says, “I think there should be a rule that everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives.” If R. J. Palacio doesn’t deserve one for this gorgeous book, then I don’t know what she has to do to get one.

“Timequake” by Kurt Vonnegut (1997)

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“Call me Junior.”

Perhaps because the present is so appalling at the moment, I’ve been thinking a lot about the past, which is always a dangerous thing to do. It’s often a stark reminder of how quickly times have changed and how things have moved on. Ten years ago, in 2007, there was no Twitter and no iPads. Facebook was still new, Obama hadn’t been President yet, the Harry Potter book series would conclude in the summer, and The Simpsons Movie, Hot Fuzz and Juno were all in cinemas. I was still in university. I think we all wonder, sometimes, whether we’d want to turn back the clock and experience things again, or make a few changes. We can’t, of course but in Timequake, the population does go round a second time – the universe shrinks suddenly in 2001, taking everyone back to 1991, but they have no ability to change anything, and instead must live through their last decade again, doing exactly the same as they did the first time round.

I was intrigued by this as a concept, but the book is far more than that. Like everything Kurt Vonnegut did, this is damned weird. When you think about it, it would be hard to write a book retreading old time, especially when free will had been removed so no one could discuss what had happened; everyone just has a sense that time is repeating. Instead, Vonnegut tells the story of how the wrote the book, and details his relationship with Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer who is categorically fictional. Vonnegut blends his autobiographical memories about the career and his family with fictional events. He talks of writing Timequake One, but also seems to have experienced it himself.

He mixes together true tales, some funny, some tragic, about his life with fiction in such a way that sometimes it’s difficult to work out where the lines are. The text is somewhat jumbled throughout, leaping through time without much warning, occasionally segueing into idle thoughts that otherwise have no place in the text. He repeats himself, brings back unfinished stories to touch them up later on, and speaks with love about his family: his sister who died in her forties, his scientist brother who invented a way to force clouds to snow, and various aunts and uncles with whom he had a whole manner of relationships. It’s a metafictional minefield though, as at any moment we could be treated to what Kilgore Trout was doing during the rerun, or why the death toll was so high when the universe finally sorted itself out again.

Oddly enough, 2007 was also the year Kurt Vonnegut died. So it goes.

“Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain” by Barney Norris (2016)

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five-rivers“Long before the steep trickle of the Channel widened to make an island of England, before the first settlers arrived and started claiming the land around, laying down tree trunks to make pathways through marshes from ridgeway to mountain to hill, something unusual happened in the green south of Wiltshire.”

Every so often you stumble across a book that feels particularly special. All the truths of the world are hidden in the lies of novels, and Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain has done something really rather wonderful. I’ll get my bitterness over the fact that the author, Barney Norris, is only a year older than me and wildly more successful and talented out of the way as quickly as possible and on we go with the review.

Set in the beautiful city of Salisbury and its picturesque surroundings, Five Rivers… brings together the overlapping stories of five residents. Rita is the wrong side of sixty, selling flowers in the market by day and dealing drugs by night. Sam has just turned sixteen and is dealing with the hormonal headache that comes from falling in love for the first time. George has just been widowed from his wife of fifty years and doesn’t seem to have a clue what’s meant to happen next. Alison is a desperately lonely middle-aged woman, left alone for weeks on end with a son at boarding school and a husband serving in Afghanistan. And Liam is a security guard, running  away from his problems and finding himself back where he began. A car crash brings the five together and their lives loop around one another, bringing to the surface feelings that they’ve tried hard to hide.

Despite his relatively young age, Norris slips into the roles of his five narrators like a man trying on a series of tailor-made suits on Savile Row. He inhabits the role of the nervous, awkward Sam as naturally he does the older woman Rita. His style is mesmerising, and each character leaps off the page as a complete individual, despite us few if any clues as to their physical appearances. It doesn’t matter though, because they feel plenty real enough.

Norris has tapped into something utterly remarkable here, and frequently I found myself having to stop for a while, tears threatening to expose themselves, as he reveals yet another painful truth about the world. As Sam himself notes, “It’s so strange when a song or a story can […] put your own feelings into words as if you’d hidden them there yourself”. The text is full of emotions and thoughts that have definitely occurred to me, but I’ve never been able to get them out quite right. Some writer I am, huh. Norris makes it look easy. Sam’s chapter is the one I had particular difficulty in dealing with, as I saw a lot of myself in him, right down to some painfully specific details.

While the book contains all sorts of themes on the smallness of the world, how to find happiness, and how to decide what really matters in life, there are two overwhelming themes for me. The first is the relationship between parents and their children, in particular that of mothers and sons. Most of the characters have issues in this field, and we explore them from different angles. Sam has lived in a quiet house where he and his parents have never spoken about anything “important”. Alison feels herself drifting from her teenage son and wonders if she’ll ever be able to be friends with him. Liam’s parents are moving on with their lives and starting again in their fifties, leaving him feeling lost. The strongest theme is, however, loneliness. Despite being cripplingly afraid of loneliness myself, I seem to keep finding books about it and almost without fail falling in love with them. Each of the five main characters is lonely in one way or another, either cut off from their family, or unable to open up, or feeling isolated and trapped. So many of us plod on through life, but how many of us are actually happy with what has happened to us?

A deeply beautiful book from an author who I shall be keeping an eye on, because I think this could be the start of a very promising literary career.

My novel contains much less in the way of beautiful, worldly truths, but instead fills Salisbury with bickering gods and an ancient cannibal. Get hold of The Atomic Blood-stained Bus on Amazon if you like that sort of thing.

“The Diary Of A Nobody” by George & Weedon Grossmith (1888)

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nobody-diary“We settle down in our new home, and I resolve to keep a diary.”

There are always debates about what the funniest book ever is. For my sins, I feel it’s probably The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, though undoubtedly there are many others I’m forgetting. Still, that’s definitely one of them. A couple of years ago I read Lucky Jim, which is often declared one of the funniest books ever written, but I didn’t especially agree. However, I embarked on The Diary of a Nobody and came to the conclusion that this is definitely a strong contender, and I understand why it’s never been out of print in over 120 years.

This short book is extracts from the diary of Mr Charles Pooter, a clerk in Victorian London who has high hopes of being considered as good a diarist as Samuel Pepys. He is frustratingly middle-class, but like many people of the time (the book having first been serialised between 1888 and 1889), he is obsessed with his status in society, taking great pride in his work, enjoying the company of people he believes to be his betters and treating them with a reverence they probably don’t deserve, and becoming very excited by invitations to posh balls and parties.

His daily life is interrupted when his son Lupin returns home to live with him and his wife, Carrie. Lupin’s love life now becomes something to worry about, and Pooter must balance his son’s louche behaviour with his ever-present friends Gowing and Cummings, his money troubles and his desire to be considered a great man.

For a book so old, it feels startlingly modern. I don’t pretend to be any sort of expert on Victorian literature – I’ve rather avoided the time period as a whole, due to an unfortunate incident with Dickens – so maybe this is common of the time, but it’s properly funny and the Grossmith brothers are fully aware of what an idiot Pooter is, although the man himself has a high opinion of his own position and status, and sees nothing ridiculous about it. He admits early on that he rarely tells jokes, but at least once a chapter he comes out with some little bit of wordplay or a pun, which are rather sweet in their way, but seem to make the characters roar with laughter almost every time. Still, I suppose things were simpler then – they were still waiting for the Playstation to be invented.

Still, the jokes are delightful, but the true humour comes from that most English of issues – class. Pooter feels like a very early example of characters like Basil Fawlty and David Brent, men who are desperate to be recognised but consider society to be ignoring them and not letting them progress as they would like. Pooter is charmingly innocent, always tries to see the best in things and hates causing a fuss if he doesn’t have to. Is he aware that he has no authority and people don’t take him seriously? Probably not.

It’s a great little cast of characters too. We know almost nothing of any of them physically, but their personalities leap off the page. His friends, Cummings and Gowing (at one point he quips that in their house, Cummings always seems to be going, and Gowing always seems to be coming) are strange and don’t treat him with respect always, but he seems to still adore them well enough. The greatest relationship in the book though is that between Pooter and his wife, Carrie. They have been together a long time and yet still seem utterly besotted with one another. Carrie finds her husband ridiculous at times too, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind, but she obviously loves her foolish husband, and it’s rather sweet to witness.

Utterly charming, very funny and an engaging little read. Pooter will certainly never be a Nobody to me – he will always stand out as one of literature’s great Somebodies.

“After The Funeral” by Agatha Christie (1953)

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Let's put this year to rest.

Let’s put this year to rest.

“Old Lanscombe moved totteringly from room to room, pulling up the blinds.”

The year is almost at an end  – thank goodness – but there was still time to squeeze in one more book before it ended. Given the slew of high profile deaths this year – with George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds all joining the list in the last few days – it seemed that there was only one book suitable to sum up the year. This is Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral.

The remaining members of the Abernethie family have gathered at the family pile of Enderby Hall after the funeral of the eldest brother, Richard. Everyone seems far more eager to have lunch and get the will read, rather than do much mourning. After solicitor Mr Entwhistle goes over the basics of the will, Richard’s younger sister, the slightly scatty and simple Cora Lansquenet comments that it’s all been rather hushed up and when everyone stares at her in confusion, she adds, “He was murdered, wasn’t he?”

The family think that Cora may just be trying to wind them up or has entirely got hold of the wrong end of the stick, but the next day, Cora is found mudered in her bed, a hatchet taken to her sleeping body several times. Suspicion abounds immediately, as it seems the Abernethie family have a killer in their midst, and it will surely only be a matter of time before they strike again. Entwhistle calls in the assistance of Hercule Poirot, who sets about infiltrating the family to find out the truth behind these deaths.

It’s hard to often know what to keep saying about Christie novels. They are all so clever and interesting that they generally garner a lot of praise from me immediately. This one is definitely very smart, and while I’d brushed up against the solution a couple of times, I had chased myself away from it too with other ideas. The red herrings are deftly placed, and truly right up until the reveal just a few pages before the end, it could plausibly have been any of the suspects. In many ways, this is peak Christie – a big house, a dysfunctional, wealthy family, a string of murders. Perhaps the most striking elements are the fact that all the murders are very different, whereas most murderers seem to have a particular method, and that, as Sophie Hannah says in her introduction to the book, the motive is non-transferable. That is, it’s a motive that could not belong to any other character, making the solution all the tighter.

Christie wasn’t fussed about how likely things were to happen. As long as they could happen, no matter how unlikely, then that was good enough for her to use. This allows her to write books like this, where the ending feels unique, and her style is so good that you don’t find yourself questioning any of the methods. This is, dare I say it, one of her best books, with a collection of selfish characters and speedy pacing that serves as a great delight to see out the year.

So, let’s put this year to rest. Early in the new year, I shall present a list of my ten favourite books of 2016, but until then, I wish you all the best for 2017. X

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