Review: A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

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“I don’t know why it is,” Abby said, “but these last few years the house has just always seemed the wrong size. When your father and I are alone, it’s too big, and when you all come to visit it’s too small.”

The Whitshanks have always lived in the house on Bouton Road. Red Whitshank, the patriarch of the family, has lived there since he was a small boy. His father, Junior Whitshank, built it with his own hands, making sure that each and every detail was perfect. The building and upkeep of the house became the centre of Junior Whitshank’s life. So, some years later, when Red’s parents were both suddenly killed by a freight train when their car stalled on the tracks, it was natural for Red and his wife, Abby, to step in and take it over. And, as their lives progressed, they too filled the house with children, laughter, love and the inevitable misunderstandings that accompany family life.

The book starts with Abby and Red discussing their troubled and unreliable son, Denny, who has recently called to tell them he’s gay only to promptly hang up before they can respond. Later we learn that Denny has often avoided his family but that once, while working as a cook in a New York restaurant, he invited his family to attend his wedding to the waitress, Carla. Later in the book, Linnie Mae, Red’s mother, tells how she met Red’s father, Junior Whitshank.  The narrative is skilfully interspersed which adds interest to the story as well as allowing the reader to compare and contrast the personalities of the different characters.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, which made me feel as though I were sitting at the dining room table with my grandmother, listening to her tell stories of family members I’d never met, and some that I had.  Tyler’s writing drew me in with its honesty, humour and well-placed, perfect details and made me want to stay within her pages for as long as I could. Just as many garments can be mended from one spool of thread, so can those in a family be patched together from pieces of the same cloth.

I look forward to reading more of Anne Tyler’s novels in future.

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My review of The Unusual Possession of Alastair Stubb by David John Griffin

Firstly, I’d like to thank Sonya Alford and David John Griffin for this book, which I won in a competition on Sonya’s blog https://aloverofbooks.wordpress.com . The book design is beautiful, and one of the nicest I’ve seen in a while (you can’t really tell from the photo but the letters are all embossed and the insects appear nearly holographic).

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The shuttered windows became blinkered, sorrowful eyes, the main canopy over its entrance a wet nose and the outer door that gaped open acquired two rows of fine, pointed teeth.

Ever since Eleanor and William lost their first child, who was to be named Alastair, Eleanor has longed for him. She calls his name, pretending he exists, and sees things which aren’t real. Or are they?

She becomes so disturbed by her visions that she ends up in a sanatorium, only being allowed out once she recants them. However, just because she’s recanted them doesn’t mean she doesn’t still see them. While Eleanor’s been away, William’s business has failed. He’s had to sell their house and move in with his aging, manipulative, insect-collecting father. Now that Eleanor’s returned, everyone must do their best to adapt to their changed family circumstances. The big question is, how they’ll manage to do so.

The Unusual Possession of Alastair Stubb is a magical realist story set in an alternate reality, nineteenth century English village. It’s told in two parts, with alternating third person viewpoints. As is usual with the genre, at times it’s hard to tell what’s really happening and what’s only in the minds of the characters. Griffin manages to separate them out nicely, thereby clarifying events for the reader, without becoming mired down in the details or losing the magical elements of the story.

Griffin’s prose is lucid and striking in this atmospheric, creepy and ultimately gothic tale dealing with issues of identity, disassociation, schizophrenia and ghosts. But although his novel’s themes may be heavy, Griffin underlies them with a sense of humour. One of my favourite things about this novel were the names of his characters. For example there is Dr. Snippet, the Reverend and Mrs. Musty, Mr. Fishcake and Mrs. Goodwithin, amongst others. His place names were equally clever and amusing, with The Bulldog Fish Tavern being easily my favourite.

If you enjoy gothic tales, psychology and/or magical realism I’d recommend this novel.

The Unusual Possession of Alastair Stubb is published by Urbane Publications and is available from Amazon and all good bookshops.

To learn more about the author, visit his website: http://www.davidjohngriffin.com/

Follow him on Twitter: @MagicalRealized

The Moth Catcher screening and Q and A with Ann Cleeves and Brenda Blethlyn

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On Thursday evening I was very lucky to be able to attend a screening and Q and A of one of Ann Cleeves latest Vera Stanhope mysteries, The Moth Catcher. I was invited to the event by Islington Libraries as I’m a member of one of their reading groups (yet another benefit of library membership!). For just a £6 entry fee I got entry to a Victorian Grade II listed hotel (The Courthouse Hotel in Soho, London), a free signed copy of the book, entry to the reception, a free drink and–wait, I’m not done yet–access to the film screening and Q and A. They even threw in some popcorn just to top it off! Tremendous value, especially when you consider that a drink alone in certain parts of London might cost you the best part of that.

Anyway, need I say that it was well worth it? Vera is one of my all-time favourite shows, on a par with Krister Henriksson’s Wallander, and I am notoriously picky when it comes to TV programmes. It was so much fun to see which of the actors I–or I should say, we, for I took the hubby along to this one–recognised at the reception. I was planning on trying to interview Ann Cleeves at the event but, alas, she was quite busy talking with other adoring members of the public and I simply did not get up the courage. Maybe next time. 🙂

After the reception we were treated to a private screening of episode three, The Moth Catcher, in the new series 6. I won’t say much about it here except that if you are following the series you won’t be disappointed. This is yet another atmospheric, socially insightful and gripping instalment in this very enjoyable series.

After the credits rolled, Ann Cleeves, Brenda Blethlyn (Vera), Jon Morrison (Kenny Lockhart) and Kenny Doughty (DS Aiden Healy), as well as the director, Jamie Childs, answered a few questions which were asked on behalf of the audience. It was very strange having gone from being absorbed in the show to having the actors there in front of us. 🙂

Brenda Blethlyn is much smaller than Vera, and, of course, far more stylish. The Vera in Cleeves’ stories is much bigger than Brenda Blethlyn (both taller and wider). As they couldn’t make Brenda taller, they decided to make her wider by adding layers of waist-length clothing. Brenda Blethlyn said that she thinks viewers can relate to Vera because she’s ordinary, like someone you might see at the bus stop and never know that they were a high ranking detective. Indeed, this is one of my favourite things about her character.

According to Ann Cleeves, the series would never have been made if it weren’t for her first Vera novel, The Crow Trap, being discovered by producer Elaine Collins in an Oxfam charity shop in North London (a huge stroke of luck for Cleeves as Collins was searching for a new story to make into a series, and a counter to the argument that having your novel sold in a charity shop is a negative experience for the author).

Jamie Childs who is originally from the area, talked about what an honour it has been for him to film in the North East as this is something he’s always wanted to do. He said that he grew up in Durham in the same colliery village where Billy Elliot was filmed and used to fish in the area with his granddad.

Ann Cleeves said that a knock-on effect of the show is that it has brought jobs to the North East again. There are now official Vera tours which sell in 130 countries, and tourism to the area is increasing. From what I’ve seen on the show, this looks like one of the most beautiful parts of the country and it’s somewhere I hope to visit before too long.

When Ann Cleeves was asked what advice she would give her young self that she would also give to a young writer now, she said that young writers should just keep writing. She said you have no idea if any of these things will happen to you, and if they do, it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with luck.

I found her advice to be both humble and inspiring, as indeed she was.

I look forward to reading my beautiful signed copy of The Moth Catcher!

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You can catch up with Vera via the ITV player: http://www.itv.com/hub/vera/1a7314a0023

Get your copy from Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00UXKJ0XA Or, your local library.

Catch up with Ann Cleeves via her website: http://www.anncleeves.com/

Follow her on Twitter: @AnnCleeves