Friday, 15 August 2014

Discussing success in writing before, after and during a Grim Gathering

It was a funny old Wednesday. You know how it is, you have no social engagements in your diary at all and then suddenly three come along at once.  (Well o.k. spending the morning at work is probably stretching the definition of social engagement, but I really don't get out much.)

The afternoon however, held an unexpected party, suddenly realising I could make it to my Dad's birthday celebration in Northwood and, by the miracle of the underground, get back to South Kensington in the evening for Fantasy Faction's Grim Gathering.

The Grim Gathering panel were as charming, courteous and amusing as any one could have wished for. However, they also had three full-time non-writing jobs between the four of them.  Well O.K. Myke Cole had two jobs so that means two of the panel Peter Brett and Joe Abercrombie were wholly supported by their writing.  However, we had in the room four giants of fantasy, as another blogger has commented, veritable Gods.  Only two of whom were wholly supported by their craft.

My jealousy of Joe has long been fuelled by an early tweet of his about a great morning dilemma - which poptart to toast before settling down to a day's work (?!) at writing.  But I remember being shocked at how low the proportion of authors making a living off their writing was.  The moment of realisation came when I discovered after reading Emperor of Thorns, that Mark Lawrence had a full time day job and lived next to one of the most impoverished wards in Britain. That shocked me almost more than the deliciously satisfying ending to the Thorns trilogy.

We assume that behind every book on a bookstore shelf there is an author dwelling in a mansion tapping out twitter witticisms with one hand and blockbuster best sellers with the other.  The reality is probably that 90% (ok it's a wild guess but bear with me on this) of the authors on the shelves have to have a day job that pays the bills.

This thought struck a particular chord in the gap between my Wednesday gatherings. My sister newly returned from a 2 year sojourn in Hong Kong also had an inner London appointment so we rode the metropolitan line together.  To be honest - what with me about to move to Belfast - it is a bit of a statistical anomaly for the two of us to be in the same country at the same time, let alone being in the same train.

However, it was a good chance to catch up.  The book I had bought for her birthday (Steven King - On writing) turned out to be one of the set texts for the creative writing course that she is starting at Goldsmith's in October.  Oh the joys of being able to go part-time - more sibling jealousy on my part.  The discussion naturally fell to writing.  Just as my Dad followed me into a career in teaching when he retired, now my big sister has taken the opportunity to follow me into writing.  I guess I should feel sincerely flattered.

One of the things she mentioned though, was her belief that writers in general needed support.  She has a friend who is a published poet and through her she knows other published poets and writers.  The most successful amongst these are one couple who, alone of this group, can make a living from their writing.  Despite many awards and a healthy reputation in their crime writing genre, it is not a living which is earth shattering by any means.  These two successful writers together could scrape together a joint income of £30,000. (equivalent to about what a big bang theory actor earns for about a minute of onscreen time).

My sister asked me what would be the best way to support the craft of writing and the work of writers. If someone ever wanted to throw money at writing, rather than opera or any other Cinderalla of the arts, where and how should one throw it for best effect?

And I have to say I was stumped.  It's a good question, also according to my latest typo it's a god question which brings me back to the authors at the grim gathering.

At the after event drinks in the pub I got to talk briefly with Mark Lawrence and others about publishing and promoting and the huge pool of people with good or even great books that did not hit that sweet spot of timing necessary to make the best seller lists.  We also talked about some less well written books (a half century of variations between white and black for example) which nonetheless were phenomenally successful.  Such a work can still drag on its trails a string of similar works into the realms of  moderate success.  But like some ponzi pyramid selling scheme the effect must get more dilute with each generation of imitations until one is left with nothing more than fan-fiction (which after all is where that saga started).

But in general, like the village Hampden in Gray's elegy, there are doubtless some great books languishing in the graveyard end of amazon's ranking lists.  How can readers find such books and authors and how best can would be philanthropists support them?

My sister had in mind supporting internships, funding people to take a short sabbatical from their work and to have the time and space to write.  Certainly time is a precious resource to writers.  Time to be free from cats in your kecks - which seems to be Mark's current distraction. A colleague of mine and fellow self published author, G.R.Matthews commented on two contrasting weekends of productivity.  At home with children = 400 words, at home without children 4000 words.  Life does have a habit of getting in the way of writing and ever since I started writing (at 13) those slices of uninterrupted holiday writing time were so precious and productive.

So, I am sure every author would appreciate a month in retreat to thrash out the masterpiece.  Whether their abandoned families would be so appreciative is another question.

But would that be the best way to support writing, and how should someone select the lucky recipient of such largesse from the many who would claim it?

And this was the point Mark and I ended up discussing.  There is a plethora of writers out there all clamouring for a readership.  Writing the book is only half the battle, marketing it is a separate and significant challenge.

I am shouting out for readership myself though obviously trying not to be too loud and waiting for my turn in the shouting queue. I am British after all.  Nonetheless one of the great unexpected pleasures on Wednesday was getting to sign the back of a kindle on which someone had stored my (only available electronically) book, while we both stood in a queue to get our physical books signed by more illustrious authors.  

I am sure that many of the other gatherers at the grim gathering had their own work in progress that they wished to share.  And why not, great writers inspire writing.  I started writing because I loved Hornblower stories and wanted to write something similar, and I read Bolitho stories and thought I could match that.  But what this means is that there are a huge number of books available, mostly e-books and growing daily.

In that swelling crowd of books, being noticed is the key to success.  Never mind the hockey stick curve for global warming, there is an equally sharply curved graph for authorial success.  Success breeds success, it brings better product placement, higher author profiles, more numerous reviews, in more widely read media.  It is inevitably a snowball effect.

However, how do you kick start the snowball? (and it's not as easy to do as mixing your metaphors). How can you improve your chances to be noticed and, if my sister or anyone else set out to help foster writing, how would they help authors be noticed?  Dammit, how would you even decide who to help get noticed?

The advent of self-publishing has moved the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts out of the publishers' back office and onto the electronic shelves of amazon and kobo.  There is a huge range of works and there will be undiscovered gems within them.  It is now not simply the publishers who get to sift and sort through the totality of writing in search of talent. It is also the readers direct.  And readers may be more inclined to take a risk in their book choices than publishers, after all, a duff book read on a kindle costs a reader a few pence, a duff book launched can cost the publisher thousands.

Despite, or perhaps because of this, there is still a stigma associated with self publishing.  I have read of many assertions that only the big publishers know best, that they are the true gatekeepers of quality and that self-published books must surely be the ones that couldn't get a mainstream deal because the work was too poor quality.  I didn't try to get a deal for Lady of the Helm.  I had not the time to chase one, I did not want the delay in going to market, and self-publishing was cheap and easy to do and it paid excellent royalties.  But you can see in a couple of my reviews how even people who really liked my book approached it with a certain trepidation because it was "self-published"

Mark himself is in effect a hybrid author.  Besides the traditionally published Thorns trilogy and Prince of Fools he has a self published Jorg short story on Kindle "Sleeping Beauty." There has been talk of a selection of short stories about the back stories to Jorg's uncouth band of brothers a kind of "Rike - Origins"  I am sure there would be a strong market for that.  

Is Mark's self-published work of a lesser quality ? No of course not, it is Jorg in all his charming socioopathy. For Mark I would guess the convenience of self publishing is just as appealing as it was for me. After all he cut his teeth in self-publishing with Celyn's book "Wheel Mouse and all the Crazy Robots" which had the added complication of illustrations.

Is all traditionally published work brilliant? No.  I have just loaded an entire oxfam book collection bank with books we have discarded as part of our move.  In that mix are many books I bought and could not finish. Publishers can make mistakes and they are fundamentally businesses interested in marketability of books.  Marketability is not the exact same thing as quality.    

One of the authors I have on my TBR pile is Anthony Ryan.  His story is proof again that the range of quality in self published works certainly has a significant area of overlap with the range of quality of traditionally published books.  And also his story serves as a reminder that social media is a key marketing tool.  I have had messages from facebook friends recommending Anthony Ryan's books; a repetition in miniature of the internet interest that first propelled him from self-published to an author with a contract.

We are in the middle of a paradigm shift in how readers find and access writers.  I am not clear in my own mind how it works now, let alone how it will work in the future.  In the absence of those certainties it is difficult to identify
a) how a writer should set out to be noticed,
b) how a reader should find a new author, or
c) how a would be patron should find and support undiscovered talent. or even
d) whether readership is growing in total - or are these ever increasing authors subdividing a finite cake of readership into every dimminishing slices.

We can still go and browse in a book shop, see a cover that makes us pick up a book, glance at the blurb, skim the first page and find we are hooked.  After all that is how I found the Prince of Thorns. One of the grim gatherers did mention how she opens the book in the middle to sample the style and quality of writing, a cunning if incidental means to bypass all the agonised effort that authors put into that all important first line and first page.  But that browsing we readers do may not lead to a physical sale.  Much as it might pain them, bricks and mortar bookshelves are fulfilling a hybrid role between selling hard copies and serving as a 3-D advertising space for electronic copies.    

However, most of the books I am reading now are ones that I have heard recommended on the internet.  It may be by facebook friends I have not yet met in person, by discussions on reddit, by goodreads reviews from people I follow. Twitter is not just an agent of revolution in totalitarian states, it is a vehicle for disseminating opinions. It is the place where the flapping of one butterfly's wings can, sometimes, trigger a hurricane of interest in a topic.

So, the internet is the place to be for would-be authors.  The only trouble is, everyone else is already there and who is to pluck a reader from obscurity within the crowd?  Would be authors will pursue the patronage of the high profile internet presences . The blogspots and the twitter feeders and it will fall to these people to be the gatekeepers of quality, in a world where there is too much information, too many books, for individuals to filter.  And that is why publishers too will have to court such opinion formers.

It reminds me (as many things do) of the Royal Navy in the 18th century (bear with me on this).  To an uninformed eye it was a system ridden with nepotism and patronage.  Admirals on distant stations had huge powers and independence to promote, to make or break careers with barely a word of dissent from the admiralty.  However, look a little deeper and you see that the system worked generally because the admirals respected it.  They promoted quality, they recognised that their lordships in London had not the access to information about the young officers that they had. They disbursed their patronage wisely.  And those Admirals who didn't, those who allowed naked nepotism to drive their decisions, found those decisions were overturned to their humiliation.

In the same way, I expect we will see those internet patrons having more clout with the public and in turn being given more clout by the industry.  There are some excellent thoughtful bloggers out there.  They are giving our humble fantasy fiction as much careful consideration as any PhD student pouring over some work of classics to wring a drop of as yet undiscovered meaning from it. And why not, fantasy faction as Peter Brett and Myke Cole were saying at the Grim Gathering is not the escapist refuge of children.  It is the serious stuff of grown up writing, testing our understanding of people and behaviour through the rigour of a different setting.

So just as those long ago Admirals had power through patronage, so too will the bloggers and high profile internet users, but only so long as they make good recommendations.  Recommendations, which sustain a strong and satisfied personal public following.  And as for those, like my sister, who wish to support authors, find someone you like, review their books and talk about them  - a lot.

(I would just like at this point to say that Mark Lawrence's books are all brilliant as are Joe Abercrombie's, and Peter Brett's, while Myke Cole's are soaring to the top of my TBR list on the back of many recommendations and a personable performance at the Grim Gathering.  I would also add that anytime Jane Johnson would like to send me an Advanced Reader Copy of absolutely anything I would be delighted to receive it.)

Sunday, 10 August 2014

"Well I'm back" a review of Lord of the Rings in various forms.

Unlike Sir Christopher Lee, I am not a great re-reader (though possibly a better e-reader).  I would rather read something new than revisit an old book, no matter how much I loved it.  The most I might do is re-read key scenes to draw out again the visceral emotional response that the book invoked, replaying the highlights as Gary Lineker might think of it.  Why watch the whole 90 minutes of Germany vs Brazil, when you can just watch all seven goals on youtube over and over again?

So even though Lord of the Rings remains my favourite book - the one I would select if ever invited on to Desert Island Discs  (Kirsty Young you know where to find me) - I have only read it cover to cover once. However, while Sir Christopher (or Saruman as I prefer to think of him) fits in an annual reading between commitments to Peter Jackson's increasingly sprawling Tolkien adaptations, I am sure I have enjoyed the story in a greater variety of forms.

This summer, I was reunited with one of those forms when the long overnight drive to Bordeaux was enlivened by the 1981 Radio 4 production of Lord of the Rings in thirteen one hour episodes.  In my own home I have long ago surrendered all rights to the TV remote. As one whose ventures into the living room usually last just long enough to get a joke on "The Big Bang Theory" I have accepted the fact that my youngest daughter is the one true guardian of the channel changer and long may she hop to it.  However, as long haul night-time driver I hold a authority over what gets played on the car CD so absolute it would make a Russian Tsar look like a republican.

I first heard these shows back in 1981 when it was a Sunday broadcast of 26 half hour programmes.  It was in that gap between failing my first driving test and passing my second. My parents thought my skills could be usefully honed by driving them to Deal in Kent every Sunday where my sister was doing a gap year in some strange residential youth centre.  The ritual included listening to the radio show en route and, thirty three years later, the complete CD set was appropriately enough a 50th birthday present from the same sister. It just took me eight further months to create an opportunity to listen to it.

However, neither the book, nor the radio show was my first experience of Lord of the Rings.  No, my first true spark of interest was struck by the Avalon Hill game "War of the Ring"

War of the Ring     

This was an old fashioned paper map and cardboard counter game.  My father bought it -a slight digression from his world war 2 based war games - but I quickly appropriated it for myself.  I had made a few half hearted attempts to start the book since finishing the Hobbit, but always found myself giving up in the mire of the first chapter a long-extended party.  My father sorrowfully complained that the game began when the company were all assembled in Rivendell, missing out half of the first book.  This, to my callow teenage mind, was an excellent endorsement of the game.  

My first question on reading the rules was "why are there two Gandalfs?"  My dad explained and so I met my first spoiler for my subsequent reading of the book, but also a big incentive to get on and read it, so maybe spoilers aren't too bad.  The game was a cunning mix of individual character counters with their key attributes, together with lots of other counters to represent armies of different strengths and speeds.  In so doing it closely mimicked the epic scale and nature of the book where the actions of a few named individuals could influence the course of a war and the fate of thousands.  Even now as I write this, little waves of nostalgia ripple through me as another detail surfaces from my memory.  

There were the event cards, a bit like chance cards in monopoly but for each player to play.  The "Boromir attempts to seize the ring" was one such card and another spoiler for my reading of the book.  Then there were the "Servant of Sauron" squares on key points in the map where the travelling fellowship played a form of russian roulette with only a 2 in 6 chance of passing safely.   With random allocation, Shelob could turn up in the mines of Moria.  The image on the Balrog card, I remember, looked like nothing more scary than a bright eyed teddy bear.   

A key part of the fellowship strategy was to get Gandalf the Grey killed as quickly as possible so that he could be replaced by the more potent Gandalf the White.  As an unsentimental game player, the balrog could never come soon enough and if he'd failed I'd probably have pushed Gandalf off the bridge of Khazad-Dum myself.

It was also axiomatic that the free people could not win by force of arms and a host of black orc and red haradrim counters were intended to be sufficient to swamp the light blue counters of Rohan and the white counters of Gondor.  But, in the many games where I managed both sides, I tried to manufacture a win for the forces of good.  Many times the Rohirrim rode and with Dain and Brand and Thranduil to aid them I frequently found I had the military victory that Aragorn never managed.  A victory so complete that Frodo could have walked to Mount Doom across a carpet of orc bodies and flicked the ring into its depth with no more care than one might toss a coin.

But that game, which I must have seen in late 1978 or early 1979, rekindled my interest in the book.  So I turned again to Tolkien's classic and waded my way through the long-expanded party and came at last to the Halls of Elrond in Imladris.   

I doubt there are many people for whom the Game came before the book, but maybe I am wrong.

The Book



My first faltering attempts to read the book had been with the copy in my Grandmother's house during long dull Sunday afternoon visits when she had gone for an afternoon rest and no-one could make any noise.  The cover of trees and valleys only exacerbated the confusion I felt as a lover of The Hobbit who expected more of the same blend of fire and riddles.  However, fresh from the fascination of the game I got myself my very own boxed three volume set of the books with its bright 1973 cover design.

I loved the book it was a story of heroism and majesty and spoiled though my reading was, I savoured every word.  Jon Boorman's Excalibur film had come out around that time.  The film was memorable for many things, not least of which was a scene of a man in full plate armour (Uther) making love to a naked woman (Igraine) but then that was the 70s and the man always got to keep his clothes on.   Alongside that baffling indeed misleading insight into an adult world, the film inspired in me a sad geeky love of Wagner.   So while the music of Gotterdaemerung filled my ears, the words of Lord of the Rings filled my eyes.

I don't remember crying at it but certain images and passages were so ingrained through constant rereading that I knew them almost off my heart.  
"Begone foul dwimmerlake, Lord of carrion, leave the dead in peace."   or 
"Is there anybody in this rabble with authority to treat with me, or indeed with wit to understand me, not thou at least.  It takes more to make a king than a piece of elvish glass and a rabble such as this, why any brigand of the hills could show as good a following." or
"Where such laws hold it is customary for ambassadors to use less insolence."  
I read them aloud to myself, curling my voice around Eowyn's defiance, or sneering as the haughty Mouth of Sauron. That was the year of O'level English.  Coursework was just coming in and we had to choose a piece to read aloud.  In my case it was more a recitation than a reading, and I still know most of it by heart.
"The world was young, the mountains green,
No stain yet on the Moon was seen..."

The Radio Adaptation

Those long ago Sunday journeys to Deal in Kent were irregular in their start times and somewhat fewer in number than the 26 episode length of the original series, so I never heard the whole thing until this week, this summer.

Listening to it now, I am struck by how clunky some of the dialogue is and also how difficult a work it was to adapt.  Radio does not lend itself so well to action as film does and time and time again (in Moria, on the Pelennor fields, at the crack of Doom itself) the sound is of screams and shouts and a wait for someone to explain what just happened.  The limitations of  budget and cast size are also apparent, when the great shouts of praise from thousands in the open air is so plainly seven people in a recording studio. The sound effects of Gollum being tortured in Barad-dur were also somewhat laboured, more reminiscent of the banda copying machines of my early days in teaching than a sophisticated instrument of torture.

However, Michael Hordern had the right gravitas of tone for Gandalf and Ian Holm played Frodo both as the naive but worthy Hobbit and the burdened ring monster in the making.  My mother did complain about Robert Stephens portrayal of Aragorn.  She claimed he had a speech impediment, the kind that became Jonathan Ross's trade mark, and was affronted that Aragawn could not say his own name.  Listening to it again, I think she was a little harsh.  Stephens' voice reminds me now of Alan Rickman as Professor Snape, a voice with its own sense of majesty.  However, it certainly does not carry off Aragorn remotely so well as Viggo Mortensen did.  

The concept of "The voice of Saruman", however, was well done on radio, more so than the film.  A change in tone and emphasis served well to convey the persuasive power of the once white wizard.  A feature that the films rather skipped over.  And the radio show gave full weight and credit to the epilogue of Lord of the Rings, the scouring of the shire.   Something that the impatience of film, even one so long as The Return of the King could not allow.  However, both radio and film skipped the Tom Bombadil episode, and neither were much the poorer for it.

The depiction of Gollum is great. For all Andy Serkis's visual brilliance in the films, the voice acting of Peter Woodthorpe is outstanding and brought alive scenes that had travelled slowly in the book. Bill Nighy too, as Samwise Gamgee lifted the pace and the humour.  Faramir's reflectiveness, by contrast, seemed a little smug to my ear.

But there is the music too, not quite Enya or Annie Lennox, but inspiring in its way.  I bought the record of the music and played Gilgalad was an Elven king over and over, drawing deeply on my college room mate's reservoirs of patience.

But, the evening draws in and I am at the end of my nostalgic tour of early Tolkien memories and returned also from the distance, distraction (and drink) of a fortnight's French holiday.  Like Sam Gamgee as Rose put little Eleanor on his lap, I must look to all the things that will keep my busy in the present and immediate future and, reflect - in mind as well as body - "Well, I'm back"

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The Straight Razor Cure by Daniel Polansky- my (spoiler free) review

There is a power available to first person narratives, being wholly inside the protaganist's head and experiencing the story only through their eyes. The people and the context are filtered by the lens of the unreliable narrator's own distorting perspective.  I have just finished this book and I am suddenly struck by the thought - do I even know the narrator's name?  He is the Warden  and I have ridden so intimately in his head that I know and use his own name as little as I would think of my own in everyday life.  I am and so is he.

The story is sustained by an intoxicating mix of rich ingredients.  The writing is lyrical, the view point like a fantasy version of Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler's smooth private investigator.  Our Hero, like Marlowe encounters murder and straddles the cultural map, between the squalor of the underclass and the unjustified privilege of an elite tottering unknowingly on the brink of extinction.  But  the Warden is more that Marlowe, he has a complex past and when we first him his business is trafficking a variety of imaginatively named narcotics, rebranded for a fantasy setting, after all vice is universal.  When you think of the city of Rigis (of which low town is the seediest quarter), think not of Minas Tirith,  so much as Dickensian London, or even the Gilroy's cartons of the gin houses of Georgian times.   The warden is not above sampling his own wares, a sniff of pixie breath getting him through a variety of very trying days and there are plenty of them in the course of this book.

But this is so much more than Marlowe with magic. There is a city struggling with the aftermath of a plague and a war, which add elements of 1660s London and early twentieth century England to the delicious stew that Polanski is cooking.  The Warden has a dark past forged in a gruellng warfare of trenches and incompetence.  Maybe it is the bloodbath of Verdun, or the torment of Iwo Jima's meat grinder, either way the Warden's reminiscences evoke a vivid impression of the horrors of war, of sundered comradeship.  The finale of the war also resonates with the end of the second world war, an unimaginable weapon unleashed that destroys the enemy and saves lives.  But this is not a nuclear bomb it is a vile work of magic, and the Warden did not see the last of it when the war ended.

Within that fragile national psyche, the Warden wonders through a polyglot city filled with nationalities so well known to him that we, who ride on his shoulder, must absorb an understanding of the complex cultural dynamics through an osmotic experience rather than explicit description.  I cannot say I fully understood the differences, but this is a story not a travel guide and it is extremely well told.  Every character, small or large (and some of them are very large), is given the dignity of depth and vitality and difference.  No cardboard cut outs here, no generic grunts.  Yancey the slightly spaced out musician, his match making mother, or the sultry madam, or the sick old man in the tower and his apprentice the woman with whom the Warden shares an unfulfilled past, and especially the leader of the Kiren and his elaborate formula of greeting and discourse.  I enjoyed most those passages where the Warden and he exchanged threat and counter threat beneath a veil of wordy courtesy.

The bleak well crafted atmosphere reminded me of the Blade Runner film, the steam rising in the streets and, be it buildings or weather, interiors or exteriors, Polanski paints with a colourful palette. The Dickensian element comes to the fore in the street urchins, Wren - the would be artful dodger - determined to make the Warden into his mentor, and the Warden determined not to do charity, not to be good, but finding he cannot help himself when murder stalks the streets of Lowtown.    

The writing is rich not spare, the dialogue sharp, the characters always convincingly true to themselves.    It is a book that enveloped and absorbed me and, too near the end, I realised I should have book marked more quotes to share - but then let other readers find them for themselves. I did note this one just as one exemplar of what I liked in the writing.  A descriptor of a guest at a debauched party for the jaded rich,  "Up close she looked like someone better seen from further away."

Reading this book is like watching a cook creating something beautiful and engaging from a variety of ingredients and yet still surprising at the end - so that although I had watched the whole process at close hand, I was left marvelling, where did that come from?

Monday, 4 August 2014

Outsourced? A review of The Outsorcerer's Apprentice

Writing is hard, writing comedy is harder, I think even harder than stand up comedy.  The stand up comedian has the immediate feedback of audience reaction.  He or she can tailor their material, shuffle the gags and decide if something needs to be cut.  The writer of comedy sends their work beyond a veil and, beta-readers apart, gets feedback only once the work is complete, the jokes all told, the bid for funny made.

In my review of "Apocalypse Cow" I thought the humour a little strained with the effort of walking the borderline between ha ha and peculiar

"The Outsorcerer's Apprentice" by Tom Holt is another book that tries on the Terry Pratchett mantle of real world satire in a fantasy setting.  However in Holt's work the links between reality and fantasy are more explicit than the chuckle inducing cross-references of the Discworld novels.  This is a book revelling in a multiverse of parallel worlds with reality exploiting and distorting fantasy for the baldest of economic advantage.

That is the central joke of the book, the ultimate in outsourcing, forget call centres in Mumbai and sweatshops in Bangladesh, let's exploit a low paid fantasy workforce of elves, dwarves and goblins.

It's an interesting and clever idea and it sustains a lot of narrative thread.  But a book needs more than one funny idea to sustain the reader interest.  There are some smile inducing characters and some clever lines. Personally I liked "The other one when pulled is a campanological delight" For most of my reading I veered between thinking 3 stars and 4 stars.

The story was what kept me reading, the old questions of What will happen next? When will these two people meet up? Who is the strange man in a flat cap? Why would a unicorn do that? What is it with wolves and tea  sets?

The story is the thing, and in the end I felt the story was just a bit messy for my taste.  A tangled ball of interesting and colourful wool more than a fully knitted article.   So I settled on three stars, I liked it but in the end I thought that there were too many loose ends that the story tripped over in its eagerness to cleverly amuse.  .