Cannonball Read 6, Book 49: Dare Me by Megan Abbott

14062212I have mentioned before how I’ll happily read books where I am FULLY aware I am really not said book’s target market. It’s been a while since I wandered so far outside of my demographic as I have here with this story of cheerleaders, rivalry and Generally Bad Goings-On. But Abbott has garnered acclaim for her YA as well her non-YA novels, a few of which I’m also interested in reading. And who among us watched Bring It On and thought “yeah, I bet it’s not really this nice”? Well, this book is for all of us.

It’s a tale as old as time. A Queen Bee is loved and feared in equal measure until a better Queen comes along and takes her throne. The deposed queen becomes obsessed with exposing the new queen as a fake and a phoney and having the scales fall from everyone’s eyes. It never normally ends well. Here, the Queen Bee is head cheerleader Beth Cassidy and in a nice take, the threat comes not from a new girl who can flic-flac her into next week, but from the new cheer coach, who has no time for the way Beth runs her squad. And in an even nicer twist, Beth isn’t just driven into a jealous rage, but is a full blown insane psychopath who will stop at nothing to end the coach’s reign. And when the coach hands her the way to upend her life on a silver platter, shit gets real ugly real fast.

Narrated by Beth’s best friend, Addy Hanlon, there’s no denying that Abbott knows how teenage girls operate. It all feels brilliantly and unpleasantly authentic. One of the many reasons I can’t bear the movie Juno is it all feels like a guess, Diablo Cody thinks it’s how teenage girls talk to each other. I didn’t believe a single word anyone said in that film. I believed every word of this book though. It’s smart, it’s incisive and it’s gripping. Seriously. I know I’m talking about a cheerleading book, I haven’t lost my mind.

Things go from bitchily amusing to ever darker when the Coach is caught red-handed having an affair. If you have any plans to read this book, I’m about to get all spoilerific, so look away now. Coach has an affair with Will, a hot military recruiter and when he turns up dead, and it turns out not to be the suicide initially posited, the noose curls ever more tightly around Coach French’s neck and we all breathlessly await Crazy Beth to storm in and kick her chair away. For me, the end could have gone about four different ways and the direction Abbott eventually pulls you in was one I didn’t see coming until it was almost upon me. That’s how good she is. It’s how good this book is. If you’ve ever wanted to be a cheerleader, been bullied by a mean girl, idolised your best friend, been a cheerleader, been mean, idly plotted your frenemy’s downfall, you’ll find something to relate to in this deliciously nasty little gem.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 48: The Shock of The Fall by Nathan Filer

16120760‘I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother. His name’s Simon. I think you’re going to like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages he’ll be dead. And he was never the same after that.’

Nathan Filer won the Costa Book of the Year award last year  for this intensely well crafted debut novel, and now I have read it, I wholeheartedly agree with their decision. He also rightly won the First Novel award from Costa as well. The story is a relatively straightforward one, of a teenager’s descent into schizophrenia, but said teenager is also our narrator, so things are not always as simple as they appear. Mathew Homes was a perfectly happy boy with a brother he adored. His brother Simon has Downs Syndrome and is adored by the whole family. But, as Mat unflinchingly states, Simon died at a very young age, which starts Mathew down his path of mental disarray.

Mathew is writing his story of his descent into the depths of schizophrenia on an old typewriter given to him by his Nan, interspersed with his ongoing story of his journey back to square one. The differing fonts and styles are elegantly rendered and make this book an aesthetic joy as well as a literary one. It is very intelligently written, Mathew’s feeling that he’s fine and coping when it’s clear in everything he’s saying that the opposite is the case makes for some emotionally tough reading.

And as Mat slowly peels away the layers of memory and misremembering into what exactly happened with Simon’s death, the emotional punches just keep on coming. Mat has always blamed himself for what happened and so “this is my care plan: As a small boy, I killed my own brother and now I must kill him again. I’m given medicine to poison him, then questioned to make sure he’s dead”. The last third of this book is properly wrenching and making it through the final chapter dry eyed is no mean feat. It’s a great book, brimming with heart and never looking away from the emotional rawness that comes with long term grief and blame. It’s not an easy read, but it’s most definitely a worthwhile one. Highly recommended.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 47: Lost For Words by Edward St Aubyn

18490609There are some novelists who, when you read them, you really feel like you get to know them. And you like them. My literary crush on Patrick Ness is well documented, but I’d also happily go for a pint with Stephen King, Sarah Waters, David Mitchell and so on. Purely based on how much I enjoy their books and how their voice comes across in it, you understand. Based on this so-called novel, I wouldn’t want to go anywhere near Edward St Aubyn. Not  only is he a godawful smug twat, but he’s also a very bitter one.

St Aubyn has never won the Booker prize. He was shortlisted for it back in 2006, but failed to clinch the prize (it went to The Inheritance of Loss, which I hated. In my humble opinion, it should have gone to The Night Watch). Five years after St Aubyn was so egregiously overlooked, the Booker prize found itself in a bit of a pickle. Chaired by Stella Rimington, the ex-head of MI5 turned author, the opinions of her and the judges was repeatedly criticised for being simplistic, plebeian and so on and so forth. Redeemed by choosing The Sense of an Ending as the eventual winner, you would think that three years later, it should really fade into the mists of time.

But St Aubyn doesn’t think it should. With Lost For Words, he gives us a thinly fictionalised Booker Prize, here renamed the Elysian, with an awful lot of similarities to the 2011 hoo-ha. And it has to be one of the most unfunny, unpleasant, and borderline unreadable steaming piles of shite I’ve read in a very VERY long time. Among the “characters” (the only one St Aubyn attempts to give more than two dimensions to is the lovelorn debut novelist, Sam Black. Black has written, we’re repeatedly told, the only worthwhile book on the Elysian shortlist. I wonder who St Aubyn based him on?), are Katherine Burns, who is desperate for the attention of the Elysian committee, her publisher, who she’s having an affair with, an Indian prince who’s written what he is convinced is a masterpiece, and his aunt, whose cookbook is submitted to the committee in error, instead of Katherine’s book. When it ends up on the longlist for the prize, it starts to go from bad to worse.

With me so far? This slender tome drips ugly bitterness from every page. There are several many “excerpts” from the Elysian books and the books written by the judging panel (that’ll be the Rimington-esque judge then). All of them are all too obvious in who they’re skewering and none of them are really readable. St Aubyn seems blissfully unaware the message he’s sending out is “you’re so beneath me” with these horribly constructed paragraphs. Another character, the French philosopher Didier, speaks in unfathomable and VERY long speeches, none of which are remotely interesting or amusing. You’ve got the joke, such as it is (oh hey, he’s really pompous, oh my sides), after about a sentence and a half, but you’ve still got whole paragraphs to mirthlessly wade through. For me, St Aubyn really missed the point that for satire to really work, it has to be somewhat good natured. Joe Keenan and James Hamilton Paterson have written books along similar lines that have had me roaring with laughter. I didn’t so much as smile even once at this godforsaken and worthless piece of crap.

Far from going for a pint with St Aubyn, after this I’m far likelier to grab the nearest hardback and brain him with it, before calling him a name that rhymes with “blunt”. This book is AWFUL and it’s a real shame the author has absolutely no idea what a total tool it makes him look.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 46: The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

18925235Now, as the blog title tells you, I really do read a lot. But it’s an odd gap in my book life that I haven’t read very many Agatha Christie novels. Those I have read, I read when I was in my teens and don’t really remember them anyway. So I decided to address this and read all the Poirot and Marple books, as well as her most famous stand alone novels like And Then There Were None. So what better place to start than at the beginning of the Poirots, with his introduction in The Mysterious Affair at Styles?

Well, like all beginnings of a series, it’s a slight little thing. Narrated by Captain Hastings, who has encountered Poirot in a professional capacity prior to the start of the novel. He’s staying at Styles and one night, the lady of the house, Emily Inglethorpe, is fatally poisoned. Handily enough, Poirot is staying in the village and knows the Inglethorpes well. Hastings asks him to investigate and naturally he agrees.

This is a book which can be enjoyed on many levels. There are many occasions where you can snigger behind your hand at the unintentional double entendre (people “ejaculate in surprise” more than once, for example). You can read it as an unrequited love story between Hastings and Poirot to rival that of Smithers and Mr Burns. You can read it as the first instalment of a sociopathic Belgian who goes around killing people and then getting away with it by framing someone else and blinding everyone else with the science of his “little grey cells”. Or you can read it as a straightforward mystery. Sadly, it’s that last one which is probably the least satisfying.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s by no means terrible. But it’s just a little but silly, protracted and then when the killer is finally revealed, oddly unsatisfactory. It’s not difficult to work out where it’s going, despite the amount of red herrings Christie litters about the place. I am not discouraged from carrying on with the series, not by a long stretch, as I am sure there are many delights in store. But as introductions go, this is a very inauspicious one.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 45: Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green & David Levithan

18918102So this was an intriguing one. The two biggest YA superstars collaborate on a book, each writing alternate chapters, about two high school boys both named Will Grayson. John Green takes the straight Will, best friend to the biggest, gayest teen (ironically nicknamed Tiny, of course) while Levithan gives us the gay will, who is too cool to use capital letters at any point ever, but otherwise leads a tortured existence, prone to black moods and on medication to stabilise his moods. A freak turn of events sees the two Graysons intersect and their lives begin to move in different and unplanned directions.

I loved this book so hard. Both Green and Levithan capture the voices of their characters phenomenally well. It’s frequently hilarious, it punches you in the gut almost as often. I loved that Will Grayson Who Uses Caps loved to indulge in giving people the kind of nicknames that I like to give to people, when he christens a love rival “DouchePants McWaterPolo”. There is a LOT of talk about how huge Tiny is. “Imagine being hugged by a sofa. that’s what it feels like”. In terms of plot, it is both predictable and a little ridiculous. Tiny Cooper is writing a musical about his life that the school is going to put on. Of course, he and gay will end up seeing each other.

But the characters are so strong and the writing so spot on, that the inanity of the plot fades away into the background. The transition of gay will from spiky and dark to cautious romantic is beautiful and painful to read. When Tiny asks whether he minds if they hold hands, the response “the truth is, i do mind. but i know that since he’s my boyfriend, the answer should be that i don’t mind at all. he’d probably carry me to class in his arms if i asked him nicely” actually made me say “awwww”. Out loud. On public transport. I suspect how much people love this book does relate to how bearable and believable they find Tiny Cooper, but I loved that whether he was vastly ridiculous or not, he was not a caricature or a stereotype. Neither author talks down to their audience. It’s not every day you read a book where a relationship is mapped out using Schrodinger’s Cat as a template.

But the ending, the ending. Sigh. I tore through this book in no time at all and loved every page, right up to the final chapter. The final chapter is a bit of a fumble. It doesn’t end the way I wanted it to, but it also doesn’t really end in a believable or terribly satisfying way. It’s annoying in the extreme that such a wonderful novel takes a sharp turn into Blahville. I still loved it, but it ends up going just left of centre rather than nailing the bullseye.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 44: & Sons by David Gilbert

21100454Every year, there’s another attempt at writing The Great American Novel. And the latest instalment in that neverending series is David Gilbert’s latest novel, & Sons. Very early on, Gilbert sets out his stall with “Fathers start as gods and end as myths and in between whatever human form they take can be calamitous for their sons”. So we know what we’re dealing with. This is the story of A.N. Dyer, a Salinger-esque novelist, as reclusive as he is revered, and his three sons. The eldest is Richard, who fled to California after surviving a massive drug addiction, and is trying to carve out a career as a screenwriter. In the middle is Jamie, a documentary filmmaker whose world is spinning of its axis with the death of his first girlfriend, whose demise he documented at her request. And then there’s 17 year old Andy, whose unexpected and apparently adulterous arrival into the Dyer family cleft it in twain. Our narrator is Phillip Topping, son of A.N Dyer’s lifelong friend, whose funeral is the catalyst for the events of the book. Attempting to deliver the eulogy, Dyer has a meltdown and calls his two wayward sons home, to settle his affairs.

It’s a very much character-driven book. Phillip grew up alongside the Dyer boys, but feels very much like the poor relation and reminisces a lot about his teenage years with the Dyers. There’s mention that Phillip has just imploded his own family and professional situation with an adulterous liaison but that doesn’t seem fully explored. I suspect that is because Phillip is a horribly selfish and really not that pleasant narrator. An event towards the end of the book tipped my annoyance at his whining into full on hate. He’s an arsehole and spending time in his company isn’t always fun. I also had issues with the structure of the first person narrative, with the narrator detailing whole swathes of the book for which he just is not present and can’t know about.

The writing is without a doubt extraordinary though. It goes a long way to making up for those faults. It is by turns beautiful, heartbreaking and hilarious. It’s never short of engrossing and his similes are quite genius  – “She was wearing of all things a maid’s uniform, which have her the distinct impression of being swallowed whole by a leaping killer whale”. Purely from that perspective, I found this a joy to read, but there was a prevailing feeling over the book as a whole. It really felt like Gilbert worships at the altar of Jonathan Franzen in general, The Corrections in particular. Every page screamed “I AM WRITING A SERIOUS LITERARY WORK”. I was reminded of when I saw Sally Ann Triplett as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes. She clearly thought she was giving a star making turn, but those kind of performances are meant to appear effortless and I have never seen a performer working SO HARD to get there. & Sons feels like that. The effort drips off of every sentence.

There’s also a plot point revolving around the youngest Dyer which doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the novel and the way Gilbert chooses to wrap it up didn’t sit well with me either. All in all, I found this a hugely enjoyable book, and while it’s undeniably a great read, I didn’t think it was quite the Important Book Gilbert was aiming for.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 43: Six Years by Harlan Coben

17447634I have never read a Harlan Coben book before. I keep confusing him with Dennis Lehane. Whenever I see anything about Harlan Coben, I always think “oh, yeah, he wrote Mystic River, I really want to read that. Wait. NO HE DIDN’T”. But I loved the French movie they made from his book Tell No-One and the plot for this sounded super intriguing so I thought what the heck.

So the titular time period is how long lapses between Jake Sanders watching the love of his life Natalie Avery, marry another man and said man turning up dead. At the wedding, Natalie made Jake promise to leave her alone, which Jake did. But, with The Other Guy now out of the picture, Jake goes to the funeral to get a glimpse of the woman he’s been carrying a torch for all this time. Only the grieving widow is absolutely not Natalie. Jake begins to break his promise to Natalie, that he would leave her alone, and begins to retrace the path of their all too brief affair. Only the place they met doesn’t seem to exist and people who knew them both at the time don’t seem to remember him either.  So Jake keeps on digging until he realises all too late in the day that he REALLY SHOULD HAVE LISTENED when Natalie made him promise to back off.

I’ll say this for the book, it rattles along at a fair old pace and I happily got caught up in it and wanted to see exactly how it was going to play out. I love plots like this in crime novels (Linwood Barclay’s No Time For Goodbye is still the pinnacle for me) so I was all “oooh, I wonder what the heck is going on, I bet it’s awesome”. The problem with the book, rattling along and readable as it is, I didn’t buy a single word of it. Characters were either too convoluted to be believable (Jake is a lecturer at a university. A fellow lecturer there used to work for the FBI, when they weren’t being an undersecretary of state. I’m so sure, Harlan.), or their actions were too annoying or incredulous to really get behind. Jake meets Natalie, they have a crazy passionate love at first sight relationship, but she pulls a volte face and says “oh, this dude I dated once, he’s totally the one. I’m marrying him. Come to the wedding, but after that never look for me again”. So far, so far-fetched. But Jake honours that promise. For six years. He doesn’t at any point think “I don’t buy this insane wedding” or “I wonder how Natalie is doing” and have a brief little social media cyberstalk. Come on now. That’s not really a plot point that had me saying “wow yeah totally get it”.

Leaving aside the fact that Jake is told several many times to stop looking for Natalie or he’s going to get her and other people killed if he doesn’t, but he doesn’t (douchebag), what Jake finds out along the way stretches the credibility further, until the final pages lay it all out for you and rather than going “oh my holy wow that’s just I had no idea oh my god”, you’re far likelier to roll your eyes and say “give me strength”. You know how you’ll spot a loose thread on a shirt and go to pick it out, only to find it’s unravelled a whole sleeve and the shirt is fucked? This book is full of plot points like that. I took issue with so many little points about technology and the like only to find if I applied enough thought, I’d knocked over the entire house of cards. That said, it’s never not entertaining. It’s just not quite the impenetrable and smart mystery Coben thinks it is.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 42: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

16176440The award for the best title of 2014 has to go to Karen Joy Fowler, don’t we think? It is the reason I even gave this a second glance, and then the deliciously cryptic description hooked me right in. In reviewing this wonderful book, I’m likely going to get spoiler happy, so if you don’t know the big reveal of the novel and don’t want to before you pick it up, stop reading now. Still here? Well ok then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Our narrator is Rosemary Cooke. When she was a child, she never shut up, now she’s in college, she rarely speaks. Her parents are not the people they used to be, and her brother is on the run from the FBI. And Rosemary’s sister, Fern? Well, she’s the reason this once happy family has folded in on itself, but not for the reasons you would think. Ok, here come the spoilers. Rosemary’s father was a professor at their local university and he wanted to study the effects of raising a chimp in a human environment. Fern is the chimp, very close in age to Rosemary, and raised in tandem with her. I guess the cover does make it relatively obvious as well, but whatever. The experiment, monitored by Daddy Cooke’s grad students lasts just five years before it all goes Very Wrong Indeed and Fern is taken away from the family environment. The Cooke siblings are told she’s gone to live on a farm.

Uncovering the truth of Fern’s fate is what puts Rosemary’s brother Lowell on the FBI’s radar. Rosemary is in college, trying to forget about Fern and move on with her life, but being reminded that she is also Chimp Girl in a variety of unexpected ways. She has a destructive friendship with the type of girl who seems to be a staple in all campus novels, wild, crazy and never telling a single truth about herself. But when Lowell reappears and starts to help Rosemary remember exactly what happened to end their joyful half decade with Fern, her world starts to slowly spin off its axis.

To keep the reader on their toes and to hide the reveal about Fern for as long as the narrative can really take it, Fowler starts in the middle of the story. It works its way back to the beginning before looping back to the end. Told in the first person, each section jumps around with Rosemary’s remembrances (see what Fowler did there?). The way she writes about Fern and their relationship is really tender and beautiful. It’s clear that Fern was loved by the Cooke family and the grad students, and Fowler makes her a fully realised character. It makes the circumstances that unravelled the happy family life all the more shocking when you finally get to them as well.

It’s not really a surprise that Fowler has found herself on the Booker Prize longlist in the first year that it’s open to US authors. It’s a brilliantly crafted and beautifully written work that provokes a reaction from the reader. Even I, who remain stoically unmoved by the Planet of the Apes films, adored Fern and  cared about her fate. The biggest surprise for me is that Fowler also wrote The Jane Austen Book Club which I was intrigued about reading until roughly 5 minutes into the film. It just makes the sheer brilliance of this book all the more unexpected.

Don’t forget to check this review out over on The Cannonball Read, along with all the other reviews from the Cannonball Readers.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 41: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

17322949I know. I’m arriving late to the Rainbow Rowell party. I don’t know why but there was something about her books that didn’t make me fall over myself to read them. Maybe it was the pastel covers, the cute titles, I don’t know. Maybe it’s that her first name is Rainbow, for sobbing out loud. Whatever it was, I was not actively campaigning against her books, I was just not that interested. And the Cannonball Read people LOVE her too. Despite all this evidence that I should really get over myself and indulge my YA loving book geek in some Rowell goodness, it took my housemate reading this book to make me see the light. She finished it, handed it to me and said “you need to read this. You HAVE to read this.”

And so I did. And what an unadulterated delight it turned out to be. A delight which made me well up with joy and sadness on more than one occasion. Eleanor is the new girl at school, she wears mismatched clothes, she has hair like Ronald McDonald, she’s a big girl with a big presence who only wants to go unnoticed. Park is the half Korean kid who sits at the back of the bus lost in music and looking too cool for school. On her first day, Park saves Eleanor from herself when she can’t decide where to sit on the bus to school. From there, slowly, they build a friendship, founded on mix tapes and comic books, and then they fall for each other. And if their falling doesn’t make you melt just a little bit, doesn’t take you back to what that first love was like, then I don’t know what to tell you. You may well be dead.

As soon as he said it, she broke into a smile. And when Eleanor smiled, something broke inside of him.  

Something always did. 

How can you not read a line like that and not melt? It’s always said that you should write what you know and it’s pretty clear that Rowell knows what it’s like to be an awkward teen falling in love for the first time. Everything about the two of them and how they are with each other felt so gloriously, gorgeously, painfully real, that I was texting a quote from pretty much every other page to my housemate with an “I can’t even fucking deal with this” after it.

Poking about on the interwebs after I finished it, I discovered some hilarious ranting about the book. People went after it for its racism (which misses the point of the racist content so massively, I actually could not believe what I was reading), its historical inauthenticity (it’s set in 1986, not 1886, for heavens sakes) and the ending, my GOD do some people loathe that final sentence. While I may concur a little that the plot device used to set the ending in motion feels a little rushed and unclear, the last line of this wonderful, beautiful book is pretty much perfect. It’s stayed with me since I finished it, along with many achingly memorable exchanges between the titular couple. I don’t care how old you are, what race, creed, colour or sexual orientation you are, you should read Eleanor & Park. You’ll feel better for it.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 40: Pure by Andrew Miller

11839465When this book came out three years ago, it got a lot of attention, it won some prizes, it garnered excellent reviews and word of mouth. I put it straight on my to read list, as I love a bit of a historical novel and this one sounded kind of gruesome with it, which is always a winner. Yet somehow I only just got round to reading it now. I don’t know why. It was only after I started reading that I discovered it’s the same author who wrote Ingenious Pain, a book I couldn’t get past the first chapter of, no matter how many times I tried.

So here we are. Our hero is Jean-Baptiste Barratte, the year is 1785 and the setting is Paris. Barratte is tasked with clearing the cemetery of Les Innocents, which is overflowing and poisoning the air of the surrounding neighbourhood. What should have been an epic but not insurmountable task turns into a year of unexpected events, both tender and violent, until it begins to look like he may not actually make it out of there alive.

Miller paints a vivid picture, that’s for sure. His writing is a joy to read, it’s witty, it’s florid, it’s lyrical, it’s a treat. But somehow, I found I wasn’t engaging with any of it. I didn’t really buy into any of the events that happen to and around our noble hero, they all seemed to be lacking in motive. And the action surrounding the crazy events is, well, kind of repetitive. They dig up a section of the cemetery, they dispose of the contents. And repeat. Add the two together and it made for an odd and disconnected read. I simultaneously marvelled at the language and didn’t give two shits about the words, you know?

So when I finished the book, I just shrugged and thought “well that was alright”. If Miller had done a Spinal Tap and turned it all the way up to eleven, he might have won me over. But the grand finale doesn’t really do that, it smacks more of a “I need a way to end this”. So the sinking feeling I had when I discovered some of his back catalogue turned out to be not too far off the mark. This was better than I thought it would be after that discovery, but still not as good as I wanted it to be.