Cannonball Read 6, Book 56: Gulp: Adventures On The Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

19008318Even the most casual and brief visitor to my blog will note that I am not much of a non-fiction reader. But this was greeted with rapture by lots of reviewers and by a couple of people over on Cannonball Read. So when it popped up as a Daily Deal on Kindle, I thought “why not?” and my goodness am I ever glad I did because I LOVED it.

Roach clearly has an intense fascination with the human body. She’s published books about dead bodies and copulating bodies (both of which I now plan to read). Gulp takes us inside the body, covering everything that we do to our food, how and why. It also segues into pets digestion, by way of an intensely glorious chapter about pet food science and tasters. Yes, tasters. One of the reasons this book is such a joy to read is Roach’s style, humour and the fact that she is unabashed about her curiosity. Also, she never once patronises the people she meets for her research.

So the book structure takes us on a journey from mouth hole to bunghole and every possible stop in between. It’s arranged in biological order, you could say. Along the way, Roach takes as much delight in autopsy photos of giant colons as she does in debunking the Fletcherism fad. I learned a lot of stuff I never knew or really even thought about before and I thoroughly enjoyed doing it. Roach made me laugh out loud many times. Her wit is the only thing about this book that is even remotely dry.

There are many tidbits you can drop into party conversation if you wanted to (Elvis died of constipation, for example). Roach is many things, and thorough is definitely one of them. She watches (though does not partake in) fecal transplants while at the other end of the spectrum, she tries out to be an olive oil taster, which involves consuming and rating WAY too much of the stuff. That’s another huge plus in Roach’s favour. She isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. Having read the book, I have no doubt that if she became ill with something that could be cured with a transplant of someone else’s liquidised poop, she’d not even blink.

If you have any kind of interest in the human body and its various functions, you should definitely read this. And if you haven’t, you should read it anyway. Roach is a warm writer and a good laugh. You’ll enjoy your time with her. To quote Joey Tribbiani, you’ll be lovin’ and learnin’ at the same time.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 55: Revival by Stephen King

19196719Yes, I know I know. I should just re-title my blog “I Read A Lot of Stephen King”. But he’s been my go-to author for nearly thirty years and given that he had a brush with death fifteen years ago now and toyed with retiring twelve years ago, so any new book from him is a cause for me to skip about and click my heels. That this is his second book of the year and there is another on the horizon already for next year, well, hallelujah. And I have said over and over again that a really satisfying ending is the one thing that eludes his work more often than not, so the jacket copy promising that Revival has “the most terrifying conclusion King has ever written” inspires excitement and nervousness from me, in roughly equal measure.

Our hero is Jamie Morton, a vaguely successful musician and an incredibly successful heroin addict (no surprise there). Casting a shadow over his entire life is Reverend Jacobs. When Jamie is a young boy, the Jacobs family move in down the road and the Rev has a profound effect on Jamie and his family. Rev Jacobs is obsessed with electricity and experimenting with its restorative uses. Everything is ticking along nicely until a tragedy strikes the Reverend and he then ends up being fired from his job after giving what comes to be known as “The Terrible Sermon” (and it’s one of the most brilliantly awful parts of the book when it happens).

The Reverend vanishes but re-appears at key moments of Jamie’s life, having re-invented himself as a carny show healer who would make Jim Bakker look restrained and unimaginative. His experiments with electricity sees him performing real healings, with some fake ones thrown in for show. He has harnessed electricity to cure things conventional medicine cannot. He cures Jamie of his heroin addiction, for starters. There are side effects though, unpleasant ones and never will the banality of the phrase “something happened” seem so gruesome.

As they both grow older, Jacobs obsession with electricity grows exponentially, his grip on sanity loosens and his claws sink ever deeper into Jamie’s life as we head towards the apparently terrifying conclusion. And I am going to give nothing further away about the story or its conclusion than that. Whether or not you find it terrifying is up to you, but what I will say is that it seems King has found his showdown mojo. His latest two or three works have all had final chapters which range from chilling to heartbreaking, but are all richly satisfying. And this is most definitely satisfying. And after the grand finale, there’s an epilogue to really hammer things home. Up until the final portion, when King goes full on Frankenstein’s Monster, this is an intriguing and well crafted novel. Thereafter, it’s a demonstration of how lame American Horror Story really is and an abject lesson in how reading something can scare you into sleeping with the lights on.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 54: It by Stephen King

644173I have long held the opinion that It is King’s masterpiece. I read it when I was 13 years old and then read it many more times during my teens. But it occurred to me recently that I haven’t read it for a long time. Then I gave it some more thought and realised it’s getting on for twenty years since I read it. Twenty motherfucking years. This caused me to think a) fucking hell I am getting old and b) I wonder if it holds up, twenty years later?

Even more frightening, it’s closing in on thirty years since the book was first published. And even more frightening than THAT, it’s the 13th book in his career. King has been publishing books for most of my life. Sweet mother of God. ANYWAY, so It. As we all know, it tells the story of Derry, Maine and the dark, malevolent, child murdering force which inhabits it. Every 27 or so years, it re-surfaces and murders some children to feed itself, then hibernates for a generation. That is until seven teenagers, The Losers Club, are drawn together and try to fight It in 1958. They win, but swear a pact that if It comes back, they’ll come back and fight It to the death.

Naturally, they didn’t defeat It (if they did, it would be a much shorter book than the 1376 pages of the current paperback edition). The book jumps between 1958 and 1985 and the action is interspersed with chapters detailing the fictional history of Derry. Several of my friends are huge fans and dislike him being called a horror writer. One of them believes he is our generation’s Tom Sawyer, another goes even further and calls him our generation’s Charles Dickens. This book is probably the best example to show what a phenomenal storyteller King is. Juggling seven main characters is no easy feat, and they are each fully realised and fleshed out. They’re also relatable (as a fat kid (and adult, let’s face it), I was always Team Hanscom). While the psychotic bully of Henry Bowers might be a little broadly drawn, he is more plot device than anything else.

But let’s not lose focus of the fact that King IS a horror writer too. And he knows more about frightening his Constant Readers than anyone. And It is terrifying, no doubt about it. It’s the biggest failing of every circus in the world that they think clowns are fun and funny. No, fuck off, they’re terrifying and nobody likes them. King knows this and so It’s most common form is Pennywise The Clown. It can take the form of your deepest fears and turn them into a terrifying reality. The sequences where the children are terrorised and murdered found their way into my dreams when I first read the book, and not in a fun way. I can pay the book no higher compliment.

However, there is one thing that has evaded King many MANY times over his career (and has been mentioned before) and that is the properly satisfying conclusion. This is where I remember It falling down when I read it in my teens, and it still falls down and falls down hard when I re-read it as a nearly 40 year old. While I appreciate King’s “pull no punches” attitude to killing off characters, the final showdown and aftermath just feels lame, especially when everything that came before has set the bar so very high. It’s a fumble, but a fumble I can forgive, oddly enough. The less said about the teenage gang bang as a way to escape from the sewers in the 1958 sequence though, the better.

So, is it a great book? Yes. Is it flawed? Oh yes. Does it still hold up? Most definitely.

 

Cannonball Read 6, Book 53: The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

21840310This should have been my Cannonball. One of the joys of becoming a Cannonball Reader and starting this blog has been occasionally managing to get my hands on an advance reading copy of an upcoming novel. And this one, which is published mid January 2015, is a real treat. It’s being touted as the next Gone Girl and the first must read book of 2015. SJ Watson, who made a huge splash with his own debut novel a few years back, is quoted on the cover. And for once, the book lives up to the hype.

 

To everyone else in this carriage I must look normal; I’m doing exactly what they do: commuting to work, making appointments, ticking things off lists.

Just goes to show.”

Rachel takes the same train to work every day. And every day, the train stops at a red signal where Rachel can see into the house of a seemingly perfect couple. She observes them doing nauseating Perfect Couple things and she creates names and narratives for them in her mind. Then one day, Rachel sees something she shouldn’t and when one half of said Perfect Couple is then reported missing, Rachel is pulled into a mystery, one that becomes more dangerous with every turn. And Rachel has secrets of her own….

Hawkins clearly owes a debt to Hitchcock and to Christie with the set up of her debut. And with a central character who can’t recall a pivotal event along with a shady member of the medical profession who may or may not be involved, it also owes a slight debt to SJ Watson. And I was reminded of the long forgotten 80s Jane Fonda film, The Morning After. So that’s a lot of influences and homages, but Hawkins uses all of that as a framework to hang a very identifiable character on. Rachel is wholly three dimensional, deeply flawed, hugely frustrating, but you want her to succeed in finding out what happened to her Perfect Couple as much as you want to smack her upside the head and shout “GET A GRIP, LADY”.

Hawkins has written what can only really be described as an accomplished debut. It pulls you in right from the start and she handles the shift in narrative voices very well. They’re all easily distinguished (and if any reader doesn’t want to knife the awful smug new mother who pops up, then more power to you) and well crafted. I couldn’t put it down and burned through it in a matter of days. I had a couple of issues with the ending. Having set everything up so meticulously, Hawkins does make a bit of a mess when she knocks it all down. But the mess isn’t so awful that you can’t forgive it. It’s more a new puppy peeing on the rug than your awful ex spilling a glass of red wine on your cream carpet.

Essentially, it’s a great book and if you love twisty little thrillers, then 2015 is going to start very well for you.

 

Cannonball Read 6, Book 52: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

16068905Last year, my Cannonball book was a crashing disappointment. A one star disaster that I HATED. I didn’t want to repeat the same problem this year. I wanted book 52 to be a treat, a rave review, a delight. A book I tore through in a day because I couldn’t put it down. After loving Eleanor & Park so hard, I bought Fangirl so this was the obvious logical choice to take centre stage as book 52 this year. An obvious shoo in for a gushing and effusive review. Alas, it’s not to be. While it’s miles better than last year’s crap out, Fangirl still really disappointed me.

Again, I know I’m not the demographic Rowell is shooting for, but I also know I don’t believe in limiting my book consumption based on something as arbitrary as that. So we have twins Cath and Wren (their mother didn’t want one child, let alone two, so when she had twins, she took the one name, Catherine, and split it in half. Already, I’m like “oh fuck off”), who have been abandoned by their mother and raised by their bipolar father. They both love Simon Snow (a painfully obvious stand in for Harry Potter) and Cath writes Simon Snow fan fiction. They’re about to go to college, the same college. Wren decides not to share a dorm with Cath because it’s time to put away the childish things but Cath won’t let go of her Simon Snow obsession, her fan fiction and her huge online following. Cue much angsty hand wringing as twins separate from each other.

I would possibly have cared more about Cath’s awkward social behaviour or Wren’s journey off the rails by way of too much drinking if either of them were likeable. But Wren is a shallow little mean bitch, so we’re supposed to side with Cath. Poor sweet awkward Simon Snow loving Cath. Problem there is Cath is a TOTAL FUCKING DRIP. She’s so wet and lame and boring and OH MY GOD you just want to smack her in the face. When her roommate’s ex-boyfriend falls for her, Cath is so intensely, well, Cath about it that I was rooting for Levi (for it is he) to give up on her and go find someone who doesn’t hyperventilate when you mention touching her boobies. Levi is the sole decent character. He’s ace, and Rowell clearly has a hard on for him, and so she should. He’s the only reason, pretty much, that I slogged on to the end.

The biggest problem with the book though is Simon Snow. Each chapter is prefaced with an excerpt from either one of the official Snow books, or Cath’s fan fiction. After reading one or two of them, I found them so eye gougingly awful that I skipped them. I love Harry Potter books so much, that for someone to try and emulate them, and to then have fan fiction of that emulation, it’s like trying to read a photocopy of a photocopy. We are treated to whole chapters of Cath’s fan fiction later in the book, which I simply couldn’t bear to read. She has Simon Snow and the bad vampire boy go gay for each other and the thought of someone as messed up as Cath trying to portray that, I just couldn’t bear to find out how awful it was. And then, as if I didn’t already want to smack her enough, when Levi asks her to read him some more when he’s at his fraternity, Cath replies something like “I don’t think I can read this to you with actual gay people in the house”. Oh wow just FUCK OFF.

It’s saved, just about, by a nice last chapter and some actual non-fan fiction from Cath (who spent the whole book being told what a great writer she is and whining about how she didn’t want to write anything other than Simon Snow. Fuck off.). But all in all, after the dizzy and gorgeous heights of Eleanor & Park, this was a disappointment, to say the least.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 51: The Vacationers by Emma Straub

18641982I thoroughly enjoyed Straub’s debut novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, and feel we should gloss over the embarrassingly long time it took me to clock that she is daughter of Peter Straub. So when The Vacationers came along and seemed to be setting itself up to be everything Seating Arrangements should have been but wasn’t, I was sold. The blurb tells you it’s “an irresistible, deftly observed novel about the secrets, joys, and jealousies that rise to the surface over the course of an American family’s two-week stay in Mallorca” and for once, it doesn’t oversell things.

The Post’s are the family in question. Franny and Jim are marking their 35th wedding anniversary by taking their extended family to a sprawling Mallorcan villa. I say marking rather than celebrating because Jim has just been fired from the magazine where he’s worked forever, for screwing the very young intern. Their youngest daughter, Sylvia, just graduated high school and is headed to college, but she’s eager to arrive there unburdened by her virginity, so it’s lucky her fussy mother has arranged a tutor to give her Spanish lessons, and said tutor is young and HOT. Her older brother Bobby, who fled to Florida from his New York upbringing, is there with his much older personal trainer girlfriend Carmen. Bobby has issues which will naturally come to the fore as well. Then we have Frannie’s best friend Charles and his husband Lawrence, along for the ride even though they’re in the midst of trying to adopt a baby.

With this many characters driving the story, with that much baggage, Straub doesn’t really need a plot. Each chapter covers one day of the holiday as tensions rise and fall, secrets are uncovered, tennis legends are harassed, children are embarrassed and so on. The writing is pin sharp, the characterisation flawless. When Frannie thinks of her future unfolding, she notes that “she was six years away from a senior discount at the movies. Six years of looking at Jim in the kitchen and wanting to plunge an ice pick in between his eyes”. And Straub sure has a way with words, when Jim grossly reminisces about sex with the intern which caused his downfall we get “he’d been surprised the first time he’d reached his hand inside her skirt and felt her pussy, waxed and cool, as smooth as a hotel pillowcase”. I’m not ashamed to say I laughed out loud at that particular simile.

If you want a book that has a big plot and a lot of forward motion with a neat ending, this is not the book for you. If you want to read a character driven novel with some richly drawn people being delightfully awful to themselves and others, this is the book for you. Unlike others of its kind, Straub manages to balance making them unlikeable without making you hate them. The Posts and their friends delighted, disgusted and fascinated me, but they never bored or offended me. Good stuff.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 50: Just What Kind Of Mother Are You? by Paula Daly

18104711I love a good thriller. Anyone who’s been reading my reviews since I started Cannonballing will have noticed that I’m a bit partial to a Sophie Hannah here, a Val McDermid there. So this much talked about debut from Paula Daly, with its intriguing tagline of “Your friend’s child is missing. It’s your fault” seemed right up my street. So it’s a shame it ended up leaving me flat.

Our put upon heroine is Lisa Kallisto. Living in the quiet Lake District, she’s a working mother of three kids, so she’s a bit pushed busywise, is Lisa. Her best friend is posh Kate, who’s married to well to do Guy. Their children are besties with Lisa’s children. When Lisa takes her eye off the ball over a planned sleepover at her house with her teenage daughter Sally and Kate’s daughter Lucinda, then Lucinda vanishes, leaving Lisa held responsible, wracked with guilt and determined to get to the bottom of what’s happened. Lucinda isn’t the first girl in the area to go missing though, and when the first girl turns up stripped naked and shellshocked by her ordeal, Lisa goes into a desperate tailspin as she races against the clock to find Lucinda.

See how that should be quite gripping? But Daly is so hellbent on trying to show us how Lisa’s life is beset with domestic normality and working class drudgery, that whole swathes of the book are devoted to banging on about her busy life and are not that interesting. Once we get into the investigation, alternate chapters go to DC Joanna Aspinall, told in the 3rd  person and again, tons of time given over to her awkward living arrangements and her pursuit of a breast reduction. It makes for fully rounded characters, yes. It also makes for some dull reading in what is supposed to be a thriller.

I would forgive that amount of extraneous faffery if the story being told was a cracking one, but this ended up falling short. All the clues as to what’s happened to Lucinda are uncovered by chance and coincidence. The mystery behind the other girls who are disappearing and then showing back up naked and abused is resolved by a tip off from the public. And when the full unpleasant truth as to where Lucinda went and why is unravelled, it’s both so lame and far-fetched as to cause much rolling of eyes and comments of “bitch, please” from the reader. Disappointing. But enough glimmers of talent shone through that I’d be willing to give her next book a try. Let’s see how it goes.

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.