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.

Cannonball Read, Book 39: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

16143347I think I have written before about how when I was growing up, YA wasn’t really a big deal, and I honestly can’t recall reading books aimed specifically at my age group when I was fifteen. This is why I read lots of Stephen King and the like when I was growing up and probably accounts a lot for my warped world view. As much as I loathe Stephenie Meyer and every book she’s ever published, there’s no denying that Twilight finished what Harry Potter started and put YA through the roof into the stratosphere. You can’t turn around now without there being some new YA phenomenon being hyped up every other day. And since I didn’t have any when I was growing up, I see absolutely no shame in reading it now that I’m hurtling ever faster towards 40.

The latest book to arrive on a tidal wave of hype is this one, E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars. Narrated by 17 year old Cadence Sinclair Eastman, it tells the story of a fantastically rich family and their summers on a private island. She hangs out with two cousins her own age, Jonny and Mirren and an outsider, Gat, who joins them every year. She falls in love with Gat, of course. Then, when Cadence is 15, she has an accident and loses most of her memory of summer fifteen. Two years later, she returns to the private island and memories begin to come back as to exactly what happened.

E. Lockhart is of course Emily Jenkins, and here she schools several authors I’ve read recently in how you write spoilt, privileged and generally awful people and it not be hard work to read them. Cadence and indeed the entire Sinclair family are all pretty vile to each other, squabbling over inheritance following the death of their grandmother. There’s shades of fairy tales and of King Lear in that set up, with three daughters all trying to show their father they love him the most to secure their own future.  Lockhart also captures how teens really talk to each other more than, say, Cody Diablo ever has. Cadence, Mirren, Jonny and Gat call themselves The Liars and some of their conversations feel painfully real. This excellent characterisation coupled with an intriguing mystery makes this an engrossing read. I finished it in one sitting.

There’s the issue of the ending though. It’s unfortunate that they’ve made SO MUCH of the twisty turny ending Lockhart has come up with. My housemate read an ARC of it, which even had a helpline number on it so you could discuss the ending with someone. I mean, really. All the publicity says “if anyone asks you how it ends, LIE”. But when you go into a book or a film knowing there’s a twist, you’ll be looking for it. Chances are you’ll find it before it’s revealed as well. I believe it’s called The Shyamalan Paradox. We Were Liars is no different, I figured where it was going before it got there, but it didn’t really diminish the impact of it. It may have been a more effective marketing campaign to talk about the characters, Lockhart’s powerful writing, maybe even double bluffing by amping up the inheritance in fighting angle. Then, the ending would really come along and smack you up side the head.

So anyway, if you love YA books, you totally need to read it. You’ve possibly already done so. But if anyone asks you how it ends, don’t lie. Don’t tell them anything about it. Tell them to just read it themselves.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 38: Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

17726082I really enjoyed Setterfield’s debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale. It was a book as much about the love of books as it was the dark tale it was telling, and telling it with an unreliable narrator to boot. It left a lasting impression and when I spotted her follow up, a ghost story no less, on the shelf in Foyles, I had to buy it. I bloody love ghost stories. I love being scared when I’m reading or watching something, it’s the best. I haven’t had a book send shivers down my spine since Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger (there’s one scene in that book so tense and frightening, it nearly caused a panic attack. High praise indeed). So I was properly excited to read this one. And that’s where it all goes wrong.

It doesn’t help that the marketing for the novel has this to say about it: “Bellman & Black is a heart-thumpingly perfect ghost story, beautifully and irresistibly written, its ratcheting tension exquisitely calibrated line by line”. I spent the whole book waiting for there to be anything approaching tension, but I couldn’t find it among the long rambling descriptions of mundane day to day workings of mills and funeral emporiums. So, our hero is William Bellman. At the age of 11, he has the best catapult and is the envy of all his friends. He kills a rook with it one day, which apparently will be important later. He grows up and leads a charmed life, until people around him begin to die. At every funeral William attends, a stranger is present, dressed in black and smiling at him. After losing his wife and all but one of his children to illness, William is almost insane with grief and at his wife’s grave, he encounters the stranger again. This time, they talk and the stranger makes a proposition.

From that proposition, William builds a successful funeral emporium, the titular Bellman & Black. The first half of the novel is focussed so much on William’s work at the family mill, it’s mostly quite dull. The second half focuses on the building of this new venture and is even more dull, because people stop dying. Nothing ratchets up line by line, apart from maybe my impatience for something to actually happen, for Setterfield to pay off Bellman’s obsession with rooks, why people died around him, something, anything. But when it comes, the payoff is a crushing, boring, and very much not scary disappointment.

If you don’t believe the hype, and don’t know this is supposed to be heart thumping, perfect and tense or whatever, then there’s something quite absorbing about the earlier parts of the book. William is a charming rogue of a character, and the happiness he finds with his family being so comprehensively shattered makes for some bleak reading. But nothing can save the second half, where William is cold, closed off and occasionally barking mad, monomaniacally focussed on his business. Such a disappointment.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 37: To Rise Again At A Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

19777889So here’s the thing. I had been gagging to read Ferris’s debut novel, Then We Came To The End, since it was published to near universal acclaim a few years ago. I finally got round to starting it at the end of March this year and hated it so much that I had to give up after 100 pages as I just couldn’t face reading another word. I hated all the characters and their tiresome situations. Having now read his latest, it affirms my suspicion about why I had such a huge reaction to his debut. It’s not because he’s not any good, but rather because he is SO good. He nailed a scenario that I currently deal with 40 hours a week and absolutely loathe in his first book, so I had no desire to spend my downtime reading more of the same, thank you very much. I figure since I’m not a dentist, not interested in baseball and have never had my identity stolen, I would be on safer ground with his latest, Man Booker Prize longlisted, work.

Our hero is Paul O’Rourke. He’s 40 years old, a dentist and baseball fanatic and he’s reached the point where he’s beginning to wonder if there isn’t more to life. An insomniac, he’s increasingly grumpy and feels ever more out of step with modern life. And then a website for his dental practice appears, one with odd religious messages where his dental credits should be. Then follows a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a presence on many message boards. None of them are the real Paul, but they all seem to urge him onwards to something bigger than his current situation.

His search for something bigger takes the reader through a lot of Paul’s history (some of which is properly laugh out loud funny as well as major cringe inducing stuff), his current day to day treating of all kinds of dental treats (all in unflinching prose, those who don’t like visiting the dentist should approach with caution), and a much bigger search for himself through Judaism and whether or not his family are really descended from the race of Ulms or not. It’s a lot to take in, and while it works, it does also feel like two different book ideas stitched together. It somehow manages to be very funny and sobering at the same time. Some of the sentences land like a gut punch. Ferris is prodigiously talented and very distinctive. If there were some literary version of the Pepsi Challenge, you’d pick him out of the line up every single time.

It’s a shaggy dog story, to be sure, and one that might be structurally a little rough around the edges, but one that’s engrossing and evocatively written, that it’s no surprise Ferris has found himself on the first Booker Prize longlist to allow American writers to be considered. Whether he is on the shortlist in a few weeks time remains to be seen, but I would not be surprised if he were. An unusual and totally absorbing book.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 36: J by Howard Jacobson

22370991So this year, I’m not doing the whole Booker Prize Longlist. After last year’s epic slog and some disappointments of a very large magnitude, I approached this year’s list with a more discerning eye. I immediately discounted three of the titles, while noting with varying degrees of smuggery that I owned another two of the list and had already read one of them. A fourth title, this one, was also sitting on one of the bookshelves in the flat, but it didn’t belong to me. It was one I was very dubious about. Jacobson won the Booker in 2010, one of the years I tried and failed in my Longlist challenge. His was one I didn’t read, and is STILL one I haven’t read. So I wasn’t sure, but I thought, well, it’s sitting right here, what harm can it do?

“Two people fall in love in a world where the past is a dangerous country, not to be talked about or visited. As they discover where they came from and where they are going, a bigger, more shattering truth is revealed to them.”

The reason for the past never to be discussed is some huge catastrophic event occurred, one so awful that it can’t be remembered and has become so cloaked in mystery down the years, that it’s now referred to only as “what happened, if it happened”. Everyone changed their name, and so did every town, in the aftermath, in a bid to wipe the slate clean. This explains why everyone in the book has such horribly unwieldy names like Kevern and Ailinn (our main protagonists), as well as Demelza, Kroplinn, Ythel and the like, as ugly to look at as they are to pronounce.

So Kevern and Ailinn meet and begin a relationship. He is softer than most other men she’s been with, as a lingering symptom of WHIIH is a streak of unpleasant violence in the populace. To try and stem it, only Benign Visual Arts are permitted and OfNow monitors the public mood. There are several subplots relating to all this, swirling around the central story of two damaged souls trying to find their way together. Kevern’s father crossed his lips with two fingers whenever he spoke the letter J, hence the title and the cover design, and now Kevern does too, though he no longer recalls why. Jacobson litters the book with odd little moments like this which makes for interesting if never truly gripping reading.

And that was my issue. The book is fine, but I didn’t think it was great. And when the shattering truth is finally revealed, I wasn’t really that fussed. He did pull off a nice coup that made me gasp earlier in the novel though, which is an impressive feat. If the final pages had lived up to that, it would have been a whole different story. As it is, the hype from the publishers that this “deserves to be spoken in the same breath as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World“, I couldn’t help but think that Huxley did it first and did it better.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 35: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind

15060I have a film degree and yet it took a friend buying me this book for my birthday to get me to read it. Shameful. What’s even more shameful, is I haven’t seen quite a few films that are discussed here, but the films are really secondary to the tales of how they were made and the changes they wrought on the film industry. If you’re even remotely interested in how some of the modern classics made it from page to screen and exactly what impact their arrival there had, this is the book for you.

I did actually know some of the history of a few films. The making of Jaws and The Exorcist and of course Star Wars are the stuff of legend and rightly so. Where Biskind really excels is how much depth he goes into, the amount of people he speaks to and the really truly no holds barred account he manages to capture. I found it all endlessly fascinating, from the rigid old fashioned studios rejecting the down and dirty subculture that was making its way onto the screen and into the industry, to the depiction of some of the most outrageous and egotistical behaviour you could possibly imagine. Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin between caused my jaw to drop more times than I care to count.

I also found myself wondering how so many of them are still alive. The amount of drugs consumed throughout the course of this book is enough to bankrupt a small country. How they managed to function on any level, let alone produce some of the greatest modern American cinema has to offer is truly mystifying. Martin Scorcese comes out of that particular side of it the worst. Not only is he a bundle of neuroses and allergies, but he had a coke habit which would have felled an ox. And somehow, with all of that going on, he made Raging Bull. On every page, Biskind finds something to fascinate, intrigue, and be appalled by. Sometimes all at once.

I did have some issues with the structure, as it does jump about a bit. It’s told chronologically, but the focus switches from film to film and back again, which I found a little distracting. And the subtitle of the book might be How The Sex ‘N’ Drugs ‘N’ Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, a further addition could fairly be And Then Fucked It Up Again. The final chapter is titled “We Blew It”, a line from Easy Rider, which arguably kicked down the Old Hollywood’s doors and shat all over its carpet. It details exactly how the likes of Star Wars helped to change the focus of the industry and how it operates, and barely any of it has ended up doing it any good. If you mourn the current slate of summer blockbusters and want to know whose door to lay the blame at, look no further. Biskind has put together an endlessly fascinating book. Why on earth did it take me so long to read it?

Cannonball Read 6, Book 34: The Humans by Matt Haig

21265230So here’s a funny thing. I have a book by Matt Haig on my “to read” shelf over on Goodreads. It’s called The Dead Fathers Club and it’s on there because a) I am always up for reading modernised novels based on Shakespeare plays (I’m already beside myself about the Hogarth Shakespeare project, but that’s another story) and because b) my father died all too recently. That’s not really the funny thing. The funny thing is, since I bang on about books pretty much all the time over on my twitter account, out of the blue, Matt Haig started following me. I followed him back and earlier this year, to celebrate the paperback publication of The Humans, he had a little twitter competition to give away some signed copies. All you had to do was watch this video and tweet him the name of the film he is making a reference to at the end. I entered and blow me down if I didn’t win.

That’s an awfully long preamble with a full on name drop in it, I know. But I’m about to rhapsodise over this gorgeous little book and so it’s only fair that you can all decide how big you think your pinch of salt should be as you read it. The Humans tells the story of an alien from the planet Vonnadoria who takes the corporeal form of Professor Andrew Martin. See, our poor doomed professor just solved the Riemann Hypothesis, and the Vonnadorians don’t think the messy human race is ready for the massive technological advancements said proof will provide. So our otherwise unnamed narrator takes on Martin’s form, after Martin is killed, with the primary objective of eliminating everyone who knows about the Riemann solution, all the time fitting in on Earth and not drawing undue attention to himself.

It doesn’t start well when he materialises in the middle of Cambridge, stark naked and without a firm grasp on the English language (so not unlike Arnie at the beginning of The Terminator then). He winds up sectioned for his own protection and the whole “episode” is written off as a breakdown. Freed into the care of his family, Martin sets about his task. But, of course, it’s not as easy as all that. Along the way, he realises that the Martin family are massively dysfunctional and is overcome with a desire to help them. He starts to care about his wayward teenage son and his unhappy wife (all the while conversing with the family dog) and begins to feel emotions. The alien Andrew Martin takes a slow journey from pitying and hating the human race, baffled by our everyday existences, to discovering that those existences can be pretty wonderful things.

Matt Haig has spoken openly about his struggles with depression and anxiety and so it’s no surprise to read in the afterword that he conceived the idea for this book when he was in the grips of anxiety so bad that the thought of going to the shops would induce a panic attack. Anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, not understood themselves or the people around them, but always been able to find the joy in a piece of music, poetry or a good book (which is pretty much all of us), will see themselves in this wonderful story. Anyone who reads the toy castle analogy of what it’s like to live will not forget it in a hurry, and the three page chapter titled “How To Be A Human” contains enough beautifully constructed wisdom to make you ache.

It seems odd that a book like this should be labelled important, but it is. If you think I’m being ever more hyperbolic, I refer you to this review.  It’s easy to take a potshot at its predictability that alien Andrew does a better job at being a human than his flesh and blood counterpart, but I don’t think anyone would get past the first thirty pages without realising exactly where it’s headed. If ever there was a case of “it isn’t where you go, it’s how you get there”, it would be this one. For an ending to be so clear cut from so early on but to still cause a lump in my throat is no mean feat. Anyway, I’ve banged on for long enough now, so do yourselves a favour. Buy this book. Read it. And then read it again.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 33: The Gunslinger by Stephen King

884572After ploughing through the biggest of the big books with The Quincunx, I was, as I saw someone put it on Twitter after back to back reading The Luminaries and The Goldfinch, “yearning for a pamphlet”. And what better palate cleanser, I thought, than the opening volume of Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower series? It’s a trifling 210 pages and it’s the opening gambit to a series of books that increase in page count as they do in scope. Bound to be a winner, right? Well, as it turns out, no.

As it turns out, I really didn’t enjoy this at all. I didn’t get any real sense of anything, time, character, place, nothing. I didn’t really care who anyone was, where they were going or why. Roland, our titular gunslinger, is an enigma, as is the Man in Black he is relentlessly pursuing. There are some peripheral characters swirling around too, but they’re even less filled in and hard to care about. Especially as one of them already seems to be dead. Or something.

Another aspect that kept yanking me out of the story is that the quality of writing is noticeably lower than that of his later output. King, like all novelists, grew more accomplished with each book he wrote and while I have banged on at length about how wonky his output got after he had his near death experience, there’s no denying for me that he started out good and became really truly great. The Gunslinger was started in 1978 and published in 1982 and, well, it shows. The language is repetitive, it’s littered with adverbs, the structure is confused and incoherent, it essentially drove me a little bit crazy trying to read it.

I got through it though, but I really was not that fussed. However, everyone else I know who has tackled the Dark Tower series assures me that this is merely the undercooked appetiser which belies the delicious banquet to follow. So I won’t give up and still plan to carry on reading them, not least because every volume of them is sitting on bookshelves in my flat. I’m also advised by a fellow King aficionado that re-reading ‘Salem’s Lot before carrying on with them would also be a worthwhile detour. So since that’s also on shelves here, I will be doing that too, I imagine.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 32: The Quincunx by Charles Palliser

222627Well, I said 2014 would be a year of Big Books and you really don’t get much bigger than this. Last year, when I bought my copy of The Luminariesa colleague said to me “you know, if you really want to read a proper faux Victorian novel, you should check out The Quincunx”. As I pondered whether something could be proper and faux at the same time, I wandered into my nearest bookshop and picked up a copy. It is a HUGE book in every sense of the word. It’s a trade cloth sized paperback, and it weighs in at 1191 pages of fairly small type. The story is both sprawling and intimate (focussing on the possible inheritance of one person, but said inheritance is tied into decades of family history and encompasses five different families). As reviews stated at the time, Palliser pretty much out-Dickens Dickens.

Quincunx is not, as you might expect, a Chaucerian bit of slang for vagina, but the five point design you see on the face of dice. And fives are what this novel is all about. It’s divided into five sections, each section into five books and each book into five chapters. We have a first person narrator, John Mellamphy, and we have an omniscient narrator who pops up at the beginning of each section to drip feed us information. Master Mellamphy begins to believe that he is actually John Huffam and the rightful heir to the Huffam estate. His mother possesses a codicil to a will that would prove as much, but there are other families who would stop at nothing to ensure the codicil never sees the light of day.

As John sets out to discover the truth about his heritage, his journey takes him far and wide throughout England and encounters pretty much every level of society. For quite a while, his mother is with him and her naïveté might just drive you out of your mind. She’s so staggeringly that you feel for John when he yells at her for being so trusting of complete strangers and the like. When John leaves her behind, the story really does kick up a gear. Misery upon misery is piled upon our possible Huffam until you can’t quite believe he isn’t crushed by the sheer weight of them.

Just when you think that you can’t take anymore gloriously detailed glumness, the events of the novel become so intense and exciting that if you’ve been enjoying it up to that point, then strap in, because you won’t be putting the novel down until you get to the end. Honestly, the last 300 pages will have your pulse racing and I pretty much couldn’t read it fast enough. The ending deviates from the traditional norm Palliser is emulating, in that it is most definitely ambiguous. I can’t decide whether to be annoyed by this or not. I really wanted a definitive happy ending for John Huffam as he really suffers for his art over the course of 1150 pages and at least a decade (Palliser never gives you his age or a true idea of the span of the novel). But we don’t get a definitive unhappy ending either. There are definitely more elements of misery than joy in the final chapters, but there’s enough of a glimmer that I want to believe it wasn’t all for nought. Whatever the conclusion I draw, I can say this for sure. Reading this book was most definitely NOT for nought. An absolutely staggering piece of fiction. For those of you who love classic novels and bemoan the fact they don’t make them like they used to, well, THEY DO.