Cannonball Read 5, Book 9: The Watermen by Patrick Easter

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In what will be a familiar refrain now, I bought this book on a whim when it was Kindle Daily Deal. Then I read more closely and suspected I might find it rubbish, so I avoided reading it. My vow in undertaking the Cannonball Read Challenge was to first clear my Kindle Queue though, so here we are. And what do you know? I HATED it.

The novel is set in 1798, on the London docks. Tom Pascoe is removed as Captain of his ship and recruited into the newly formed Maritime Police. He has an arch nemesis, Joseph Boylin, whom Pascoe was responsible for getting court martialled and given 200 lashes. There’s murder, beatings, rattings, smuggling, and lots more. I just fundamentally didn’t care about any of it.

The supporting cast have names which sound more at home in the Harry Potter series (a nurse named Charity Squibb in particular), everyone talks in unconvincing “verily forsooth, get thee hence” type sentences and the whole thing just churns endlessly, boringly around. There’s never any sense of excitement, no urgency, no drive, no oomph. Boylin should be a fascinating character, he should delight and appall in equal measure. He barely makes an impression. Much like the book as a whole. Avoid.

 

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Cannonball Read 5, Book 8: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

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So here’s the thing. I’m permanently scarred by Wolfgang Petersen. We all remember the first trailer for Troy, don’t we? More specifically, everyone remembers the final shot of that trailer, the seemingly endless pull back revealing more and more ships sailing for Troy. And then the film was a giant steaming pile of crap. So when I read about this book, the idea of it (the legend of Achilles, retold in modern prose) was that trailer shot. And I was so loath to read it, in case it ended up being, well, Troy. 

I need not have worried. The Song of Achilles is told in the first person by Patroclus, who is exiled to Achilles’ father’s kingdom after killing another boy by accident. He admires Achilles from afar until a friendship begins. The friendship deepens into a love affair and after a few blissfully happy years, as we all know, Paris kidnaps Helen and starts A Really Big War.

Since Miller rightly assumes we all know how that war ends, the actual battles that take place are barely mentioned. The focus is firmly on the fallout of it, along with the effect it has on Patroclus and Achilles. It is absolutely wondrous. The language is blunt, straightforward yet somehow so evocative. The unwavering loyalty between the two boys, as they become men, is gorgeously told. The ending we all know is coming still breaks your heart. This was the perfect antidote to Petersen’s travesty. Delightful.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 7: The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life by William Nicholson

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What a dreary bore. Here’s the thing about everyday life. It’s not that intense. I have no problem with books that deal with ordinary people, nor do I have an issue with books where nothing much happens (one of my all time favourites is The Crimson Petal & The White where barely anything happens for 800 pages). Provided the writing is enchanting enough, that is. The writing here is as tediously straightforward as the setting, the characters and their supposedly intense lives. 

Set in a Sussex village over a 6 day period in May 2000, the book relates the lives of villagers as they interconnect with one another. Not a single one of them is remotely interesting, and the level of detail borders on the excruciating. Pages and pages and pages are devoted to one man phoning a sex chat line to get off, people watching and discussing an episode of Friends, someone buying a dress for the opening of the Glyndebourne Opera season. Dull in the extreme. Self important bores being self indulgently boring, I hated all of them. 

I read books to escape. If you’re going to ground a book in the mundane everyday world we all inhabit, you have to make it really dazzling and you have to make the reader care about  the characters. This overwritten, under-plotted, plodding bore is a massive failure on all levels for me and I couldn’t wait for it to be over. I won’t be reading any more of Nicholson’s work, thank you very much

Cannonball Read 5, Book 6: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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Well. This is a bit of a conundrum. Here we are, six books in, with my first bona fide five star, staggeringly awesome book of the 2013 Cannonball, and reviewing it is going to be next to impossible.

Why? Because to say too much about this deliciously dark, utterly twisted thriller, to give too much away, would deaden the impact. Knowing anything other than the barest `outlines of the plot is very much NOT in your interest here. The outline is “Nick and Amy Dunne have a textbook happy marriage. Then, on their 5th anniversary, Amy vanishes. All roads lead to Nick, who claims to be innocent. Or is he?” That’s really as much as I can say if you want to read this book and not curse my name on any of the 445 immaculately constructed pages.

That is, without a doubt, Flynn’s major strength. Her storytelling is superb, her characters fantastically realised and authentic, her writing absolutely engaging. You can identify with pretty much everyone in the novel. It’s no surprise that in a genre that rarely has critics turning somersaults, Gone Girl was one of the best reviewed books of last year.

I was sucked in from the get go and literally couldn’t read it fast enough as the plot developed into an ever deeper mystery, until I got to the final page. Then I felt like Flynn had closed a (hardback) copy of the book and whacked me full in the face with it. And I mean that in the best possible way. Stunning.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 5: Ed King by David Guterson

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A modern retelling of a classic tale is generally enough to pique my interest and make me want to read the book. There have been some notable Shakespearean retreads in the form of A Thousand Acres, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and Serena. I was eager to read all three of those, and disappointed by them too (the latter two went unfinished). So when this little treat popped up as a Kindle deal of the day, loudly trumpeting itself as a modern American retelling of Oedipus Rex, I bought it before even noticing who the author was. 

And the author is the reason this book has gone ignored for almost a year. I HATED Snow Falling on Cedars. I found it to be a tedious boring cheat of a book. I braced myself for more of the same here and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

Guterson takes only the barest bones of the Oedipus story (abandoned baby grows up to kill his father and marry his own mother) as the basis for the novel. Ed’s mother is a British au pair, knocked up at the age of 15 by the philandering husband of her employer, she agrees to have the baby adopted, until she realises she can pretend to keep it and blackmail the father into monthly payments for the baby’s upkeep. She abandons Ed at an orphanage and so begins the inexorable march towards all their dooms. 

In my first CBR review, I noted that sometimes, it isn’t where you go, it’s how you get there. Since everyone knows the final destination of Ed (and in case anyone doesn’t, his demise is revealed in the opening chapter), Guterson has a lot of fun fleshing out the lives of Ed, his birth and adoptive parents, and everyone who swirls in and out of the saga, which ends up spanning just over half a century.  Much time is devoted to Ed’s upbringing and meteoric rise to success as the inventor of a pseudo Google. It’s alternated with his birth mother Diane’s ever so colourful life. They don’t reconnect until three quarters of the way through the book.

And so the reader might feel a little short changed that it’s at this point Guterson chooses to press the fast forward button. Acknowledging directly to the reader that it’s all a bit icky, their relationship is whipped through at a vast rate of knots, the merry go round only slows down when the Awful Truth begins to make itself known. Despite the fact we’ve all been 300 pages ahead of our hero, the unravelling of his life is still breathtaking to read. It’s a bit of a shame that the final few pages don’t match the gut punching wrench of those that immediately precede it, though. The ending is a bit of a fumble and frustratingly inconclusive, believe it or not. However, I’m going to go with Ed’s verbose and anagram addicted pilot who points out that “our destiny” rearranges to “it’s your end”. 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 4: Sex & Stravinsky by Barbara Trapido

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About 100 years ago, I read an excerpt from Trapido’s novel “Juggling” in a Sunday supplement. I remember being mesmerised by it and thinking I should definitely read it. While I never did actually read it, I have never forgotten how delightful I found Trapido’s prose in that excerpt. So when “Sex & Stravinsky”, her most recent novel, popped up in a Kindle sale, I bought it without even thinking. 

I also didn’t read the synopsis. When I did, and it said things like “the book throws up the complexity, cruelty and richness of the global world while, as a sequence of personal stories, it comes together like a dance”, It made me want to puke on my shoes. And so it has languished unread on the Kindle for over a year. However, as part of the Cannonball, I have vowed to clear my impulse buy laden backlog on the Kindle and so I gritted my teeth and got stuck in. And wasn’t I glad I did. 

Set in 1995, the novel tells the story of an extended family from all over the globe, though mostly South Africa and Australia. It tells it in nine chapters and an afterword. Chapters 1-8 focus on a different member of the family, chapter 9 throws them all together and watches the sparks fly, before the afterword ties it all together. It’s a structure reminiscent of the recently published Twelve Tribes of Hattie, and it works quite beautifully here. 

The biggest strength is that all 8 people are so vividly drawn, so minutely detailed that it’s impossible not to feel for them. It’s easy to love Caroline, whose chapter deals with discovering her dying mother betrayed her for her entire life, but it’s also easy to understand why she drives her teenage daughter Zoe so relentlessly up the wall. Supporting characters come and go in each chapter, all as sharply realised as the main players, most of them humorously nicknamed (Caroline’s sister Janet has a weak constitution to match her personality, earning her the nickname The Less Fortunate). 

Trapido casts her net impressively wide and manages to pack an immense amount of plot, character development and travel into a little over 300 pages. The series of coincidences that draws the disparate eight people together may strain the suspension of disbelief and the speed of some the enormous decisions are made in the fallout may stretch it further. It’s a huge credit to how well Trapido has got under the skin of all of them that it’s easy to forgive this, purely because you just want ALL of them to be happy. And while not everyone quite gets the fairytale ending you’re rooting for, the final pages of this book manage to induce a warm glow and a little bit of heartbreak at the same time. It’s gorgeous. 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 3: Black Water Rising by Attica Locke

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Locke’s debut novel was published in 2010 to a big fanfare. Reviewers fell over themselves to praise the work, and hail Locke as the next Dennis Lehane and the book found its way on to several award shortlists. Maybe it was the weight of expectation, but I really didn’t enjoy it all and can’t quite get on board with all the ballyhoo. 

Set in Houston in 1981, the novel focuses on Jay Porter, a former student activist turned lawyer. To celebrate his wife’s birthday, he takes her out on a luxury boat on the bayou. When the evening veers off course and he rescues a young woman from drowning, he couldn’t possibly imagine the repercussions it will have. 

I think my first problem is that the this storyline is wafer thin. So thin in fact that the bulk of the opening half of the book concentrates on a dock worker’s strike and Jay’s shady past (he was a crappy activist, now he’s a crappy lawyer). My second problem is that Jay is thunderingly stupid. Some fairly tenuous plotting is required to actually have any repercussions from the bayou incident at all, and then most of them are down to his utter recklessness and seemingly low IQ. 

The book is rammed full of stereotypes, thinly outlined for the most part, not a single one of them remotely believable. Consequently, I didn’t care about ANYONE in the book, not even Jay’s heavily pregnant wife (who he puts in danger more than once through his aforementioned idiocy). The resolution to the drowning girl storyline is unsatisfying, not least because it’s obvious from a mile away. By the time Jay remembers he once stood for something and goes all Erin Brockovich, it’s too late to make me think anything other than “oh for heaven’s sake, just end”. And then, just 5 pages later, without really resolving anything properly, it does. 

Two stars. And that’s being kind. 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 2: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

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Until Gone Girl put her well and truly on the map last year, I don’t think it would be unfair to say that Flynn had been very much under the radar. I am yet to read her breakthrough novel, though I can’t wait to do so, as I know many people who have read it and none of them have a bad word to say about it. Having just finished her debut novel from 2006, my excitement is even more piqued. This was a compulsive page turner that gripped from the get go. 

Camille Preaker escaped her oppressively small home town of Wind Gap and is now living in Chicago, working as a mid ranking reporter in a low ranking newspaper. When two ten year old girls are murdered in Wind Gap, her editor sends her back to cover the story. So far, so simple, so ordinary, right? Wrong. 

Camille’s family history is…difficult. Her mother, the ironically named Adora, is impressively wealthy, but in an act of rebellion against her own upbringing, had a one night stand with a stranger she never saw again, which resulted in Camille. Soon after, Adora got respectable, got married and had two more children. Marian, the middle child is a sickly little thing and dies before her 10th birthday. Camille is unable to deal with her family life and goes spectacularly off the rails. 

So, it’s obvious to everyone except the editor of the two bit newspaper, that sending Camille back to her family home to cover a murder investigation is a Very Bad Idea. And it is. Som leads are followed, friends and family of the girls are interviewed, policemen slept with. Camille is a terrible journalist. But there are reasons for her erratic behaviour. When the extent of just how damaged our narrator really is is revealed, it is quite shocking (and makes sense of the awful jacket copy “WICKED above her hipbone, GIRL across her heart”). If you plan on reading this book, skip ahead to the next paragraph and save yourself. Camille is a cutter, but not just any ordinary cutter. She carved words in to every inch of reachable flesh, until she is a walking lexicon, with only a circle of skin in the middle of her back untainted. 

This reveal comes somewhere near the halfway point and it shifts focus away from the murders (the body count stays at two for a very long time) and becomes more intent on rattling the many skeletons in the Preaker family closet. It’s all very sickly fascinating. Camille’s surviving sister, Amma, is a 13 year old Mean Girl who still throws toddler tantrums. She is the ringleader of a quartet of girls we all knew and hated in school. Camille tries to reach out to the half sister she hasn’t seen since she was 5 years old. It’s not a spoiler to say that it doesn’t really go well, is it?

This is a major strength of the book. The world Amma and Adora live in, that Camille is sucked back into, is vividly drawn, brilliantly detailed, utterly three dimensional. All the characters are flawed but this just makes them all the more believable. The biggest strength of this book for me though? About two thirds of the way through, I predicted who the killer was. And so when my prediction came to pass, I was unsurprised, though tellingly, not disappointed. The story had been so brilliantly told, I didn’t care. It’s not where you go, it’s how you get there, right? And then the final chapter performs such a spectacular and nasty rug pull that I actually gasped. For a book to make me do that, it’s high praise indeed. Trust me. Now go read it. 

 

 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 1. Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

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This slim little novel centres on a group of friends whiling away the summer in an enormous villa on the French Riviera. Fantastically wealthy poet Joe Jacobs (just one of many names he is graced with throughout), his war correspondent wife Isabel and their teenage daughter Nina play host to their best friends Mitchell and Laura. Overlooking them from next door is retired doctor Judith Sheridan and caretaker Juergen. Parachuted into their midst (not literally) is unstable bipolar sufferer Kitty Finch. She’s a fan of Joe’s, an aspiring poet, charming, alluring and extremely dangerous.

Set over just one week, there is not an ounce of fat or a misplaced word to be had. Levy speaks volumes of the self absorbed quartet as they carry on with their insignificant lives, oblivious to the fact Kitty is becoming ever more unbalanced. Only Nina seems to have even the faintest idea there’s even anything wrong with Kitty, and since she’s 14, nobody will listen to a word she has to say of course. 

A sense of dread and imminent danger hangs over the novel from the first page, when Kitty is found floating in the pool by the others, an uninvited guest. She’s invited to stay by Joe’s wife and nobody can quite figure out why she extends such a charitable invitation. While the reason itself may not be too taxing on the brain to work out, the outcome pleasingly refuses to take the obvious path set out for it. 

This is Deborah Levy’s first novel in 15 years and what a short sharp shock it is. Clocking in at under 180 pages, her remarkable use of language means that this book does feel an awful lot longer, but I still think its brevity is also its undoing. There is so much going on and with so many characters, that no matter how deft a wordsmith Levy is, this feels like an appetiser rather than the full on banquet you’re hoping for. Though I have to say, it’s a VERY tasty appetiser.