Cannonball Read 5, Book 19: The Wilding by Maria McCann

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My sole reason for reading this book was I loved McCann’s debut novel, As Meat Loves Salt. In a Donna Tartt style timeframe, her second novel was a decade in getting here. While McCann’s first novel is not quite the towering brilliance that was The Secret History, believe me when I tell you this sophomore effort is leaps and bounds more enjoyable than The Little Friend.

Set in rural England in 1672, it focuses on Jonathan Dymond, a young cider maker, whose life has been entirely unremarkable and completely content thus far. When Jonathan’s uncle is taken ill, he wishes to see his brother one last time. Jonathan’s father returns a day later, bearing the news of his brother’s death. Nothing seems untoward until Jonathan, by chance, finds a fragment of a letter in his father’s pocket and with its talk of inheritance and vengeance, points Jonathan in the direction of a whole heap of skeletons in the closet.

Like its predecessor, The Wilding takes its time to build up a head of steam. We’re introduced to an array of sharply drawn characters and there’s a lot of cider pressing going on before we get to the business at hand. Jonathan befriends his uncle’s nurse, Tamar,  and is introduced to her mother, who is an old beggar woman. They live rough in the wood behind his uncle’s property and they draw Jonathan in, weaving him quite a story about what his uncle was really like. But how much of it is true?

Everybody knows the past just won’t stay buried, so it’s of no surprise that the eventual truth spills out and not everyone gets a happy ending. There is a magnificent, wrenching scene between Jonathan and his frosty Aunt Harriet when he tries to tell her what he’s discovered. <spoiler alert> When she reveals that she’s known the truth about her dead husband all along and knows a shedload more on top, it’s genuinely chilling. Poor Jonathan is no match for any of the women he encounters, come to that. He’s a decidedly gauche narrator.

Immaculately researched and lovingly told (he may be gauche, but it’s obvious McCann has a great deal of affection for our hapless cider maker), The Wilding is the perfect book to while away a Sunday afternoon with. Please don’t take 10 years to write the next one.

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Cannonball Read 5, Book 18: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

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The debut novel from Rachel Joyce, who’s written many radio plays and the odd TV adaptation, was something of a sensation when it was published last year. Glowing reviews poured in, it ended up on the longlist for the Booker Prize, suddenly everyone was talking about Harold Fry.

Initially, I was reluctant to read it. Not because it sounded rubbish or anything, but because it all struck a little too close to home. My father lost his battle to cancer just 8 months ago, several years earlier than he should have done. So did I really want to read a book that deals so closely with that subject? Turns out, I did. And what a wonderful read it was.

Harold Fry, unwanted as a child, unfulfilled as an adult, is lonely. Retired and stuck in a loveless marriage, one day he receives a letter out of the blue from an old work colleague he hasn’t thought of in years. The wonderfully named Queenie Hennessy is dying of cancer in a hospice and wanted to contact Harold to say goodbye. Harold writes a response and goes out to post it. A chance conversation makes him decide to walk to the hospice and see Queenie instead. Only problem there is the hospice is 627 miles away. Harold has no phone, no map, no change of clothes and no overall plan. But he’s convinced Queenie will live if he walks, and so he walks.

And thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage. Along his journey, Harold meets a huge array of characters, becomes a media sensation, attracts a following, loses his mind and generally has QUITE a time of things. But all that is merely window dressing for what is really a memory novel. As he walks, Harold reflects on his whole life, from his parental abandonment, his job at a brewery, through to his marriage, his son and the events which drove a wedge between him and his frosty wife Maureen.

This is a beautifully written and utterly absorbing book, which could have been a terribly mawkish sentimental misfire in less skilled hands. Harold’s moving history unfolds in bits and pieces as his story moves forward at an ever increasing pace. When all the gaps are filled in and his pilgrimage is complete, it would be a very hard heart indeed that won’t crack just a little bit. Overwhelmingly emotional, quite beautiful and ultimately uplifting, this is absolutely worth every single one of the plaudits afforded it.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 17: Just Henry by Michelle Magorian

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Disclaimer: I started reading this review right at the very end of 2012 and finished it on January 2nd of this year. For that reason, I initially didn’t include it in my Cannonball Read total. However, now I’ve decided to go for the double Cannonball and read 104 books this year, I’m being a minor cheat and including it.

Henry Dodge is not a happy boy. His father is a dead war hero, his mum is married to a man Henry can’t stand and he’s not having any fun at school either. His paternal grandmother dotes on him, having moved in after the death of her son. Henry escapes to the cinema, where he befriends Mrs Beaufort. Kindly Mrs B gives Henry an old camera for a school project. When he develops the film inside, the pictures turn his world upside down.

Magorian is probably best known for Goodnight Mr Tom and it’s my enduring love for that book which drew me to this one. And I very much enjoyed it. There’s a huge element of wish fulfilment as Henry and his ragtag bunch of friends set about solving the mystery posed by the photos and Magorian has a lot of fun in taking creating perceptions of characters and situations and then fully re-creating them.

Given the demographic this book is aiming at, there’s a lot of life lessons learnt and some Very Important Themes about acceptance and the like. It’s really pleasing that these are woven in without talking down to the audience and that they are incorporated quite deftly too, so as not to seem even remotely crass. It’s also good that Magorian doesn’t stint on the page count, with this clocking in north of 700 pages. It’s a big ask of the target audience, but the tale is excitingly told, with great and colourful (though sometimes too good or bad to be true, if we’re fair) characters, so it’s not JUST the children who will find themselves gripped to the last page.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 16: What Will Survive by Mark Gartside

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Gartside’s debut novel, published last year, hews very close to the territory David Nicholls covered in One Day. Since that novel is so ubiquitous and very much beloved of many many people, it takes a brave author indeed to try and tell a similar story.

Graham Melton, working class through and through, meets posh girl Charlotte at a party when they’re both teenagers. It’s love at first sight, with all the attendant issues that come from a class divide relationship. The novel adopts a back and forth structure, alternating chapters which chart Graham and Charlotte’s relationship with the present day Graham and his 15 year old son Michael. Only Charlotte isn’t there. So where is she?

Charlotte’s fate is made a little too obvious in a fairly early chapter of the book and part of me wondered if the novel would not have benefited from a more straightforward chronological structure. As it is, the impact is somewhat lessened, and the interest in their early relationship begins to wane.

Graham’s struggle in his post-Charlotte life and his teenage son’s own tribulations with his burgeoning love life are much more interesting. Michael is a highly believable teenage creation, as frustrating to read as he is enjoyable. His meddling in his father’s life is sweet and amusing. There is a whole lot of cliché going on though, right down to the “family member mistaken for secret lover and causing trouble” old chestnut. Most of the supporting characters are pure stereotype (especially Graham’s lifelong hapless friend, Billy), but there’s enough here to engage and when things take a turn for the darker, we even start to head towards (though never quite into) unputdownable territory. So, as debuts go, this is solid stuff, but not at all groundbreaking. One Day casts a long shadow and it’s one that Gartside doesn’t quite get out from under.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 15: I Hear The Sirens In The Street by Adrian McKinty

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This is the second in a series of police procedural novels to feature Sean Duffy. The first, The Cold Cold Ground, I cannot tell a lie, piqued my interest as there was a homosexual element to the crime. That’s hardly usual for this type of novel, so I gave it a whirl. And I liked what I read. Duffy was charming, flawed and had a wide ranging taste in music. Determined and fiery, he was a great creation, and so I was excited to pick up the second instalment, evocatively titled I Hear The Sirens In The Street. 

Set in and around Carrickfergus in 1982, the backdrop of constant IRA trouble is richly textured by McKinty, who grew up in the area during this period. It hugely enhances but never intrudes upon the central plot, which revolves around a torso discovered in a suitcase. That’s relatively standard fare, but when initial investigations uncover the victim was an American tourist and the cause of death was an extremely rare poison, the investigation begins to unravel as more and more separate agencies become involved and a seemingly tangential sub-plot grows in significance.

It is not a perfect novel, though it is a gripping and highly readable one. A couple of crucial plot points are shoe horned in with brute force and a chapter with a lynch mob against the first black resident on Duffy’s street seems to have wandered in from a different novel altogether. It is the only false sounding note in the whole book though, and for that McKinty should be commended. Duffy is a maverick, but a hugely likeable (and realistically preoccupied by the female form) one. You find yourself cheering him on even as his utterly insane actions make you want to yell at him for being such a loon.

Pleasingly, the central mystery resolves itself quite neatly, but even more pleasingly, Duffy’s actions do not. The loose ends he leaves in his wake (including a mystery informant) are not all tied into a neat bow by the final paragraph, so it’s a relief to find out that a third Duffy novel, wonderfully titled And In The Morning, I’ll Be Gone, is heading our way next year. I will most certainly be reading it.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 14: The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

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I discovered Anne Tyler quite by accident. About fifteen years ago, when Waterstones had just introduced their “3 for 2 on selected titles” offer, I had two books selected and was looking for a third. I read the back cover of A Patchwork Planet and thought “oh that sounds good”. I’ve never looked back. Tyler quickly became one of a small list of authors whose new books are waited for impatiently and ALWAYS read. I’ve been looking forward to reading this for months.

Aaron Woolcott is happily married to Dorothy. He is a publisher whose firm publish a series of Guides for Beginners in all manner of things. When researching one with a medical slant, Aaron meets Dorothy and after an awkward courtship, they settle into a routine appropriating wedded harmony. They maintain that for twelve years until a freak accident destroys most of their house and kills Dorothy (there’s something a tad knowing about killing a character called Dorothy by having part of a house land on her, don’t you think?). Naturally, Aaron is bereft and almost a year later, still mired in grief, Dorothy begins appearing to him……

The heart of this novel is very Anne Tyler. She’s covered the shock of losing a loved one prematurely in many of her previous works. The supernatural element is a new twist for her and tellingly, it feels uncertain, hinted at, brushed aside and never really fully developed. Mentioned in the opening chapters, it then disappears and Dorothy’s ghost doesn’t return until nearly three quarters of the way through what is quite a slim novel (I read it start to finish in one 3 hour sitting).

It’s a shame that this feels so tacked on, especially as the rest of this book is vintage Tyler. Beautiful spare prose, wonderfully rounded characters, a warmth that seems to glow out of the pages. It ends up being a low key entry into her canon, but even an Anne Tyler book that isn’t firing on all cylinders is worth more than some authors at the top of their game.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 13: The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

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Four years ago, Emma Donoghue was very much under the radar. But then she published Room and that all changed. As everyone knows, that staggeringly great book was inspired by the Josef Fritzl case and was narrated by a five year old boy who had only ever known the titular Room. It was something of a departure for Donoghue who usually writes historical fiction that is based on real events and has a distinct lesbian slant. This book was written before Room but published in the UK afterwards and is in her more usual vein. 

Based on a divorce case that scandalised Victorian England, The Sealed Letter is a fascinating read. Harry & Helen Codrington are very unhappily married, Helen fosters a friendship with Emily “Fido” Faithfull. Harry is an Admiral and posted to Malta, Helen and their two children go with him and for seven years, Fido and Helen lose touch. A chance meeting when the Codringtons return to London sees Fido drawn inexorably into Helen’s clandestine affair with Captain David Anderson.

Not only does this novel grip with its laying bare how horrifying it was to undergo divorce proceedings in 1865, but the personal story of Helen and Fido is absolutely riveting. Sympathies and allegiances for the strident spinster and her adulterous best friend shift from chapter to chapter. The sealed letter of the title is a ruse, one used to force Fido to testify in her friend’s divorce proceedings. Donoghue has taken the known facts of this scandal and with considerable skill, woven a beautiful work of fiction around it. One that, in its last lines, makes you look back over all you’ve read and re-calibrate your opinions one final time. And I say brava.

Donoghue notes on her website that this is the final installment in an unofficial trilogy that examines the British Class System and is her first 19th century novel. So many books that attempt this kind of story end up being dry as dust, but Donoghue’s meticulous research coupled with a very relatable style of writing means this is anything but.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 12: Kind of Cruel by Sophie Hannah

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In a recent Twitter conversation with the author, I lamented that ITV have chosen to adapt her books featuring Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse out of publication order, thereby ignoring the arc of the two police detectives throughout the series. What I neglected to mention is that I had read them out of publication order. I started with book 5, A Room Swept White, but this was inadvertent. I was intrigued by the premise and its eerie cover. I then backtracked and read books 1 and 2, Little Face and Hurting Distance, adding the rest of the books in the series to my ever growing “to read” list. And now here I am, jumping straight into book 7, without so much as a by your leave. Those pesky Kindle sales, what can I tell you?

My most favourite thing about reading a mystery/thriller/suspense/crime novel is having the author begin with just a few dots and spread them on such a gigantic canvas, that I simply cannot imagine how those dots will be joined up. In that regard, this book is a doozy. Amber Hewerdine has been driven to the edge by 18 months of insomnia, so she turns to a hypnotherapist to help her get some sleep. Under hypnosis, when asked for a memory, Amber finds herself saying “Kind, cruel, kind of cruel” for no reason she can fathom. And a few hours later, that phrase finds her arrested in connection with a murder of someone she’s never even heard of…..

The novel is told from alternating perspectives. Both Amber and her hypnotherapist relate their chapters in the first person, all of it interspersed with third person chapters centring on the police investigation and the personal lives of Waterhouse’s team. The plot thickens with each chapter for around half of the book, and then a fair chunk is spent dealing with plot points which, if you haven’t read the previous novels, mean very little. This is a little frustrating since the plot is one of the most deliciously complex ones Hannah has ever created (that I have read, I should add).

Where Hannah really excels for me is in her skilfully drawn characters. I identified a LOT with Amber, especially her amusingly impatient reactions to hypnotherapy, while other members of Amber’s extended family (there’s quite a large cast of characters) provoked equally strong but far less pleasant reactions in me. They are all fantastically three dimensional. In order to join the far flung dots, Hannah does chuck in a couple of plot twists which push disbelief suspension to its absolute limit, but by the time you get to it, it’s not the who that is really important, or the how. It’s the why. The who, by the time of its unveiling, isn’t a surprise. The how is grimly fascinating, it’s true. However, on this occasion, the why is a magnificent jaw dropper and left me chilled to the bone.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 11: Londoners by Craig Taylor

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As you can see from the cover, the full title of this book is Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long For It. It is QUITE the mouthful, isn’t it? As the title and his introduction prove, Taylor does love to use 50 words when 5 will do, but that is totally forgivable, since after the introduction, his intrusions are minimal and he lets the Londoners do the talking.

Taylor is a Canadian ex-pat whose fascination and love of London, his experiencing of it as an outsider has led him to compile this extraordinary collection of interviews. The breadth and depth of interviewees is staggering in itself. The interview with the woman who recorded all the announcements you hear on the London Underground is wondrous, not because she goes into detail of the audition process and so on, but because she reveals how her ex-boyfriend feels haunted as he hears her voice every day. It’s details like that which make this such a rich tapestry.

And it is truly a marvel. People who smuggled themselves into London and couldn’t think of living anywhere else are sharply contrasted with people who felt swallowed up by it and couldn’t wait to leave. New mums, OAPs, eye witnesses to the 2011 riots, paramedics, police officers, immigrants, transsexuals, bouncers, pilots, nail bar technicians, students, lovers, artists, musicians, market traders, taxi drivers, they’re ALL here. And they all have something wonderful to impart. I devoured the book whole, pretty much, in a weekend. I found myself laughing, agreeing, disagreeing, sympathising, and infuriated by what I read in it. Taylor has forged a 460 page snapshot 21st Century London and for that he can only be applauded If you have any kind of London connection as laid out in the title, then this oral history is a vital must read.

Cannonball Read, Book 10: Killed at the Whim of a Hat by Colin Cotterill

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I cannot tell a lie. I bought this book purely for its title. It is, if you like, purchased at the whim of  its name. Not being politically minded, I was unaware that it’s actually lifted from a George W Bush speech where he mangled “on a whim” with “at the drop of a hat” to note there are people who will “kill at the whim of a hat”. This quote and many others are used as chapter headings throughout the book. Cunning.

But what is it actually about? Set in Thailand, it’s narrated by Jimm Juree, a crime reporter poised on the cusp of greatness at the Chiang Mai Daily Mail. Jimm has a very colourful family and when her mother begins to show early onset dementia and sells everything they own to buy a resort in deepest Southern Thailand, Jimm gives up her career and follows her family. Then one day, while digging to install a well, a VW camper van is dug up  with two skeletons inside. Jimm senses an opportunity to establish herself back in the game of crime reporting and begins sniffing around the story. Then, an abbot is murdered at the local temple and soon it’s all much bigger than Jimm could ever have foreseen.

With its set up of a precocious heroine indulging in amateur sleuthing whilst being vexed by her off kilter family, there is a whiff of Flavia de Luce about proceedings. The book also shares that series great strengths and weaknesses. Characterisation is strong (Jimm’s transgender sister, a cabaret star turned beauty queen turned Garbo style recluse, is a standout), the first person narrative from Juree is breezily delivered and very funny (likening a Chinese grandmother’s speech pattern to fireworks made me laugh very hard indeed), and it all zips along quite nicely. However, Cotterill’s reach does exceed his grasp a little and the story is overstuffed and over-plotted. The denouement is only partially satisfying and more than a little rushed.

As opening books of planned series go, this is definitely an above average entry. The basis is there for this to be a fun set of books. Books 2 and 3 are already published, so if this sounds like your sort of thing, you could certainly do a lot worse than giving Jimm Juree some of your time.