Cannonball Read 5, Book 29: Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

15732954

 

“Agent Starling, you think you can dissect me with this blunt little tool?”

You may wonder why I’m quoting Hannibal Lecter to open a review of a book which is narrated by a 14 year old girl grieving the death of the gay uncle she was in love with, but I’ll get to that. Set in 1987, June Elbus’s beloved gay artist uncle Finn is dying of AIDS and painting one last portrait of his nieces. In the aftermath of his death, June discovers a boyfriend of Finn’s she never knew existed. At Finn’s posthumous request, she reaches out to the boyfriend, thus uncovering a whole raft of family secrets.

I really wanted to love this book. But, to quote a friend on Goodreads, I found myself mostly just getting through it. The problems with it are fundamental. Firstly, nothing much happens in the book at all. Whole and seemingly endless chapters are spent on June’s sister appearing in a performance of South Pacific at their school, for example. Secondly, June and indeed all the characters in this book are on a sliding scale of stupid and annoying. Every time one of them does something, it made me want to roll my eyes.

Neither of those would be an issue if it weren’t for the third problem of the book. Here is where the Lecter quote comes in because my GOD. The writing is so straightforward, unimaginative, repetitive and dull that it sucks what little life there is right out of the pages. It could have been called Tell The Wolves I Went Places and Did Stuff. It also means I didn’t believe a single character, one thing they did or a single word any of them said. This could have been brilliant. Instead it’s below average and my two star rating is frankly a generous one.

Advertisements

Cannonball Read 5, Book 28: Horns by Joe Hill

7738029

 

Joe Hill’s debut novel, Heart Shaped Box, terrified the life out of me. But then, he is his father’s son. Personally, if my dad were Stephen King, I wouldn’t be a writer, much less a writer in the same genre. I’d be an accountant or something. But Joe Hill has more backbone than I do and thank heavens for that because three years after that spine chilling debut comes Horns, a less terrifying but no less brilliant book. The star of this book is one Ignatius Perry, who wakes up one morning with a throbbing hangover and devil horns growing out of his head…..

A year before the novel opens, Ig’s girlfriend, Merrin, has been raped and murdered. Ig was the only suspect, but lack of evidence meant he was neither legally guilty or acquitted of the crime. The small town of Gideon he lives in all believe he did it. But Ig’s horns come with a terrible power. People tell him the truth. And people obey him when he tells them to follow their heart’s desire (the more sinful, the better). Armed with this new power, he can solve the mystery of who killed Merrin. But as we all know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions……

Reading this was like reading a top of his game old school Stephen King (unlike a newly returned to the top of his game Stephen King, with 11.22.63), and I can’t really praise Hill much higher than that. The murder mystery is so well handled, it almost doesn’t need the gimmick of turning Ig into the devil to resolve it. The supporting characters are all beautifully three dimensional. The attention to detail is unrelenting (in a good way). And when the devil gets his due, the punishment handed out is unpleasant in the extreme.  A touch more clarity on what actually put the horns there might not have gone amiss, but other than that, this is a remarkable, bold, inventive delight. Do yourselves a favour and read it before the film adaptation comes out. After all, Harry Potter is playing Ig.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 27: The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, by Liz Jensen

118812

 

People hit the nail on the head on the cover there. This book really is wonderfully strange. Louis Drax is an accident prone nine year old boy who seems to have a life threatening accident every birthday. The latest accident has left him in a coma, with little hope of recovery. There are two narrators, Dr Dannachet, the specialist treating Louis, and Louis himself, who is wandering through his own twisted dreamscape. Here, he makes friends with the creepy Gustave, who only has bandages where his face should be. Through the two differing viewpoints, the strange and awful existence of Louis Drax is laid before the reader. 

This book is chilling, funny, sweet, disturbing, funny and heartbreaking by turns. It’s obvious from the start that something is VERY wrong in the Drax family, but the field of possibilities doesn’t narrow for quite a while. Is Louis disturbed, is his father abusive, is his mother crazy, is it their toxic relationship that is damaging poor fragile Louis and turning him into the bullied Wacko Boy of his school?

All is made harrowingly, horribly clear by the time the book draws to a close. While you may not love some of the mechanics Jensen uses to force out the truth from the protagonists (the sleepwalking, for example), it’s hard to deny the power of that truth. It’s also hard to deny that Louis Drax is a beguiling narrator, and one that will linger in your memory long after you’re done reading the story of his accident prone life.

 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 26 – Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

12512617

 

Dear Ms Collins,

I wonder, did you ever watch the first series of the Joss Whedon show, Dollhouse? Did you notice how it started off really slow, then it got crazy awesome until the season finale suddenly dumped the cast into a post apocalyptic war zone on the flimsiest of pretexts and was incoherent, nonsensical and uninteresting? So bad, in fact, that it killed any desire to watch another episode ever again? Well, that’s kind of how I feel about your trilogy here.

In the final book, Katniss Everdeen has become the face of the revolution. She is Panem’s Mockingjay, the figurehead of hope that the Capitol can fall. Her own district has been bombed out of existence. She and a bazillion other refugees are hiding out in an underground district that was previously thought to have been wiped out. And they’re going to fight, goddamnit. Well, mostly Katniss is going to whine. And behave like a spoilt and irresponsible tool. Oh, and at no point will she be even slightly inspiring, not to anyone IN the book, let alone to anyone reading it.

The final assault on the Capitol is clumsily and incoherently told, its aftermath utterly ludicrous. I know it’s not real, but when you lose your internal logic, so you lose your reader. Well, this reader anyway. Peeta’s arc is so inconsistent as to be essentially unfathomable, Katniss acts so put upon the whole time, it’s a miracle she has ANY friends at all, Gale doesn’t really seem to ever serve much of a purpose. It all feels so half hearted, drawn out and unsure of itself. There’s some brave decisions made about who lives, who dies and who is ultimately responsible, but the points kind of get lost under the soppy romance, the whining and the moping.

I wish I’d stopped after the first book. What a shame.

Yours,

Popcultureboy.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 25: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

12510082

 

After inexplicably reading all 4 books in the Twilight “Saga” (inverted commas have to be used there, because, really, who on earth is Meyer kidding?), I was in no mood to get myself acquainted with another YA series of books. But more than a few friends went bonkers about the first book and the movie and kept on telling me I should read it. So eventually I was like “Oh my God, ALRIGHT” and I read the first book. And I bloody loved it. So much so that I bought the other two books that make up the trilogy and was excited to have uninterrupted days to read them in.

Well. I honestly wonder if they were conceived as a trilogy at all. Part of me wonders if the first novel had a success far beyond anyone involved could have ever expected and the trilogy was born out of that. Catching Fire picks up not too long after book one left off, with Katniss and Peeta about to embark on the Victory Tour. Katniss’s unorthodox win has caused President Snow a bit of consternation, there’s whispers of uprisings against the Capitol. He needs Katniss to put things right, or there will be grave consequences.

Those consequences turn out to be, through a never before mentioned caveat of the Games, that Katniss has to return to the arena for a second go round of Hunger Games. Which would be fine if a) they weren’t just an uninteresting retread of the games in the original novel and b) they arrived sooner. It’s over halfway through before we get back to the Games. The lead up is not that interesting either. Some points are repeated so often it made my teeth itch (by the eleventy fifth time she mentions her dead father, I was ready to yell “oh really, is your father dead? How did he die, Katniss? WHY DON’T YOU TELL US?”)

To add insult to injury, having spent SO long getting us there, waylaying the journey with tiresome love triangles and whatnot, Collins then pulls the rug, crams a shedload of exposition into the last five pages (none of which makes a lick of sense) before a cliffhanger we could all see coming sets us up for the final instalment. I really was crushingly disappointed by how lame this book was.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 24: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

10746542

 

I’d only read one Barnes novel previous to this, the somewhat unexciting Arthur & George. I was intrigued by the premise of this and the accolades heaped upon it, but I’d recently been dissuaded from reading memory novels by a previous Booker winner, John Banville’s The Sea. I hated that book with the burning passion of 100o suns, and it left me with zero desire to read this one.

However, since it’s a slender little thing that cries out to be read in one sitting and I had a week of lazing on a sun lounger going on, I decided to banish The Sea and find out if I agreed with the Booker judges this time. I did. Telling the story of the entirely average Tony Webster and the decidedly un-average Adrian Finn who Tony and his clique befriend as pretentious sex starved 15 year olds. Finn burns bright and brief in their little gang, steals Tony’s girlfriend Veronica and leaves an indelible mark on the lives of all of them.

To say too much about the content of this book would be unfair. The effect Adrian had is drip fed throughout the 167 pages here, as the narrative flits about between past and present with a beautiful and precise economy of words. When the final piece of the puzzle drops into place, it’s genuinely unexpected and entirely moving. This is a deserved winner of its many literary prizes and proves beyond question that quality is always better than quantity.

 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 23: In The Woods by Tana French

237209

 

In that tiny, kind of scary house, by the woods by the woods by the woods by the woods….

Woods have been a staple of crime and  horror stories for a LONG time now. And the setup for this novel is so cliché, I almost can’t bear to type it. But here goes. Dublin, 1984, summer. Three young kids go playing in the woods one day. Two are never seen again, the third is found blood soaked and clinging to a tree, with no memory of any events leading up to how he got there. Twenty years later, name changed to remove the stigma of being That Boy, Rob Ryan is working on Dublin’s murder squad. His equilibrium is seriously sent off-kilter when a twelve year old girl turns up dead in the middle of an archaeological dig in those same woods, and the past begins to threaten its way into Rob’s present.

See? Anyone with an allergy to cliché just went into anaphylaxis, didn’t they? I almost did, and it’s one reason I have taken so long to get round to reading this book. I had a horrible feeling it would disappoint me. It didn’t. The plot is far, FAR more complex than its precis would have you believe and French’s depth of characterisation is seemingly endless. By the time I finished, not only did I feel I knew Rob (who’s real name is Adam), but I didn’t want to leave the world and the characters French had created.

The body count doesn’t increase beyond the first find and the book stretches to almost 700 pages, so you’d also be forgiven for thinking this would be a bit slow. The segues into Adam/Rob’s past and the mirroring of the present, along with fleshing out the fascinating characters who make up the rest of the Murder Squad (not least Cassie Maddox, who, thank God, is at the heart of book 2, The Likeness), ensure that the neither the pace nor the tension ever let up.

There is one minor (and spoiler-tastic, so if you haven’t yet read this book and you plan to, STOP READING THIS REVIEW NOW) issue that I had with the book, one that was almost enough to knock it from its 5 star rating. But only almost. While the present day crime is solved (and what a chilling resolution it is), the mystery of Adam/Rob’s past is never resolved. I had fun throughout forming my own version of his events, and while for many that will be enough, but as anyone who slogged through the whole of The Little Friend will understand, sometimes, confirmation is a good thing.

 

 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 22: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

17158664

A much heralded debut novel that comes with the Oprah Book Club seal of approval, what could possibly go wrong? A portrait of the titular Hattie, told through the eyes of her 11 children and 1 grandchild, with each chapter focusing on a different member of the tribe, this sounds like a breeze. And that was my problem. It was a little too breezy. A little too glossed over and surface-y. I wanted it to go a little deeper.

It’s a nice idea, to devote one chapter to an individual member of the tribe (or in two cases, to two members of the tribe with a shared story), but there’s some problems that come with that. Firstly, once the chapter is over, the tribe members are pretty much out of the story altogether, which makes it difficult to care about them. Secondly, it’s not strictly adhered to, with one chapter in particular dealing more with events going on around them, than with the tribe member themselves.

The other main problem I had with the book, is the portrait of Hattie it paints is of a thoroughly unpleasant woman. I know that someone in her circumstances is hardly going to be all sunshine and lollipops, but I found her endless barrage of mean to be a little wearying.

But this is making me sound  like a Debbie Downer who hated the book. I didn’t. I really very much enjoyed the book, there’s some strong and beautiful writing here. All the characters, whether they are pleasant or not, are all richly and deeply drawn. That’s no mean feat, given the constraints Mathis put on herself to sketch them in. A striking and very promising debut, which only loses the 4th star for its lack of depth.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 21: I Am Half Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

11381287

 

In Flavia de Luce, Alan Bradley has struck gold. An eleven year old amateur sleuth and scientist, Flavia is an incorrigible and precocious delight. She won me over very early in book 1, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, when she wondered about the family cook, “will nobody rid me of this turbulent pastry chef?” and I have been unwavering in my devotion since. While my love of Flavia as a character is unwavering, I am increasingly finding myself wishing she was in better books.

Shadows is the 4th in the series and is a somewhat heavy handed homage to Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d. The title is lifted from the same source (Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott) and the set up is pretty much identical. Having fallen on hard times, Flavia’s father leases their enormous country pile to a film company as a filming location. The film being shot there will star the world famous megastar Phyllis Wyvern. Before the first day of filming, Wyvern is found dead, strangled by a strip of film that has been left tied about her neck in a decorative bow.

Bradley spends a lot of time setting everything up before he can knock it all down. It’s almost half way through the book before Wyvern is dispatched with. Many characters are introduced, red herrings are scattered about, and a sub-plot regarding Flavia trying to trap Santa with birdlime (don’t ask) fights for space alongside the somewhat half hearted investigation into Wyvern’s murder.

And that, in a nutshell, is my issue with the de Luce books. So much of it is taken up with extraneous gubbins, that the murder mystery is treated as if it’s almost surplus to requirements. The identity of the guilty party is uncovered through a series of coincidences rather than anything else, and some clues are never fully solved at all. It’s all dispatched with in a rather perfunctory fashion, so Bradley can get back to Flavia being Flavia. When you’ve created a heroine as delightful as that, it’s forgivable, but for future installments, Bradley needs to tip the balance back the other way. More focus needs to go on the plot machinations, to bring it in line with the glorious cast of characters he has now established.

It wouldn’t hurt to let Flavia grow up a little. Four books in and she’s still 11 years old. If nothing else, it stretches credibility that a village as sleepy as Bishop’s Lacey could experience such a high body count in such a small space of time. But more to the point, the thought of Flavia de Luce growing and evolving is frankly a bloody marvellous one.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 20: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

17248763

Imagine Jonathan Franzen’s first draft of The Corrections was a lot shorter, a lot simpler and a lot more Jewish, you will have a good idea of what Attenberg’s latest book is like. Look closely and you’ll see that Franzen himself is praising the book on its cover, apparently it had him from its very first pages. High praise indeed. I was not quite so instantly gripped, nor was I ultimately blown away by this, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it a lot.

Edie Middlestein is a huge woman. Married to Richard for more than thirty years, none of them happy, she has eaten herself into morbid obesity, firmly in heart attack and stroke territory. Out of the blue, Richard walks out on his marriage, leaving his two children to pick up the pieces and deal with their mother’s failing health. But of course, his grown up kids have lives and problems all of their own and the Middlesteins soon find themselves cracking along the fault lines that have always been there, they’ve just been ignoring them.

Their pot smoking laid back son Benny is married to screamingly uptight Rachelle. They are preparing for their twins b’nai mitzvah and while Benny seems unfazed by his mother’s food addiction and the doom it spells, Rachelle takes to following her around and keeping a food diary, for all the good that does. Benny’s sister Robin is a spinster who finds her parents mostly intolerable but loves them too. We’ve all been there.

There’s a wonderful disparity between how Edie views her dying marriage and how Richard does. Edie is, essentially, so magnificently awful that you will be grateful on every page that she isn’t YOUR mother or wife (or indeed, any kind of relation). What is so lovely about this book is that there are so many glimpses into their past and into the future of the Middlestein children tucked away in long chapters about enforced trips to synagogues and the like. It makes for some gloriously easy reading (it’s more Anne Tyler than Jonathan Franzen, not that this is a bad thing)  and some fabulous characters. My only gripe was the overuse of the word “gotten”. I’m telling myself it was a deliberate choice, but it irked me nonetheless.

So there you are. The Middlesteins won’t change your life, but the Middlestein family are good company. If only because you finish the book and think “man, my family isn’t THAT bad, at least”.