Cannonball Read 5, Book 36: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

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Last year, Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail took America by storm. It spent months on the bestseller lists, Oprah re-started her book club over it and Reese Witherspoon snapped up the movie rights. The story of how Strayed’s life spun off its axis in the wake of her mother’s premature death from cancer and how it was righted by an 1100 mile hike along the titular trail could be seen as an inspirational one. I have been cautious about memoirs since James Frey ruined it for everyone though, so in fairness, I didn’t approach this with a particularly open mind. But as previous reviews on here have shown, I can be won over. Not this time though.

Strayed is an idiot. She’s an idiot who thinks it’s a good idea to get married at 19. An idiot who reacts to her mother’s death by getting herself addicted to heroin. The kind of idiot who then wonders why her family hasn’t held together since the death of its matriarch. The kind of idiot who cheats indiscriminately on her husband then wonders why they end up divorced. The kind of idiot who thinks hiking 1100 miles in three months would be a good idea. The kind of idiot who hasn’t hiked a day in her life, but doesn’t think such an undertaking is something you should prepare yourself for physically or mentally. An idiot who doesn’t think to pack a trekking pole, but does take a foldable saw and some books to read. An idiot who shoots up heroin again right before starting the hike. An idiot who keeps forgetting to look where she’s going despite the presence of rattlesnakes, fallen trees, boulders, bears and any other number of things that could kill her.

She’s also an idiot who somehow survives her PCT hiking ordeal, bloodied but unbowed and thinks it’s interesting enough that she needs to write a book about it and we should all read it. Well, fuck off, Cheryl Strayed. Parents die every day. Marriages crumble every day. Addicts get clean every day. Judging from the people she meets along the way, people hike the PCT on a fairly regular basis. At no point did I think this journey merited a book about it. My dad died last year. I didn’t wake up one morning, snort a line of coke and then decide to scale the north face of the Eiger though. I just got on with my life. I didn’t spend three months wailing “why me?” in the wilderness and I sure as shit didn’t think I needed to publish a book about my inner and outer journey.

I do have to hand it to her though. Strayed can write. The strength of her writing adds a second star to the rating. While I found it relentlessly self involved and painfully smug in its tone, it does make an interesting read. It doesn’t make for anywhere near as interesting a read as Strayed thinks it does, of course. Quite clearly, when you reach the end, she wants you to think “wow, she really was so brave and so awesome, what an incredible journey”. All I could think was “oh do get a grip, love”.

 

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Cannonball Read 5, Book 35: Y by Marjorie Celona

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Celona’s debut novel has been highly and widely praised. The PR machine would have you believe that heralds the arrival of “a magnificent new voice in contemporary fiction”. Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Yes, this book is good. Yes, Celona is clearly talented. But it’s far from perfect. Maybe the hyperbole had me expecting the next Secret History, a hype to which no book could ever live up, and that’s why it fell short.

The book opens with baby Shannon abandoned at the Y on the day she is born. She serves as the book’s omniscient first person narrator, telling her story as well as her absent mother, Yula. The stories are interwoven so we find out why Shannon was abandoned simultaneously with the effect said abandonment is having on Shannon’s formative years.

In telling the story of a tough and very damaged girl who is driven by the need to find the parents who abandoned her, Celona’s reach does exceed her grasp. Firstly, Shannon is difficult to like. While her endlessly unpleasant behaviour is understandable, if there isn’t even a scrap of charm on which to hang all the meanness, then it makes her a tough sell. Secondly, there are some clumsy moments. For example, during one of Yula’s chapters, we learn of how Yula’s mother died. The next chapter, we hear about it all over again, as if it’s supposed to be new and shocking information.

Elsewhere, the impetus is sucked out of the book by such clumsy moments. The main driving force of the novel is Shannon’s endless search for her birth parents. So when, 60 pages from the end, Shannon tells us that “I will never know this. I will never know her”, while filling in some more of Yula’s history, you know what you’re in for. Letting those last 60 pages unfold without that aside might have made them affecting, rather than tiresomely inevitable.

I’m being a little unfair to Celona though. That she has a distinctive voice and considerable writing talent is obvious. While it’s hard to like Shannon, the book is full of other brilliantly drawn and quite lovely characters. When the book isn’t tripping over its own structure, it offers many flashes of brilliance. Check the moment Celona deploys Shanon’s first f-bomb. Not only is it laugh out loud funny, it also tells the reader what sort of adolescence she’s going to have. All in all, a qualified success.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 34: The Night Rainbow by Claire King

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Three years ago, Room took the world by storm. It takes a brave author indeed to want to write a book narrated by a five year old in the wake of Emma Donoghue’s phenomenon, but that’s what Claire King has done. And I don’t mind telling you that my heart sank upon realising that. Well, that and there were no speech marks in the book.

Pea narrates the book. She lives in Southern France, on a farm with her English mum and younger sister Margot. Pea’s mother is too sad to look after hear daughters, she’s almost too depressed to function. Pea’s mother lost a baby, and left her happiness behind in the hospital with it. More recently, Pea’s father has been killed in a farming accident. And Pea’s mum is pregnant again by her now dead husband. So you can understand why Mum takes to her bed most days, leaving Pea and Margot to fend for themselves over the long hot summer. They play in the meadow, where they meet Claude. An unlikely friendship forms, but Claude is hiding a grief all of his own.

Pea (Peony to her mum, Pivoine to her late French dad, so Pea to avoid conflict) is a highly precocious little girl. But she’s also a scared and sad little girl and that mixture is charming, beautifully and tenderly portrayed by King. My heart sinking, it turns out, was premature. Nothing much happens throughout the first 200 pages of this book, as three mismatched individuals find some common ground and help to heal the wounds the past has inflicted upon them, but you don’t care.

It’s a measure of King’s skill that while you find yourself being beguiled by Margot and Pea’s adventures with Claude, the ducks all being set up doesn’t really intrude into the narrative. So when she spends the last 65 pages shooting them down, it makes for a quietly spectacular denouement. It is charming as it both warms and breaks your heart. It’s an extremely assured debut and marks King out as someone whose follow up you should all be eagerly awaiting.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 33: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

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Gillian Flynn is riding the zeitgeist right now, isn’t she? Gone Girl was a bona fide sensation last year and both that and her debut novel are proving popular on this year’s Cannonball Read. If my searching skills are up to scratch, I think I’m the first person to review her second book. I very much doubt I will be the last.

When Libby Day was seven years old, she hid while her fifteen year old brother Ben slaughtered their mother and two sisters. Her testimony put Ben in prison for life. Almost twenty five years later, Libby is every bit as maladjusted as you would expect her to be, drifting through life, surviving on a trust fund of donations from well wishers. It tells you all you need to know about her that she resents any new young murder victim for pulling the focus from her and her dwindling funds.

The Kill Club are a weird little underground group of misfits who reach out to Libby to be a guest speaker at their next meeting. Tempted by the money, Libby meets them, only to discover they don’t believe Ben killed anyone, they don’t believe her testimony and they all have their theories as to who really offed the Days. Libby gets drawn in, but mainly for financial reasons. And then, of course, chaos ensues.

This is a tougher book to get hooked into than either of Flynn’s others and there are two reasons for that. The first is that Libby Day is massively unpleasant, so much so it’s impossible to like her for about the first third of the book. The second reason is the structure. It flits between first person present day chapters of Libby and third person chapters of either Ben or the Day matriarch in the lead up to the murderous night. It only bothered me since it removed any doubt that Ben was guilty and thus any sense of tension in that regard.

Once it hits its stride though, it grips like a vice. Flynn writes with such urgency that you can’t help but keep reading. She has also mastered the art of the cliffhanger chapter ending. There were at least three occasions where I exclaimed something profane as the chapter drew to a close. Unfortunately, the denouement you’re racing towards is one that doesn’t quite tick all the boxes. It clips the bullseye, rather than going dead centre. It’s not enough of a fumble to be truly labeled “disappointing” and the journey to get there has been an intense read, so you forgive it. But it’s still like buying a latte and finding out on the first mouthful they gave you decaff by mistake.

Cannonball 5, Book 32: Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

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What an absolute treat this book turned out to be. An unwieldy title and a premise that doesn’t exactly scream “fascinating” immediately and a debut author, this could have gone so very very wrong. Instead, it ended up being so enjoyable, that it’s firmly in the top ten of this year’s Cannonball Read for me.

Clay Jannon lives in San Francisco. He’s a web designer and the recession has put him out of work. A pavement pounding desperate job hunt leads him to the titular bookstore, where he lands the job of night clerk. But it soon becomes clear that this is not really a bookstore in the normal sense. Hardly anyone buys anything, instead a steady stream of people come in and borrow obscure volumes from the hidden tall shelves at the back of the store (which Clay dubs “the Waybacklist”). A mix of curiosity and boredom causes Clay to poke around in what’s really going on and he finds MUCH more than he ever bargained for.

There are so many wonderful things about this book. Firstly, the collision of old and new is tackled head on. Like Clay, I actually felt a bit bad reading this book on a Kindle. Mr Penumbra is delightfully eccentric. When he’s explaining to Clay he has to record every visitor to the Waybacklist in a log book, he tells him that he needs to record “the customer’s appearance. His state of mind. How he asks for the book. How he receives it. Does he appear to be injured. Is he wearing a sprig of rosemary in his hat. And so on”. If you don’t love him by that point, you should probably stop reading.

Moreover, this book is a geek’s paradise. From the most devoted googler, to the old school cosplay role players, this book covers a smorgasbord of nerdiness. And at no point does Sloan sneer at or look down on his assembled squadron of geeks. The tone of this book is so warm, in places it borders on an admiration of its characters that is almost reverential. Jannon is a brilliantly complacent narrator. The journey he goes in is fantastic, but its arc is firmly grounded in the real world too. And it’s a brave author who tells his story in the present tense but uses only future tense in his epilogue.

Basically, what I’m saying is read it. You won’t be sorry.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 31: The Accident by Linwood Barclay

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I think I may have to break up with Linwood Barclay. I cannot deny that I was absolutely gripped from start to finish by his runaway smash, No Time For Goodbye. However, it’s been slowly diminishing returns from that point on. Each book has been a little less believable, a little more artlessly constructed and with this book from two years ago, a new low is sadly established. There’s two other published books of his I’ve yet to read, and this year sees his latest book, A Tap On The Window, hit the shelves. But the jury is VERY much out as to whether I can fundamentally be bothered to read any of them.

Hailed as being timely, since pretty much every character in the book has been hit by the recession in some way, it focuses on Glen Garber, an everyman contractor who is feeling the pinch due to the housing crisis. When his wife Sheila dies in a car accident, Glen is naturally torn apart by grief. But then it transpires Sheila was drunk and caused the accident, a fact Glen finds it impossible to reconcile. And in trying to find out what happened, he finds himself drawn into a crazy world of skullduggery and intrigue.

So much of this didn’t work for me. First of all, there is a LOT going on. There are about 1400 sub plots milling around the central story of Glen and Sheila.  More than one of them could have been excised without harming the book one iota. Secondly, the jumping between first and third person narration was irksome and jarring. Thirdly, it stretched credibility (and my patience) that so many people were seemingly struggling to make ends meet and turning to a variety of illicit deeds to do so. Yes the recession has been awful and yes it’s impacted on a lot of people, but the whole town seems to be at it. It’s a little much.

As if all that plus the super sketchy and totally flimsy characterisation weren’t enough, when Barclay gathers all the strands of his unwieldy plot and tries to tie them all together, the wheels well and truly come off. The super excited blurb promises that the book builds to “a climax no-one will see coming”. Fair point, but moreover, nobody will believe when it gets here. When the truth behind Sheila’s accident is finally revealed, it’s not shocking. At least, not in the way Barclay intended. It is laughable, completely and totally ridiculous. Maybe this is an off book for him and he pulls it back together for his next one. I can’t decide if I want to find out.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 30: The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

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Funnily enough, this book was referenced in my friend’s Goodreads review of the hugely disappointing Tell The Wolves I’m Home. He mentioned it as an example of how a teen voice transcended its limitations to really SAY something. Well he was right about that.

I think everyone has read this book by now, haven’t they? And if they haven’t, then surely they’ve seen the film. So everyone knows it’s an epistolary novel, with sixteen year old Charlie writing to an unnamed friend as he tries to navigate a year in high school and all its attendant obstacles without coming apart at the seams. On his journey, he meets Patrick and Sam. Step brother and sister, Charlie falls in love with Sam and idolises Patrick. Patrick is gay and dating a closeted football player, Sam isn’t interested in Charlie that way and is dating a college guy. Charlie falls into their circle of friends and is seemingly having the time of his life. Everyone loves how quiet and intelligent he is. But the letters reveal Charlie is in turmoil and he pours his anguish out for his reader. And us.

I loved this book. I loved all the characters and I especially adored Charlie. Anyone who’s ever been sixteen will find something here that resonates with them, with varying degrees of emotional heart string tugging. And Chbosky has given us a teenage protagonist who is mixed up, messed up and occasionally fucked up, given him a vocabulary that would shame most literary critics and has completely 100% avoided falling into Dawson’s Creek territory. That is a tremendous achievement. I didn’t want the book to end but when it does, the last few lines are so perfect, so heartbreakingly perfect and understated, that I might have got a little bit misty eyed. Wondrous.