Cannonball Read 5, Book 45: The Half-life of Hannah by Nick Alexander

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This is a tough review to write, mainly because adequately expressing just how much I absolutely loathed everything about it is unimaginable. Nick Alexander has written nine novels and is something of a Kindle sensation, apparently. After reading this sorry excuse for a book, I really cannot fathom why.

So Hannah is 38 years old and has been married to Cliff for 15 years. On a two week holiday to France, with Cliff and their 11 year old son Luke, everything begins to unravel. Her sister, niece and sister’s gay best friend are along for the holiday too. They are all insufferable upper middle class twats who shorten everyone’s name. The gay best friend says horrendous cliched nonsense like “you know how I am around hetties” and is permanently on heat. Hannah is massively uptight, her sister is an irresponsible moron.

As if the broad stroke characterisation was not bad enough, the plot is the most laugh out loud ridiculous, poorly constructed and executed load of hogwash I have read in a really long time. We are supposed to believe that Cliff could successfully deceive Hannah into believing his brother had died for over ten years, by stealing the mail he sends her. Heaven forfend he should ever phone when Cliff is out. When this lie is uncovered, Hannah’s reaction is just so stupid, so unbelievable, so wildly irritating that if it hadn’t been on Kindle, it would have been hurtled across the room.

The ineptitude of Alexander to realistically flesh out his characters or believably relay the events they experience is very cruelly exposed in the deus ex machina he employs to bring it all to a hasty conclusion. It’s crass and stupid in the extreme, and made me wish that Cannonball Read came with a zero stars option. I hated this with the burning passion of a thousand suns. Save yourself the time. Don’t read it.

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Cannonball Read 5, Book 44: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

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The hype machine would have you believe that this debut novel is “luminous”, “haunting” and “unforgettable”. Having recently been burned by Tigers In Red Weather, I approached with caution on that score. But the hype machine was right. Hot damn this was an absolute stunner of a book.

Narrated by 11 year old Julia, Miracles tells the story of what happened when the world started slowing down. Periods of light and dark lengthen, no longer being synonymous with night and day. When adherence to the 24 hour clock is enforced, society begins to fracture along the lines of those who want to live on “real time” and those sticking to “clock time”. Gravity becomes heavier, tides lower and higher than before. The slower the earth turns, the more the earth suffers. Crops fail, magnetic fields weaken, radiation in the atmosphere increases, people start to suffer from what is referred to as The Syndrome.

Two things set this book apart. The first is how simple an idea that is and how well Walker evokes it. The second thing is how it’s not really the main focus of the book. Julia is 11 years old, she goes to school, she has crushes on boys, falls out with her best friend, frets over being socially awkward, has parents who fight, all the things 11 year olds have to deal with. It just so happens she’s dealing with it all while the physical world marches ever closer to a total meltdown.

Technically, the Julia narrating the book is in her mid 20’s, looking back on her 11th year as it was the first year of The Slowing. Whichever way you look at it, Walker captures it all pretty much perfectly. There’s a LOT of foreshadowing in the book and somehow all of that works too. When talking about the colour of the car her mother is driving, Julia notes that “the police report would later describe it as blue”. Very easy to overdo that kind of conceit, I always think. It works here so well though. And when, towards the end, Julia tells us that “sometimes the saddest stories can be told in the fewest words”, well, she is not messing around, you guys. Glorious stuff.

 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 43: A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale

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I love Patrick Gale. I just do. I have done ever since picking up Rough Music on the off chance. His more recent novels have tended towards the more intimate and elegant, easily devoured in one glorious sitting. This absolute gem of a novel incorporates characters from one of his most widely read chamber pieces, but it also veers towards the scope of his earlier stuff.

Undoubtedly inspired by the awful true story of Daniel JamesA Perfectly Good Man focuses on the impact of a young man’s suicide on his close knit community. Lenny Barnes is just 20 years old but after being paralysed in a rugby accident, decides to end his life. He calls on local priest Barnaby Thomas, who administers the last rites and is briefly arrested on suspicion of assisting a suicide.

The neat trick Gale employs with his narrative is to jump around between viewpoints and eras, but the only clue the reader has as to where they are is with the chapter heading. We have “Lenny at 20” and “Barnaby at 53” and so on. Also afforded viewpoints are Barnaby’s wife and children (for he is undoubtedly the man of the title), Lenny’s mother and fiancée, and a creepy parishioner named Modest Carlsson. This works absolutely beautifully, allowing the full tangled web of relationships to slowly come into focus. The emotional pay off Gale achieves is astonishing.

So, I loved this book and I still love Patrick Gale. If you haven’t read anything of his before, then start immediately. Read Notes From an Exhibition first. Then this. Then EVERYTHING ELSE.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 42: Skagboys by Irvine Welsh

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It is hard to believe, but Trainspotting is now 20 years old. The book, anyway. It seems that Welsh needs to revisit the main characters every 10 years, as 2002 saw a sequel, Porno, and then last year came this prequel. While I haven’t read the sequel, I did read the original prior to the film adaptation. The sheer breathtaking scope, the viscerally unpleasant episodes and the fantastic array of awful characters in the book are all the reasons I loathe the stupid movie, but I digress. The prospect of a prequel intrigued me, so I dived in.

This book is absolutely immense. Essentially a huge collection of short stories with a vague through line that connects them all, it takes all the main Trainspotters and details their initial contact with heroin and descent into addiction. At one point, during the longest chapter of the book, Renton suspects that everyone has a “junky War & Peace” in them. It’s a tad hyperbolic to apply that description to this book, but you get the idea. Welsh doesn’t simply tell the story of a bunch of youths trying smack, he sets their story into a much bigger social, political and historical aspect. Those points are driven home by short chapters which punctuate the action with cold hard truths.

Essentially, if you’re a fan of Welsh and the original novel, it’s likely you have already read this. There’s little concession to those who are coming to it cold. There is still masses of phonetic Scottish first person narrative going on (Renton, Sick Boy, Begbie and Spud all narrate their stories phonetically, Spud being the least penetrable of the lot). The book jumps around between locations and narrators, sometimes first person, sometimes third person. Even for someone who has read Trainspotting, this can be a little bewildering at first.

Bewildering or not, I can’t recommend enough that you stick with it. Once you have your head around the structure and the dialect, this is a hugely rewarding read. As funny as it is absolutely appalling, Welsh has always had the ability to make the reader laugh one minute and recoil in horror the next. While the overall tone is lighter, and there may be nothing here as disturbing as the “Bad Blood” chapter in Trainspotting, there’s still plenty of here to make you grimace and guffaw. Occasionally at the same time.

 

 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 41: Tigers In Red Weather by Liza Klaussman

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Before I start in on this book review, I need to point out I am fully aware that I am absolutely not the demographic this book is aiming itself at. But with that caveat in mind, my book reading history is littered with books well out of my comfort zone that I have absolutely loved. I mean, I doubt Anne Tyler had 38 year old homosexuals in mind when she was writing The Accidental Tourist. So the hype surrounding this made me intrigued enough to read it. Mistake.

Tigers tells the story of Nick and her cousin Helena. They grew up together on the family estate in Martha’s Vineyard where they shared, according to the synopsis, “sultry summer heat and midnight gin parties”. At the end of the Second World War, they both begin new lives as Nick can now begin her life with her husband Hughes, as he returns from the war. Helena is Hollywood bound, marrying Avery and promised a glitzy glamorous life. Naturally, things don’t turn out well. Hughes is a changed man, Avery was hiding a whole bunch of madness under his chapeau. When Nick and Helena return to Tiger House with their two children in tow, they try to recapture the possibilities that were laying before them a decade before. But the discovery of a dead body sends everything even further off the rails.

If you believe the hype around this debut, you’d believe it’s “Brilliantly told from five points of view, with a magical elegance and suspenseful dark longing”. Do me a favour. Choosing three pivotal years between 1945 and 1969, Klaussman gives one section to Nick and one to Helena. Hughes gets his own section too. The last two sections belong to Daisy, Nick and  Hughes’s daughter and Ed, Helena and Avery’s son. The latter, for reasons unknown, is the only one of the five to be narrated in the first person.

To be frank, the book is laughable. Klaussman bites off way more than she can chew. The end result is multiple plot strands are poorly developed and incoherent. Some are unfinished, others are so shoddily concluded they made my teeth itch. It takes a writer of considerable talent to pull off a story this layered and with five different narrative voices, and you, Ms Klaussmann, are not that writer. The large amount of telling, not showing, drove me to distraction. At one point, Daisy suspects that a local boy would probably smell like the inside of her riding hat. Which is fine, except she then describes exactly what the inside of her riding hat actually smells like. And if that weren’t bad enough, Klaussmann is guilty of a pet hate of mine, which is to use the word “gotten”. She uses it so very often (three times on one page was the low point) that I found myself inwardly shrieking alternatives like “obtained” and “received” like a demented Speak N Spell.

The hype would have you believe that Klaussmann has delivered the next Great Gatsby. I don’t think so. For my money, she’s delivered a novel rammed full of stereotypes all haw-hawing at each other, while a not particularly taxing episode of Murder, She Wrote unfolds in the background. Avoid.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 40: World War Z by Max Brooks

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This book is a remarkable achievement. What could have so easily been a shallow shoot em up (which is what the upcoming movie seems to have gone for, which may explain the negative buzz) is instead an in depth look at all the ramifications of its titular War. The unnamed journalist travels across the world, meeting with key players in halting the zombie invasion that nearly wiped out humanity. From those who witnessed Patient Zero, to rebuilding a shattered Earth, the scope of Brooks’ vision is quite breathtaking.

I’m probably one of the few people on the planet who hadn’t read the book when it was first published back in 2006. I toyed with it, but for some reason never got round to it. Kicking myself for that now. The book is grimly fascinating and breathlessly exciting with it. There were several first person accounts that had my palms sweating. I haven’t been this gripped by a book in a long time.

There are some detractors who bemoan the similarity of the voices telling the story. I don’t agree. Throughout, I marvelled at the dexterity Brooks was demonstrating and how well he differentiated his characters. There are a lot of them, and all of them have a different story to tell. Not one of them is any less than utterly fascinating. To maintain that level of interest and excitement when you’re refracting such a huge narrative through such a large prism is an absolute marvel. Top notch stuff.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 39: Lost & Found by Tom Winter

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What’s that line Sean Connery has to Jill St John in Diamonds Are Forever? “That’s a nice little nothing you’re almost wearing”. Well that’s how I feel about this book, which was another on a whim Kindle daily deal purchase. It was a nice little nothing I’ve already almost forgotten.

That’s not to say it’s bad, far from it. It centres on two lost souls. Carol is trapped in a marriage to a man she suspects she has never loved, with a teenage daughter she is at a loss to connect with. Albert is a widowed postman a couple of weeks from retirement. When a friend suggest to Carol she gets all her grief and guilt out by writing letters to the universe, and Albert is tasked with clearing out the Dead Letter Office before retiring, well, you can imagine how it’s going to go, can’t you?

The author has a light and breezy tone, not to mention a strong line in comic delivery. Describing the wife of Albert’s unpleasant neighbour, Winter writes “Max’s wife is rather like Kim Jong-il, in the sense that she’s almost never seen in public, and when she is, it’s always with a sickly demeanour and a bad perm”. Unfortunately, this starts to work against the novel, since most of the characters also make quips like this and occasionally, if it’s not noted, it can be difficult to work out who is actually speaking.

For being such a light and flimsy little read, Winter does occasionally delve into the darker side of things. Carol’s husband is diagnosed with testicular cancer, for example. It’s a shame that he lacks the courage of his convictions and can’t resist the urge to write a coda that ties up everything in a neat little bow. He may as well have written “and they all lived happily ever after, the end”. A qualified success, then.

 

 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 38: Longbourn by Jo Baker

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The incessant tweeting I have done regarding my participation in Cannonball Read 5 has earned me a few new followers. Among them is Jo Baker’s publicist, who tweeted recently that she had some advance copies of this book to give away. I mentioned that I had Longbourn on my ever growing “to read” shelf (currently at 239 titles on Goodreads) and thus a copy was sent to me.

To anyone who knows me, it will be no surprise that I haven’t actually read Pride & Prejudice. My nickname isn’t popcultureboy for nothing, you know. I have tried many times to read some of the old classics and I have always failed. However, put a new spin on one of them, and I will almost always be interested. Austen’s novel has created a subgenre already. There are versions of it retold through Mr Darcy, there are sequels, there’s Pemberley set murder mysteries (though the less said about that, the better) and of course, there’s Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. Baker, as far as I am aware, is the first to venture downstairs and re-tell it from the point of the servants.

Mrs Hill is Longbourn’s housekeeper and brooks no nonsense. Her husband additionally sees to the grounds and the horses while Sarah and Polly help Mrs Hill with household and kitchen duties. Then a new footman “smelling of the sea and bearing secrets” arrives, like a stone thrown into a mill pond. A presence barely noticed by the Bennett girls, his presence below stairs is much more keenly felt. For two thirds of the novel, not a great deal happens in terms of plot, but the writing and characterisation is really quite beautiful, which makes it gripping nonetheless.

Jo Baker knows of what she speaks. Her family has a history of service not unlike the staff employed by the Bennett family. This results in a cast of characters faithfully and respectfully presented. Baker wanted to give these ordinary people, who are only glimpsed in the Bennett’s rarefied world, a voice and in that she has most definitely succeeded. And when the novel backtracks to fill in the history of the footman and the servants of Longbourn, Baker makes you appreciate everything you’ve read all over again.

This is one of the strongest novels I have read in a fair while. It’s a remarkable achievement and it’s one that could have gone horribly awry (cf Death Comes to Pemberley). It’s full of beautiful prose and characters you end up caring deeply about and rooting for. It’s an odd disconnect in me that I will boo hoo at the drop of a hat for a film, TV show or piece of theatre but have only ever been moved to tears by a book once (and that was The Lovely Bones. I think it’s fair to say I’m not alone in that). The last three pages of Longbourn are so gorgeous, so heartfelt and just so right that I had an awfully big lump in my throat. Brava.

Longbourn is published in the UK on August 13th with a US publication date set for October 8th.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 37: 600 Hours of Edward by Craig Lancaster

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It’s difficult to really describe just how much I absolutely HATED reading this book. It sounded intriguing. Edward, a 39 year old man with OCD and Aspergers lives alone in his regimented world, until the arrival of a new neighbour and her nine year old son intrudes upon his existence in unexpected ways. Sounds like it could be interesting. That is until, on the first page, it’s apparent the book is narrated in the first person by Edward, and that’s where it all fell apart.

If you love the minutiae of someone’s life, what time they wake up in the morning, what they eat, where they go and how they get there, what TV they watch, then this is the book for you. There is probably about 10 pages in this book that actually move the story forward. The rest is all a seemingly endless retread of TV shows he is watching, food he is buying and eating, as well as a garage he keeps painting. It is mind numbing to the point of being absolutely unbearable. I found myself skim reading whole sections, because I just didn’t care to read the plot of a Dragnet episode or the life lesson it teaches Edward.

This kind of monotonous and relentless narrative voice would be fine, if it had anything original to say. It doesn’t. Mark Haddon struck gold with his Aspergers narrator, but Lancaster fails dismally. *Spoiler alert* Edward has a tortured relationship with his father, who dies suddenly about two thirds of the way through. I lost my dad last year, and any father/son stuff has me boo-hooing in seconds (I even blubbed at a Man of Steel trailer the other day). The only tears Lancaster pulled out of me were ones of boredom. Epic and unmitigated fail.

It only took me three and a half hours of my life to read about 600 of Edward’s. It’s 210 minutes I’m never getting back. There’s a sequel. Given the non-ending of this book, I am not what you’d call inspired to check it out.