Cannonball Read 5, Book 55: Agatha Raisin & The Wellspring of Death by M.C. Beaton

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So here we are at the 7th entry in the seemingly indefatigable Agatha Raisin series. This one finds Agatha embroiled in a murderous scandal surrounding a local spring and a water company’s plans to tap into said spring for a new line of mineral water. It also finds the series in desperate need of some variety.

Beaton goes to great pains to point out that Raisin is a headstrong woman, a force to be reckoned with, someone who was a feared and respected businesswoman when she ran her own PR company. We then get page after page of her being driven by how desirable she is or isn’t to various men, constantly mooning over the handsome neighbour she nearly married and generally being a neurotic mess. These two facets of her clash pretty badly and make for some intensely irritating reading.

Another area we could use some variation in is that of the killer’s identity and the method of revealing it. Once again, motive and identity is continually presented by others to Agatha and it’s dismissed as being implausible. And once again, Agatha finds herself in peril with the murderer when she realises too late, everyone was right all along. I am giving this a third star purely because there is a slight curve ball thrown with the end, and it makes ALL the difference. I hope this means the 8th and soon to be read instalment of the series, The Wizard of Evesham, is an improvement.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 54: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

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Prior to Telegraph Avenue, I had read exactly one and a bit books of Michael Chabon. I discovered Wonder Boys after the movie adaptation came out (eschewing the movie tie-in cover so I could be all “oh I read it before the film”). I really enjoyed it. So when The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay came out, I was excited and bought a copy right away. And then I hated it so much I gave up in less than 100 pages. No, wait, come back! I KNOW that I’m pretty much in the minority of one with that. So much so, that I decided I must be wrong. Rather than revisit Kavalier though, I decided to give his latest novel a spin.

I was initially cautious about reading it. Why? The jacket copy, pretty much. Allow me to share it with you here: “An intimate epic, a NorCal Middlemarch set to the funky beat of classic vinyl soul-jazz and pulsing with a virtuosic, pyrotechnical style all its own,Telegraph Avenue is the great American novel we’ve been waiting for. Generous, imaginative, funny, moving, thrilling, humane, and triumphant.” Fuck off. Seriously, just take your ridiculous hyperbole and fuck right off.

That Chabon is a genius wordsmith is not in doubt. Throughout the book, I found myself quietly marvelling at his dexterity with language, as well as often laughing out loud. Introducing one of the six main characters, Chabon gives us “‘Well, you’ve got gravity working for you,’ Gwen tried, less inclined than her partner to patience or politeness, but good for at least one go-round with an upside-down naked lady in labor”. Later on, the aftermath of a disabled man’s bird allergy is dealt with thusly: “‘I feel terrible’, said the man in the wheelchair, but in the tonelessness of his voice-o-tron, it was hard to be sure whether he was referring to the his remorse at the ejection of [the bird] or to the onset of anaphylaxis”. Those are just two examples. Telegraph Avenue is littered with numerous other moments of lyrical genius and laugh out loud asides.

The issue I have with this book is the plot. There’s so very much of it. You know when you are coming back from a holiday and you’ve done too much shopping, so you are frantically sitting on your suitcase while three other people zip it closed? That’s what the plot of this book feels like. There are at least three main plot strands, dealing with Archy Stallings, Nat Jaffe, their wives, their offspring, their businesses, and from those main plots, there are many sub-plot spin offs. It could have done with a little bit of a trim. Archy and Nat trying to save their failing used record store while their wives try and deal with the outcome of a bad birth at their midwifery home birth business is enough. Throw in Nat’s gay teenage son having a clandestine affair with Archy’s illegitimate, previously unacknowledged and sexually ambivalent teenage son, and you’re already threatening to over-egg the pudding.

But Chabon doesn’t stop there. There is so much other stuff a-going on, that to cover it all would make this review almost as long as the book. It’s a frustrating experience, as you’d quite like it to slow down and focus. The writing, as demonstrated, is so pin sharp and glorious that if nothing much happened in the book, it would be fine. The characters are all colourful enough to support a thin narrative. That Chabon shackles them to such a bloated one is this book’s undoing, for me, rather than its salvation.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 53: Agatha Raisin & The Terrible Tourist by M.C. Beaton

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I told a good friend of mine that I indulged in the guilty pleasure of reading these books. She looked at me aghast and told me at length how members of the Cosy Crime Corner shun Beaton books in general and the Agatha Raisin series in particular. I had to point out, equally at length, that I was under no illusion that these were good books. Sometimes I just wanted/needed to take my brain out and read some drivel. That’s where these books come in.

At the end of the previous instalment, Agatha’s planned marriage to her dashing neighbour James Lacey had gone awry. He had taken off to Cyprus to try and put the latest murder fuelled disaster behind him. Agatha followed him, in an attempt to rekindle things with him. And so we begin with The Terrible Tourist. 

Agatha finds James, but only after falling in with a close knit bunch of Brits, all of whom are varying degrees of obnoxious. When one of them, the most hideous (Horrible Tourist would have been a more fitting title, but of course that doesn’t alliterate) turns up dead, it’s a case of  same shit, different location as Agatha and James try to solve the murder and how they feel about each other.

It really isn’t the most artfully constructed of books, even for one of this series. It feels like a first draft. Choice writing such as “‘So how are things back home?’ asked Agatha, wondering now what James was making of her disappearance and feeling uncomfortably that she had behaved badly”.  The book is padded with a lot of information about Cyprus, so it almost doubles as a tour guide in places. Most unforgivable, again, is the reveal of the murderer. A lot revolves around identifying the unusual weapon used to off the tourist. When it IS identified, it’s quite clear that it would have been staring Agatha in the face the whole time, it’s just never mentioned by Beaton prior to the big reveal.

And yet, with all of that, I’m still going to read the next in the series, Agatha Raisin & The Wellspring of Death. Oh yes.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 52: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

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Ugh. I was hoping that the book I hit the first Cannonball with was going to be an awesome epic. I selected this book on that premise. Post apocalyptic and highly regarded, I thought I was on to a winner. So I’m a little bit gutted that I flat out fucking hated this book.

So, a killer flu has offed 99.9% of the population. Still alive are Hig, his dog Jasper and Hig’s nearest neighbour, Bangley, a “gun-toting misanthrope” according to the synopsis. Bitch, please.  Hig flies his 1956 Cessna out as far as he dares, looking for the possibility that some shred of civilisation survived. Hearing a voice on his radio one day, he risks it all to try and connect with a couple of survivors.

The main issue I had with this book is that it’s murderously dull. And the reason I found it so effing boring is all due to Heller’s painfully flat and clipped style he’s adopted for Hig’s first person narrative. Randomly punctuated, oddly repetitive and seemingly too cool for speech marks, the way Heller chose to tell what is actually a good story took this from “promising” to “dear God, shoot me before I have to read another page of it”.

A true disappointment, and one in which I am a fairly lone dissenting voice, I admit. If you love E. Annie Proulx and The Passage, then this is your ideal book. If the former makes you want to set your face on fire and the latter was a crushing disappointment (ie, you’re me), then this really is one to avoid.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 51: Agatha Raisin & The Murderous Marriage by M.C. Beaton

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The Agatha Raisin books are my guilty pleasure. Not that guilty, it seems, since here I am sharing them with anyone who cares to stop by and read the blog. They are flimsy nonsense, a series of books that has now run to 23 in total. It’s sort of a younger and grumpier Miss Marple that’s fallen into Midsomer Murders. The Kindle Daily Deal the other day was six books in the series. So strap in, Cannonballers. There’s a lot of Raisin coming your way before the year is up.

Agatha Raisin is a hard edged grump who used to run a highly successful PR company. Selling up and retiring in her 50s, she moved to Carsley, and in the debut novel of this series (titled The Quiche of Death, which tells you all you need to know), found herself accused of murder when a quiche she entered into a competition poisons the judge to death. She sets out to solve the murder herself, and lo, an amateur sleuth is born.

Murderous Marriage is the fifth book in the series and finds Agatha about to be hitched to her neighbour, James Lacey. Only thing is, Agatha’s first husband is only presumed dead, so when he turns up just before anyone can say “I do”, it puts the cat among the pigeons. Then, of course, not too much later, stray hubby is found actually dead and Agatha again finds herself in the position of Prime Suspect.

Beaton really isn’t the most careful or skilled of writers. It seems with every book, she plucks another couple of words from the thesaurus and uses them over and over (Murderous Marriage’s are “truculent” and “irresolute”). She also isn’t the most attentive or cunning plotter and in this book, makes the fatal error of having a supporting character suggest an outlandish theory for the culprit’s identity, only for that to actually turn out to be right, down to every last detail. It’s a bit naff, to say the least.

But there’s something about Agatha Raisin and her seemingly endless body count that keeps me reading, so Beaton is obviously doing something right, even if she isn’t doing it very well.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 50: The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

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Every once in a while, a book comes along that is just absolutely glorious. Extence’s debut is an absolute stunner, so full of heart and so beautiful that it’s a very strong contender for My Best Book of 2013.

When he’s ten years old, Alex is struck by a meteorite and becomes the second person in recorded history to survive such a freak accident. He’s left with a minor celebrity status and severe epilepsy, which makes him socially awkward, to say the very least. His mum does tarot readings and runs an “occult” shop, so he is something of a target for bullies. When escaping from bullies causes him to cross paths with gruff widower Isaac Peterson, an unlikely friendship develops. In the opening chapter of the novel, Alex is stopped at Dover with 113 grams of marijuana in the glove compartment and Mr Peterson’s ashes in an urn on the front seat.

The bulk of the rest of the book tells us how he ended up in that situation. Alex narrates the seven years of his life, from meteorite strike to arrest at customs in the most wonderful voice. There are shades of Christopher Boone about him, but that is a high compliment. And it is only shades. Alex sees the world a little differently and isn’t afraid to say so. If the chapter where he finds the “apposite word” to describe a school bully to a headmaster doesn’t have you absolutely howling with laughter, then you have no soul.

Similarly, the developing friendship between the surly old man and the intelligent bookworm teenage epileptic is just so sweet and charming and moreover, entirely believable (take note, Sue Townsend) that when it takes a turn for the less pleasant, your heart has been so thoroughly warmed, you don’t mind that it’s being so comprehensively broken. And furthermore, you won’t for one single second think Alex has done the wrong thing.

Extence takes you on a heck of a journey and in Alex Woods, has created one of the most arresting and unusual, witty and charming characters in a very long time. So do yourselves a favour. Read this book. Immediately.

 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 49: The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year by Sue Townsend

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I am sure you’d be hard pushed to find someone of my age from the UK who didn’t have their formative years in some way shaped by Adrian Mole. His secret diaries were a Very Big Deal when I was growing up, so I thought why not read a non-Mole book of Townsend’s? Well, you know what they say about curiosity…

Eva Beaver (really) decides one day that she has had enough. Unhappily married to Brian, she has just packed her math genius twins Brian Jr and Brianne (really) off to university. Feeling unloved and unappreciated by everyone, she takes to her bed and discovers she can’t get up. So she stays there. Nobody in her immediate family is understanding or sympathetic as to why she has done this.

This book is an unpleasant read. There isn’t a single nice character in it. It could have been titled A Hideous Bunch of Cunts, at least then you’d know what you were getting. It helps if there’s at least some levity among all the unpleasant goings on, but thanks to sketchy and inconsistent characterisation, along with some seriously haphazard plotting, it’s nonexistent. This means not only do you not care about anyone in the book, you don’t want to spend any time with them, even on paper. Even Eva is a hateful monstrous twat.

You know in The Fly, when Jeff Goldblum cooks the steak post-teleportation of it and Geena Davis says it tastes synthetic? That steak is this book. None of it feels real. It desperately tries to be grounded in reality but there is not one single believable person or action in all of its 450 pages. I could not wait for the year to be up and for Eva to haul her ungrateful arse out of the bed. Somehow, Townsend kept me reading it to the end, though I’m sure I don’t know how. For that reason, I am giving it a second star. It takes a writer of inordinate talent to fuck something up this spectacularly, but still make it just about readable. If you haven’t read any of the Adrian Mole series, skip this book and read them instead. If you have read them, skip this book anyway and just read them again. You’ll thank me in the long run.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 48: War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

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Given that I’ve seen the runaway smash stage adaptation (incredible) and the Spielberg film (less so), I really thought it was time to go for the trifecta and read the original novel. Originally published back in 1982, I was unaware of it even existing until the National Theatre put it on stage. And even with that, I didn’t know until I read the preface of the book that Joey actually existed.

Joey is the titular horse and narrates the novel, which means of course that it is a VERY different experience than either of its adaptations. But it is still a powerful tale and no less so for the simplicity of its telling. Joey forms a bond with his master, young Albert Narracott. Albert’s father sells Joey to the army as he is in desperate need of the cash to keep the farm afloat. Throughout the horrors of the war, Joey never stops yearning for Albert. And as we all know, Albert swore to find Joey again, and joins the war effort to do so.

Albert’s journey to find Joey is something that has been added to the stage and screen versions, of course. Here, we only ever see events through Joey’s eyes, the story never leaves him. It’s no spoiler to reveal that man and horse are reunited. It’s equally not a spoiler to say that the way it happens here is so beautifully understated that it packs more of a punch than the film version.

Written for children, this is a quick and simple read, but it’s packed with complicated situations and emotions. And while you may read it all in one sitting, it will stay with you for a long time after. It’s gorgeous and it’s really not difficult to see why it’s still a firm favourite over thirty years later. It’s an enduring classic that will still be read and adored in another thirty years.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 47: Canada by Richard Ford

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“First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.”

As opening lines go, that is a doozy. Completely hooks you in to what you think will be an exciting story. Dell Parsons and his twin sister Berner (really) are shocked to learn their parents Beverly and Neeva (really) have, in financial desperation, robbed a bank. When the law catches up with them, Dell is spirited across the border to Canada, into the care of Arthur Remlinger, who is harbouring secrets of his own.

Sometimes, nothing happens in a book. And when it’s done well, that can still be wonderful to read. The Crimson Petal & The White, for example, is one of my favourites and pretty much nothing happens there for 900 pages. This book is the opposite. The excitement suggested by those opening sentences quickly vanishes. Ford takes what should have been a gripping page turner and smothers it in page after page of painfully turgid, overly lengthy exposition.

Continually telling the reader that something happened before backtracking to spend countless pages leading back up to it is really not exciting either. It’s hard to build any kind of momentum when we have already been told, often times more than once, what the destination will be. I found it impossible to care about anything that happened in this book, or anyone that it happened to. I read this on the strength of how much I loved Independence Day and how much praise it’s been receiving. I won’t be reading another Richard Ford novel. Ever.

 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 46: John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

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Have you ever read a book and when you finished it, just thought “meh”? It’s a very VERY rare occurrence for me. As any of my friends will tell you, I’m a creature of extremes. A passionate one, no less. I can wax rhapsodic for days about stuff I love. If anyone lights my blue touchpaper on something I can’t bear, brace yourselves. So it was a real surprise to me when I was so excited to read this (not least as it was compared to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which is one of my desert island books) and was left feeling very blah and unfussed by the end of it.

Set in the late 1600s, it tells the story of John Saturnall, whose mother dies of starvation/exposure after the town they live in drive them out as they fear she is a witch. John is taken in as a kitchen boy at Buckland Manor. He demonstrates his skill in the kitchen and is swiftly promoted. When he finds out the lord’s daughter, Lucretia, is undertaking a fast to try and force her father to end her engagement to some drippy earl or other, John is tasked with making her ever more delicious treats to tempt her to break it, well, you can probably guess what happens.

And that, I think, was my issue with this book. It was obviously a labour of love. The meticulous research drips from every page, especially when each chapter opens with an excerpt from John’s recipe book. It all creates a beautifully detailed picture of what life would have been like, but everything else that is going on is of less interest, and far less skilfully told. There are a lot of characters, most poorly fleshed out. There’s a lot of jumping around at the start which makes it difficult to really get to grips with what exactly is going on. And once you have got to grips with it, the eventual destination is painfully, almost tiresomely evident.

As painless and interesting diversions go, this is fine. But it’s never anything more than that, so if you’re looking for a historical novel to change your life, this isn’t it. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, on the other hand……