Cannonball Read 5, Book 65: Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty

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Apple Tree Yard arrived on a tide of acclaim, hype and publicity. For the first time ever, I saw people in t-shirts bearing the book cover, handing out samplers of the book to people at train stations, on Piccadilly, everywhere. But then, the last thriller to arrive in such a fashion was The Silent Wife and, well, look how that turned out. So I approached with caution, since the synopsis detailing how in addition to being a thriller, this book is also “an insightful examination of the values we live by and the choices we make” didn’t really fill me with excitement either.

Yvonne Carmichael is fifty-two years old. Married with two grown children, she’s also a respected geneticist. When her work takes her to the Houses of Parliament, a chance meeting with a handsome stranger leads to an intense, sexually driven affair. Entirely out of character for her, Yvonne at first loves the danger, the excitement, the sex. But when events spin out of her control, she finds herself under arrest, with her previously comfortable life in tatters.

That’s not a spoiler, the arrest, since the book opens with Yvonne being cross examined at the Old Bailey. The prologue stops at a crucial juncture and then hauls us back to the beginning. Written in the first person, seemingly as one very long letter to her lover, there is a huge amount of “but this would only be important later” and “we would only realise this after it was too late” foreshadowing, which cranks the tension to a nigh on unbearable degree.

Also, the insightful examination isn’t just into the values and choices. Doughty pierces right to the heart of her main character and creates possibly the most three dimensional protagonist I’ve read this year. Yvonne is a maelstrom of conflicting emotions and she feels absolutely real. It makes reading the journey this affair takes her on all the more engrossing and upsetting.

I was so gripped and entranced by this book that I really felt like I hadn’t breathed for the last 60 pages. And when I exhaled, it was not with relief. Oh no. The last few pages afford Doughty the opportunity to gut punch the reader and when you come to the very end, you’ll be shaken and uncertain. At least, I was. Fuck me, what an absolutely astonishing novel.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 64: Laura Lamont’s Life In Pictures by Emma Straub

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“I chose this,” Laura said, “but I chose everything else too”.

I can’t quite believe, with a surname as distinctive as that, it took me until the day I started reading this book to put it together. Namely, that Emma Straub is the daughter of Peter Straub. Maybe it’s because I’m no fan of his work, maybe because this book’s subject matter is so far removed from anything he has written. Or maybe I am a doofus. Either way, it’s moot. I’m a sucker for old Hollywood glamour and so I wanted to read this book from the day I heard about it.

Laura Lamont is born Elsa Emerson, in Door County. Her parents run a summer theatre out of their barn and Elsa loves nothing more than being on stage and in the limelight from an early age. After a family tragedy, she wants nothing more than to get out and get to Hollywood, so hitches herself to the first wagon to come along. From that humble beginning, she rises to the top of her game, as Laura Lamont, before inevitably tumbling back down to earth.

There is nothing new being said here, no revelatory ground being struck. Lamont is torn between being a mother, a daughter, a sister, a wife, a friend, a movie star and splits herself into being all of them until she forgets who she really is. This is a well worn narrative, but Straub navigates it so deftly that you race through the book, investing in and caring about all the characters. I was won over by her style when her first description of Elsa/Laura is “It was what their father called A Norwegian Face, which meant it had the look of a woman who had seen fifteen degrees below zero and still gone out to milk the cows” .

What does not make sense though is why Straub chose to fictionalise 95% of the studios and stars she brings into the story. Not only that, but to do so in such a thin way as to make it obvious who she’s really talking about, while occasionally throwing in references to Garbo. I found this to be a little jarring and wondered why she didn’t either go the whole hog of creating entirely fictional studios, films and stars, or just have them all be real.

It’s a minor criticism, when all is said and done, since while it occasionally jarred, it didn’t impair my enjoyment. Whatever your opinion of Elsa Emerson (and I can imagine she proves divisive), there’s no denying that Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is a treat to read.

 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 63: Agatha Raisin & The Love From Hell by M.C. Beaton

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Ok, people. We can all relax. This is the last of the Raisin books I’ll be reading on this particular Cannonball. I’m sure in the future there will be more offers for them on Kindle (I enjoy them, but I don’t enjoy them enough to pay more than £1 for them, don’t get me wrong) and they will feature in future Cannonballs, but for now, we’re done.

At the end of the previous instalment, James Lacey performed a volte face and re-proposed to Agatha. To the surprise of absolutely nobody, the marriage doesn’t go well. Private arguments soon become public arguments when Agatha finds out that James didn’t quite end things with the blonde beauty he was seeing before marrying Agatha. And then, OF COURSE, James disappears from his bloodstained cottage and Nubile Blonde shows up with her head stoved in. Once again, Agatha is a prime suspect and once again, Sir Charles Fraith rides to her rescue.

This is probably the best of the series so far. It’s entirely ridiculous with the James Lacey sub-plot, but at least it puts the love triangle to rest once and for all. And for once the usual motives are absent. Nothing so straightforward as adultery and blackmail feature as possibilities. The waters are deeper and murkier here, and much improved for it. When Beaton makes it personal, it works so much better.

Alas, some of the good work is undone by a finale that is exactly the same as the other ten finales before it, but with Lacey out of the picture, if Beaton can smooth some of Raisin’s rough edges and make her just a titch less spiky and insecure, then the only way for this series to go is up.

 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 62: Agatha Raisin & The Fairies of Fryfram by M.C. Beaton

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Well, here we are again. After the Larsson slog, I needed something silly, something lightweight and not too taxing. Cue book 10 in the Agatha Raisin series, which sees our titular amateur detective take the advice of a fortune teller and decamp to Norfolk to find her romantic destiny. Naturally, what she finds are unfriendly folk in Fryfram, followed by mysterious fairies, and then, of course, murder.

Raisin decides, while trying to ingratiate herself with the locals, to tell them she’s writing a novel, Murder at the Manor, in which the local squire gets his throat cut. Guess what then happens to the ghastly nouveau-riche squire of the manor in Fryfram? I KNOW! Who would have guessed? It all gets a bit complicated since Agatha did take a crack at the novel and the police find it, thus considering her their prime suspect. Ignoring her erstwhile beau and neighbour, James Lacey, Agatha enlists the help of her friend and shag buddy Sir Charles Fraith to get the bottom of things.

The one thing I really can’t fathom here is why these books haven’t been adapted for television. They’re crying out for it. Someone on Pajiba once wrote that it’s the average book which makes the best adaptations, and that is what Beaton writes. Reliably average fare. I even find myself casting the show. Clare Higgins for Raisin, Tom Hollander for Fraith, Ralph Fiennes for Lacey and Anne Reid as Agatha’s dependable friend, the vicar’s wife Mrs Bloxby. Like that would ever happen, but in my head, it works very well.

Suffice it to say that the same old motives are investigated and the killer is revealed in the usual manner. The sub plots are kind of fun though and Beaton is wise to occasionally get Raisin out of her home village of Carsley. With twenty four books in the series, credibility would be strained even further if every book was in the same tiny place. Unless there was some fantastic final twist that Agatha was in fact a psycho mass murderer, framing innocent people as she goes…..Somehow I don’t think it likely.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 61: The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets Nest by Stieg Larsson

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Generally, book phenomenons tend to leave me baffled. The Twilight “Saga”, Dan Brown, Fifty Shades, I’m either entirely uninterested, or intrigued enough to read them and completely at a loss to understand why they’re so popular. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series definitely in the latter category. A few years ago, EVERYONE was talking about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. So I bought it, read it, and found it to be tiresome in the extreme. Too much plot, too many characters (all called Something Vanger, pretty much) and not a shred of internal logic or verisimilitude, I was so shocked that people were eating this up. Even with that, I bought the other two books in the series, the first purchases when I bought my first Kindle in September of 2010. I read The Girl Who Played With Fire shortly after that and hated it so much (not to mention unable to understand why people were calling it “gripping” and “compulsively page-turning” when ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HAPPENS for the first 200 pages) so that it’s taken me three years, a Cannonball Read and a vow to clear all the unread books from my Kindle to read the final installment.

Picking up almost immediately where The Girl Who Played With Fire left off, we have the inexplicably adored Lisbeth Salander (I mean, really. Did nobody notice Larsson creating the ultimate wank fantasy with this?) in hospital with a bullet in her brain and under arrest for a multitude of crimes. One crime is the attempted murder of her father, who is, hilariously, hospitalised in the next room, with an axe wound to his face. Can I live in Sweden please? Apparently, you can take a bullet to the head and a machete to the face and live on otherwise unscathed.

See, not content with an overly contrived and overstuffed murder mystery, Larsson has put Salander at the centre of a scandal so huge it could apparently bring Sweden to its knees. It’s to do with her father being Russian, a secret operative and an absolute psycho. Salander found this out, lobbed a molotov cocktail at him (she played with fire, geddit?) and so to protect her father’s real identity, they had the teenage Salander declared a nutter and locked her away in a madhouse.

There, see? I’ve just told you in one paragraph what Larsson takes about 282737393 pages to get through. There are so many characters in it, in the Secret Police, in an even more secret division within the Secret Police (really), at the Millennium offices, the hospital, at Berger’s new job as editor in chief  at the Svenska Morgon Posten (two wholly excisable, very boring and entirely ludicrous sub-plots there), at Milton Security, it just goes on and on and on and on and most of them have surnames ending in -sson or -sjo, none of which exactly trip off the tongue or make it any easier to keep track of who exactly is who.

Leaving aside the absolutely laughable coincidences and oversights (apparently you can’t hack a hotmail account), there’s also the problem that Larsson was a terrible writer. The whole prose is of the “this happens and then this happens, then they all fall off a cliff, the end” variety and there is not one line of believable conversation in the whole book. Every time people were talking, all I could think was ‘NOBODY SPEAKS LIKE THIS! NOBODY SAYS THINGS LIKE THAT”. It might be that it’s clumsily translated. Or it might just be shit. It’s quite difficult to tell. I think the original title being The Air Castle That Was Blown Up tells you all you need to know there. 

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Larsson has by this point really ended up with ideas above his station. Every section opens with some waffle about powerful women in history and as if that wasn’t quite jaw dropping enough, he has Mikael Blomkvist say, towards the end “when it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it’s about violence against women, and the men who enable it.” Um, IS IT? There’s very little violence, or indeed action, in this book at all. There’s a LOT of people standing around talking, chatting online and solving mysteries from a hospital bed with a palm pilot, but action? Violence? Not so much.

There’s only one scene that is really interesting, when Salander’s “psychiatrist” is taken apart in court by her lawyer. It’s satisfying to a degree, but at the same time very annoying, as I couldn’t believe a court trial where pretty much anyone can join in during a cross-examination. The best thing I can say about these books is that I’ve finally finished them and I need NEVER go near them again. Worthless dreck.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 60: Pilcrow by Adam Mars-Jones

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Raise your hand if you know what a pilcrow is. I didn’t, before reading this epic story of a boy growing up gay and disabled in the 1950’s. It’s a paragraph mark. Like this: ¶. Pretty much obsolete nowadays, it’s just one source of intrigue and fascination for our hero, John Cromer.

Struck down with what they think is rheumatic fever at a very young age, he is prescribed bed rest. Unfortunately for John, he actually has Still’s Disease, which presents like rheumatic fever, but bed rest is the worst thing for it. By the time the misdiagnosis is discovered, John’s joints are all, to varying degrees, ankylosed and he is permanently disabled. Unable to increase his physical strength, he concentrates on his mental strength instead. Consequently, Pilcrow reads as a beautifully erudite, extremely funny and yet almost wholly innocent pseudo-memoir.

Whether you love or hate John Cromer will be decided early on, when you read musings such as: “I’ve never really taken to the clarinet as an instrument – all that mellowness is a fraud as far as I’m concerned. The first person to pick up a clarinet sucked up a syrup of lies right up into the mouthpiece, and from then on no-one’s been able to get a truthful note out of it”. If that kind of prose endears you to its creator, then you’re in for a treat. If you threw up in your mouth, this is not the book for you.

For this kind of prose fills the 525 pages of Pilcrow. And we only cover the first 16 years of John’s life, his time spent in two schools, his burgeoning sexuality, his strained family life are all discussed in an almost Proustian manner, over just 4 chapters. Yes, there’s many sub-chapter headings in them, but still. 4 chapters. Even if you think he’s the best thing ever, sticking with John Cromer over such intimate detail and inordinate depth does require some patience. But it’s patience which is highly rewarded. How can you not adore a teenage boy who notes of his mother, on one trip home from his boarding school, “there’s nothing a martyr likes less than being ritually installed among the kindling, not tied to the post but gripping it firmly behind her back, and then no-one having the common politeness to strike a match”?

Pilcrow certainly is a change of pace and a break from the norm where my usual book reading pattern is concerned. It ends with Adam striking a blow for his own independence and planning to go to a “normal” secondary school. It is the first of a planned trilogy by Mars-Jones and the second installment, titled Cedilla, was published in 2011. The third and final part is as yet unpublished. Who knows what obscure linguistic symbol it will be named after? At least I know what a cedilla is. That’s a start.

 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 59: Agatha Raisin & The Witch of Wyckhadden by M.C. Beaton

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When we left Agatha Raisin last, she was bald, shampooed with a depilatory by a murderous hairdresser. Her vanities and insecurities won’t allow her to stay in her home village while it grows back in, lest her handsome neighbour James Lacey should see her. So she flees to Wyckhadden, a seaside resort, holes up in a hotel and waits for her hair to return. When it fails to do so, some permanent residents of the hotel suggest she visit the local witch for a potion. Agatha does so and can you guess what happens next?

Yes, the witch turns up dead and through some ridiculous contrivances, Agatha is a suspect and thus remains in Wyckhadden. There, she tries to befriend the elderly people who live year round in the hotel, has a romantic liaison with the investigating officer of the murder and generally blunders about the place, interfering in everyone’s lives and trying to solve the murder.

There’s a slight improvement in the writing (the word “truculent” only appears once), but the characterisation and plotting is as flat as ever. There isn’t anything inspired in the investigating of the murder and once again the culprit is revealed out of nowhere, almost on  whim. The romantic liaison and its resolution are lazy to an almost embarrassing degree. I’m hopeful that as the series continues (and continues) to progress, Agatha might actually solve a murder by intuition and investigative skills, rather than lucky guesses and stereotypical thinking (the motive for murder isn’t ALWAYS blackmail). I only have two more Raisins to read (so you can relax, Cannonballers, the end is in sight) until they’re reduced in price again. There’s no way I’d pay good money for these books. But for 99p a time, I’ll take my chances.

 

 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 58: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

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Barbara Kingsolver is someone I discovered by accident, thanks to the now defunct “3 for 2” offer Waterstones ran for years. I had two books I definitely wanted, so was scanning for a third, and decided that The Poisonwood Bible sounded like it might be an interesting read. That book pretty much blew my mind (I can still remember the last lines of it, all these years later) and since then, a new novel from Kingsolver is not one to be ignored.

With Flight Behavior, we are on familiar Kingsolver territory. Climate change is something she obviously feels very strongly about, and here she uses ordinary people to make some extraordinary arguments. Centring around Dellarobia Turnbow (with this novel, it seems Kingsolver has attended the E. Annie Proulx school for Preposterous Character Names), who married too young and one day, on impulse, tries to walk out of her life. She walks into a displaced colony of monarch butterflies, which usually overwinter in Mexico, so what are they doing in the (fictional) town of Feathertown, Tennessee?

The tiny farming town takes the butterflies as a miracle and almost deify Dellarobia when her husband, Cub, lets slip that she had a vision of them before they were found. But then a scientist turns up to tell them that while they may look beautiful, the monarchs arriving in Feathertown is not a good thing. Ovid Byron (see?) has dedicated his life to studying the monarchs and knows all about the havoc climate change is wreaking on the planet. His stay on the Turnbow farm to study the monarchs has wide reaching consequences for Dellarobia and her family.

In the hands of a less skilled novelist, this could be a preachy mess. Kingsolver, on the other hand, is a past master. Her character development is rich, in-depth and complex. There are no clear cut Evil Scientists and Poor Farm Workers here. The everyday and mundane is rendered every bit as exciting to read as the extended discussions on climate change and “global weirding”. An extended fight between Dellarobia and Cub as they shop for Christmas gifts in the Dollar Store was actually the highlight of the book for me, closely followed by a standoff between Dellarobia and an earnest green protester, keen to sell her his Green Manifesto.

Crucially, Kingsolver never talks down to the reader, nor does she patronise any of her characters. There’s only one point where I felt I could hear her own opinions coming out the mouth of Ovid Byron. The rest of the time (ill advised inclusion of two hideous stereotypical Brits aside), you absolutely believe what you’re reading and who you’re reading about. The final chapters left me feeling desperately happy-sad and I’ve had the most tremendous Book Hangover from this one since I finished. High praise indeed. So why is it only 4 stars and not the full 5? Well, because much is made of how Dellarobia loves perfect grammar. Yet she uses “who” when it should be “whom” on occasion and the book has SO many uses of the word “gotten”. I expected more from someone like Barbara Kingsolver.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 57: Agatha Raisin & The Wizard of Evesham by M.C. Beaton

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Yes, Agatha Raisin is BACK. Nobody’s favourite detective returns for the eighth instalment in this seemingly unending series (the twenty forth book, the hilariously titled Something Borrowed, Someone Dead is due out later this year). Seemingly unfazed by a body turning up everywhere she goes, Agatha still can’t handle being rejected by friends and is still mooning over her erstwhile paramour, James Lacey. To cheer herself up, she gets her hair did and nobody is surprised when the super charming Mr John (the titular Wizard) is revealed to have a dark side and then turns up dead.

This is a flimsy effort, even by the Agatha Raisin series lightweight standards. Beaton publishes under several different pseudonyms, and publishes with a regularity which makes James Patterson look like George RR Martin, so it’s inevitable that you’re going to get a duff entrant somewhere along the way. This feels rushed, it’s super short and and the plot machinations are artlessly crammed in. One good thing is Agatha’s sometime shag, the baronet Charles Fraith, is her sidekick on this one, as Lacey is absent for the whole book. And it looks like that little triangle will continue, adding some much needed variety.

However, that is not enough to disguise a book where the identity of the killer is obvious from the second they appear, where there is absolutely no craft or skill to the detective work (literally every revelation is through lucky guesses or random coincidences) and where there’s very little differentiation in character voices. Pull your finger out, Beaton.

Cannonball Read, Book 56: The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison

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If you watch the trailer for this book on Youtube, you’ll see it being praised from on high by the likes of Val McDermid, Sophie Hannah, Kate Atkinson, S.J. Watson and so on and so on. They’ll waffle on about its “devastating finale”, how it’s a “terrific debut” and will even proclaim it to be “better than Gone Girl”. Well, all that effusive gushing was enough to persuade me and I bought a copy. Having now finished reading it, I find myself quoting a Tori Amos lyric, “baby, what have you been smoking?”

Fair warning; this review is going to be packed to the drawstrings with plot spoilers. If, for some reason, you still want to read this sorry excuse for a novel and don’t want any of its “plot” to be ruined for you, stop reading now. Still here? Ok. Todd & Jodi have been together for twenty years. He’s a building contractor, she’s a psychologist. He’s a stereotypical mid 40’s man who has never been faithful, she’s a vacuous fuckwit who puts up with it. When he gets his best friend’s daughter pregnant, she forces him to end things with Jodi and move in with her. As they were never married (Jodi never wanted to, apparently), it’s easy for Todd to upend things for Jodi. He doesn’t count on Jodi fighting back.

And that is really it. I can only assume the comparisons to Gone Girl have been brought about by the alternating chapters from “Him” and “Her” viewpoints. There can be no other reason. Flynn’s novel was a deep, layered, chilling shocker of a book. The Silent Wife is mostly boring, lazy and barely one dimensional when it isn’t being utterly fucking incredulous. It is fully three quarters of the way through the book before Jodi begins to entertain the idea of offing her husband. There’s an odd sort of attempt with some sleeping pills much earlier, but it’s never mentioned again (nor is it ever really explained how the sleeping pills got to where they were or why Todd didn’t know they were there beforehand).

If you’re going to write a book about the “dark side” of relationships, it helps a lot if at least one of the people in the relationship isn’t a shallow, poorly constructed fucktard. Here, Jodi is a feckless moron, and endless reams of dialogue between her and a psychotherapist don’t change your opinion. The big revelation, that she was sexually abused by her older brother, adds nothing to her character or to the plot. She does almost nothing pro-actively and the way a hitman is brought into the scenario is shabby as to defy description. Todd is a neurotic thunderheaded dipshit, so wildly inconsistent in his behaviour, it’s more bad writing than it is a flawed personality. And the girl he leaves Jodi for has her hen pecking insecurities piled on so thick she tips into caricature almost instantly. It’s all so lazily thrown together and drawn out, it’s impossible to care who ends up dead and who doesn’t.

To add insult to injury, the finale is only devastating to those of us who hoped it might be good. I was hoping for a rug pull, but Harrison’s feeble attempt at one barely jolts the nest of occasional tables. To try and create some (much needed) ambiguity, Harrison asks the reader to swallow the most ridiculous coincidence. I refused, and it was at this point I vowed never to read another book by this so-called author as long as I live. One final comparison to Gone Girl. Flynn’s ending shook me up and I can’t shake the closing lines even now, some four months after reading it. I finished The Silent Wife earlier today and I couldn’t tell you, even now, anything of the last paragraph.