Cannonball Read 5, Book 74: The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

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In her dreams, she flies.

 

This is the second Patrick Ness novel I have read on this year’s Cannonball and on the strength of those, well, I want to read everything he ever publishes. The Crane Wife marks his first foray into writing for actual adults rather than young adults and so it’s a natural jumping off point to use a Japanese folk tale relayed to him by his teacher when Ness was just five years old.

Though as Ness points out in his acknowledgments, the original folk tale of the crane wife may have inspired him (and many others, not least The Decemberists), bears no resemblance to his own The Crane Wife. This is the story of George Duncan, a decent and ordinary man who is woken one night by a crane plummeting into his back garden with an arrow through its wing. George nurses the crane back to health and it flies away. The day after that extraordinary event, the beautiful and enigmatic Kumiko walks into his life. Kumiko has a story to tell George….

The key to telling a story as outlandish as this and making it work is verisimilitude. And here is where Ness really truly excels. The supporting cast of characters are all fully fleshed out, as well as given arcs of their own to draw you in. George’s frankly awesome daughter Amanda is the standout, but everyone gets their moment in the sun. The minutiae of their daily lives is told with as much investment as the main story of George and Kumiko.

And what a story it is. To say too much would be ruinous to anyone who wants to read this delightful, warm, charming, joyous novel. If you want to spend 320 pages having a smile put on your face (with more than a few laugh out loud moments), marvelling at the use of simile and then getting your heart broken, this is the book for you. It might also make you want to listen to The Decemberists. So it’s a win/win.

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Cannonball Read 5, Book 73: May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

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I have been delaying the writing of this review, simply because I don’t really know what to say about the book. It’s been hugely praised, it’s won a lot of awards (notably beating Hilary Mantel to the Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier this year) and it’s this tubthumping that brought the novel to my attention. Lord knows I love a big American novel, but the hushed tones referring to this as a Great American Novel? Having completed the book, I don’t quite buy that.

Harold Silver has a perfectly ordinary life. His brother is a successful TV producer with a wife and two kids. One Thanksgiving, a tiny little moment has a Butterfly Effect and not long after, Harold finds himself divorced and guardian to his niece and nephew. Harold is a Nixon scholar, and on top of everything else, finds himself relieved of his position as lecturer and free to concentrate on the book he’s been writing for years on end.

And so Harold begins to rebuild his life, even as it spins ever further out of control. And here’s my problem. I didn’t believe a single word of it. I saw the points Homes was making, but I didn’t buy them. I bought the characters, thought they were all well rounded and Harold was always fascinating, making for an unreliable but never dull narrator. But pretty much every big event that happens after Harold’s life has been upended caused me to roll my eyes and say “really?”

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, I did. And that’s why I have been so reticent to write my review. This is undeniably a good book, I just didn’t think it was a GREAT book. And it certainly outstays its welcome. I read an interview with Homes where she said that this book “just kept going” and she was interested to see where she could take it. This explains a lot. An experience I enjoyed, but one I am most definitely not keen to repeat.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 72: Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May

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This is the kind of book I normally avoid like the plague. It sounds all too similar to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, another book I have avoided like the plague, not least because everyone I know who read it wanted to punch Dave Eggers in his smug face. But something made me want to read this. Given my current parental circumstances, I seem to be drawn to novels (apart from Eggers) which focus on the loss of a parent (I’m currently reading May We Be Forgiven, so, you know, yeah).

Billy Smith is nineteen, his younger brother Oscar is just six. Their mother is dead. Billy’s father has never been a strong presence in his life, sending texts like “sorry to hear that m8” as consolation.  Oscar’s father is similarly hopeless, shagging their aunt and belatedly making an effort with Oscar to try and claim custody. Billy reacts how any nineteen year old whose mother is killed in a botched robbery would: he falls apart. But thinks he’s holding it together.

The book is narrated by Billy in the first person and May does an excellent job of getting inside his head and using his voice. It makes for a brilliantly frustrating reading experience. Oscar is an amazing resilient kid who loves and idolises his big brother. Reading sections where Billy tells us all how much he loves Oscar and would do anything before him, before systematically fucking everything up, like any grief stricken nineteen year old would, has you both rooting for and yelling at him.

Peppered throughout is a history of the young drug addict who killed his mum, along with several more ridiculous, more senseless, more pointless deaths gleaned from the pages of one of Billy’s obsession, chav mags (Chat, Pick Me Up, Love It, and the like). The title is how Billy refers to them, since if you boil down the front cover headlines, that’s what they’re advertising.

As the book hurtles toward a conclusion, Billy sinks lower and lower into his anger and grief, even to the point where you begin to question his sanity. Mercifully, the final few pages start to pull us out of the nose dive and allows some hope to start shining in. The final lines of the book are so gloriously, perfectly uplifting, they make it ALL worth it. Highly recommended.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 71: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

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The premise of this novel is batshit insane brilliance. A serial killer discovers a way to travel through time. That right there is already enough to make me read it. That he finds his victims at a young age because they shine (to him, because he’s clearly unhinged), and then revisits them as adults to brutally slay them is the icing on the gruesome cake.  However, I feel the need to quote Ten Things I Hate About You here. I know you can be overwhelmed and I know you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever be just whelmed?

So Harper darts across decades, strewing female intestines in his wake. Kirby Mazrachi, his intended victim from the early 90’s, refuses to die. Haunted by her horrific brush with death (who wouldn’t be?), Kirby can’t stop looking for him. And that is pretty much it, for the book. How the time travel part of it works is never really explained, but to distract us from this and some seriously flat characterisation, Beukes jumbles the linear narrative, chapter by chapter. This drives me up the wall when Tarantino does it, so I was hardly going to be all “oh look! It’s out of sequence! THAT IS AMAZING”, was I?

There’s something that, for me, just didn’t quite work. I don’t know if it was the structure, the time travel gambit, or the fact that every character (bar one) was varying degrees of unbelievable, unsympathetic or just plain annoying, but my patience began to run thin long before the end of this book. I suppose it didn’t help that the most horrendously annoying character is Kirby. When you find yourself actively wanting your main protagonist to take a knife to the face, then really, it’s game over.

So there we are. Some of the back story on some of the victims is interesting, but several of the murders cause the suspension of disbelief to snap clean in half. I really wanted to love this book, it sounded so gruesomely, brilliantly unusual. But when I was finished I just thought “meh”. Shame.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 70: Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

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“There’s a saying,” Dad said. “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. Do you know what that means?”

I was sort of intrigued by this book, purely by the title. The synopsis sounds crazy (with the possibility of being crazy awesome) and Jonathan Franzen is a fan, so, you know… Then it popped up on a list over on Goodreads of “Epistolary Novels You Must Read”. Well, I have a fascination with epistolary novels so I was sold.

Well, whoever made that list is playing very fast and loose with the term “epistolary”. If I had to, I’d say it’s closer to being a VERY simplified structured version of House of Leaves. I know how that sounds, since I know that book is batshit bonkers, but at the heart of it, it’s someone reconstructing the mystery surrounding the house from notes, journals, all kinds of recovered material. Semple’s novel is essentially Bernadette’s daughter trying to solve  the mystery of her mother’s disappearance by collating every last bit of information she can find. Every email, every handwritten note, every saved IM conversation. It’s all here, strung together with narrative from Bee as she continues the search for her mother.

Bernadette Fox is a certifiable crazy person. Her career as an architect derailed by an Unspeakably Awful Event, she has fled LA and moved to Seattle with her Microsoft legend husband and sickly daughter (born with a now corrected heart defect and not as sick as her mother likes to think she is). Retreating ever further from the world, Bernadette employs a cyber assistant from India, tangles with other parents from Bee’s school, and confronts her past, before pulling a vanishing act nobody can quite fathom.

The real coup of Semple’s work here is how expertly she captures all the individual voices who feature in Bernadette’s story. The battle with her prissy neighbour over being involved in school fundraising activities is uproarious stuff. The other coup is how many strands Semple has, how wide her scope is and how brilliantly she makes every outlandish plot element count for something by the end. In fact, Semple spends the whole book making you think there’s going to be some horses, before sending in a shitload of zebras. It’s brilliant.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 69: Joyland by Stephen King

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I love Stephen King. I do. His novels shaped my formative years. I read It when I was a teenager and never looked back. And while he has occasionally terrified me, I think the horror writer tag does him a huge disservice. He’s a latter day Mark Twain, I think. Nobody spins a yarn like King does and even when the yarn doesn’t add up to much (like in Duma Key, for example), there’s never any doubting the quality of his craft.

Joyland is the second novel King has published for the Hard Case Crime imprint. This time, he’s equal parts ghost story, murder mystery and a coming of age story. Devin Jones narrates in the first person, telling us about the summer he worked at the titular theme park, driven there by heartbreak only to become embroiled in/obsessed with an unsolved murder that took place on the ghost train ride at Joyland.

Anyone expecting King to hit the ground running and this to be an all action noir is in for a rude shock. The pace is leisurely, the characters and relationships filled in at length and in depth. The minutiae of day to life at Joyland and carny language is fully represented. And that just makes it a true delight to read. I was engrossed from page one, and I cared about all the characters in the book.

The sub plot concerning his foxy neighbour, her dying young son and said son’s psychic abilities culminates in a scene which properly made me well up. It’s really truly beautiful and by the end, the “sub” is dropped and it becomes clear that it’s been the main focus all along. This is a truly unexpected delight. Well, the terms of the delight were unexpected. The delight was a foregone conclusion.

 

 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 68: Transatlantic by Colum McCann

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This is probably the least worthwhile review I’ll have written so far. If I hadn’t set myself this possibly ludicrous Booker Prize Longlist challenge, I wouldn’t have bothered reading Transatlantic. People frothed at the mouth so much about his previous novel, Let The Great World Spin, that I couldn’t not read it. And I was so hugely underwhelmed by it, that when this was published to similar frothing, I didn’t care.

But, in for a penny and all that, so when I managed to obtain a copy for next to nothing, I kicked off the Booker challenge, wondering if I’d be won over. I wasn’t, I’m sad to say. There’s something about McCann’s style which disengages me from the action and leaves me cold.

And there’s a lot of action. The book spans many years and miles, starting in 1919 as two aviators try to make the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic. From there it hops forward in time, meditating on identity and history through the generations of a family who are connected to the aviators in the opening chapter. They connect with many more important people over the years (emancipated slaves, senators and the like), refracting their own history through the prism of theirs.

Which is all very admirable and you can’t deny McCann’s vision and scope. But I just didn’t care. I found the characterisation to be alternately twee, shallow, patronising and stereotypical. When almost every line of dialogue makes you roll your eyes, it’s not a good sign. The plot did not engage me so much as irritate me and I was glad when it was all over. An expected disappointment,  but a disappointment nonetheless.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 67: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

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It is almost six years since Siobhan Dowd died from breast cancer, leaving her final idea for a young adult novel unwritten. As Patrick Ness points out in the foreword, “she had the characters, a premise and a beginning. What she didn’t have, unfortunately, was time.” It was her publisher who reached out to Ness and asked him to turn her premise into a novel. And here we are.

Since its publication in 2011, Ness’ realisation of Dowd’s idea has been, I think it’s fair to say, a sensation. Greeted with an avalanche of praise and the recipient of many awards (it’s the first book ever to win the Carnegie Medal and the Kate Greenaway Medal). Having just devoured it in one sitting, I can absolutely see why.

Conor O’Malley is a thirteen year old boy. His parents are divorced, he lives with his mum, he is bullied at school, he doesn’t like his grandmother very much. So far, so normal. But Conor’s mother is slowly dying of an incurable disease (the word “cancer” haunts the pages but is never actually spoken) and one night, just after midnight, a monster calls on Conor. But it’s no everyday fairy tale monster.

Taking the form of the yew tree in Conor’s garden, the monster tells Conor he will tell him three stories and then Conor will tell him the fourth. Said fourth story will be the scariest thing of all for anyone, let alone a thirteen year old: the truth. Because, of course, Conor is refusing to accept the biggest truth of all. It’s giving him nightmares, ones he can’t or won’t fully remember after he wakes.

The writing is absolutely beautiful. The mixture of fantasy with the cold sad reality of Conor’s life is perfectly balanced, drawing in the reader and making you absolutely believe the monster really exists, because for Conor, he does. It is a very VERY rare occasion that a book moves me to tears. It happened with The Lovely Bones (and even now, I well up when I explain to people about the Monopoly scene) , but that is the only one. Until today.

The last thirty pages of the book deal with the monster drawing Conor’s story, his truth, from him. It’s the reason why he called and since he’s there to help, he draws it out of him in the most tender way he can. I’m not ashamed to say I sobbed my way through those thirty pages. A Monster Calls will stay with me for a very long time. Everyone who has lost someone should read this book. Heck, EVERYONE should read this book.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 66: The Heat of the Sun by David Rain

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Sometimes, the desire to read a certain book comes out of nowhere and will not go away. I can’t explain it, but I see a title and I just want to read it. With The Heat of the Sun, I had that experience. I knew eff all about the book, the author, nothing. But I wanted to read it. But then I discovered that the high concept for this novel was “Madam Butterfly’s son grows up” and I was very intrigued.

Narrated to us by Woodley Sharpless, recently orphaned and attending Blaze Academy boarding school, it’s the story of Ben “Trouble” Pinkerton. Trouble’s father, posits Rain, was the GI who impregnated Madam Butterfly, Trouble the son he brought home after her suicide. To prevent scandal in his position as a senator, his wife claims Trouble is her own son. So naturally, he’s a rebellious mess who cuts a troubled (ha) path through life, with Sharpless trailing in his wake.

The beginning, telling Trouble’s story as he rises in popularity at Blaze before taking an almighty tumble is fantastic. Feels authentic and exciting (as well as giving me the title for my own memoirs, courtesy of Sophie Tucker, “Nobody Loves A Fat Girl, But Oh How A Fat Girl Can Love”). But then it slowly begins to unravel, as Rain’s reach exceeds his grasp.

As the book progresses, it becomes increasingly less interesting, for me. It stretched my suspension of disbelief to breaking point and beyond after we meet Sharpless’ loopy Aunt Tollie and he pursues Trouble through, seemingly, every major historical event around World War II. And the conclusion it comes to, well, it was way too much of a big pill to swallow.

A shame, since the opening section was so wonderful, it just made the descent into such a ludicrous finale all the more vexing.