Cannonball Read 5, Book 89: The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison

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Talk about an unwieldy title. I had this on my to read shelf over on Goodreads, but I cannot for the life of me remember why. It may have been the title caught my eye, it may have been a pick of the month when it came out on Amazon or Flavorwire (or indeed both). I really can’t recall, but it popped up in the latest Kindle sale for less than £1, so I bought it.

I should be wary of any novel where the narrator is named Benjamin Benjamin, shouldn’t I? Said narrator, when we meet him, is nearly at rock bottom. Out of work for years, he takes a course in caregiving and winds up working for Trev, a teenager with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. Not really the set up you’d expect for a “goofy road trip”. Or maybe it is. Anyway, Benjamin is permanently dodging his wife, whose divorce he refuses to grant and when an opportunity to get the hell out of Dodge shows itself he takes it. Trev’s dad abandoned them shortly after his DMD diagnosis but has hated himself ever since. When he gets into a bad car accident on the other side of the US, Trev convinces his mother that allowing Benjamin to drive him there to see his dad and make amends is a Really Great Idea. And thus the stage is set for all manner of goofiness.

Except, I dunno, I just didn’t find it that goofy. While Benjamin’s reasons for being at rock bottom are sufficiently horrific, it doesn’t change the fact that he spends 90% of the book being a complete tool. The characters they encounter along the way aren’t what I’d call goofy either, they’re varying degrees of really quite sad. This makes the humour feel awkward and forced. It’s like being at a really bad dinner party for 280 pages. Maybe that is what Evison was going for though, in which case, bravo sir. You nailed it.

Ultimately, this was an entertaining enough book to breeze through in no time at all but while it may have been easy enough to read, I suspect when all is said and done, this will be a difficult one to remember.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 88: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

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So this is a first. Stephen King has often cross pollinated his characters from one book into another, he’s written a fantasy series, he’s published a serialised novel and he’s republished a “writer’s cut” of The Stand with lots of deleted material restored. But he’s never written a bona fide sequel to a previously standalone novel before. And while not even his most ardent fan would be excited for Cujo 2: Electric Boogaloo, the anticipation for a novel about the little kid from The Shining all grown up has swelled to almost deafening levels.

Well, it was worth the wait. It’s always a bugbear of mine how authors of sequels have to incorporate information from the previous novel(s) for those who can’t be bothered to read it. It always irks me because, firstly if you want to read the follow up, why wouldn’t you want to start at the beginning? But also, the backstory is often quite artlessly woven in (Armistead Maupin is the worst offender of this in Tales of The City. By the time you get the last of the six novels in the  original series, he’s just regurgitating whole chunks of the predecessors). So it’s a relief when the opening chapters tell you just enough of Danny’s past as it takes us from his traumatised childhood to his present state as a recovering alcoholic adult, before starting the story proper. That these opening chapters also contain some of the most terrifying imagery he’s conjured up in years can’t go unnoticed. I started reading this at 1am and very quickly had to stop lest I NEVER slept again.

So Dan Torrance is now ten years sober, regularly attending AA meetings and working as an orderly in a hospice. He still has the shining and uses his talent at the hospice in a way that earns him the (goodnatured) nickname of the book’s title. He can also sense that out there somewhere is a young girl who is more powerful than he ever was, but like him she is in trouble and needs his help. When his path begins to cross with Abra Stone (my compulsion to yell “CADABRA!” after I read her name is nicely offset early on when he makes it her email address), Dan finds himself up against some truly unpleasant people who want Abra for their own evil ends.

A bunch of evil undead carnies, called The True Knot sustain themselves not with blood but with what they call steam. It’s an essence only found in people who have the shining and well, you can imagine how it’s extracted. This is Stephen King, after all. When their latest victim accidentally pulls Abra into the oldest member of the True’s head (yes, I know how that sounds), they realise the answer to all their steam prayers is right there. Abra knows they won’t stop until they have her so she needs to fight back. And she needs Dan to help her.

I maintain my opinion, previously reiterated in my reviews on here, that there is nobody who can tell a story like King can. Yes, he’s had his duff moments, but when he’s at the top of his game, for characters and storytelling, he is pretty much unassailable. While the story of Abra’s clash with the True is deftly and excitingly told, so is the history of some of its members. But this is Dan Torrance’s story and his is, surprisingly, quite beautiful. His internal battle with the awful things he did while he was trying to drink the pain away is unflinching and should make you ache. I broke my cardinal rule of reading for the final 15 pages, all of which focus on Dan’s redemption. I read it walking along the street (something I always tut at people for doing) as I simply couldn’t stop reading. And those final pages are just so beautiful and moving that I’m not embarrassed at all to confess that I burst into tears while reading them. Yeah, I’ve had butcher moments in my life, but this book took me on such a glorious journey that I was very sad when it was over.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 87: Trust Your Eyes by Linwood Barclay

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Back in my review of his novel The AccidentI noted that I may have to break up with Barclay as the law of diminishing returns was becoming ever stronger. I genuinely thought Trust Your Eyes, with its entirely ridiculous premise, would be the end for us. Well, what can I say? I’m a fickle homo and after this, I’ve taken him back and we’re going hot and heavy again.

So, the ridiculous premise – Thomas Kilbride is a schizophrenic, living at home with his dad. Thomas has been obsessed with maps for as long as anyone can remember and now spends his days on a fictional version of StreetView called Whirl360. Thomas believes he works for the CIA and it’s his job to memorise every online 3D map for the day an Unnamed Event wipes out the internet. Thomas’s dad dies in an accident and his brother Ray comes home for a few days for the funeral and so on. Then Thomas is convinced that on one of his days cyber-walking the streets of Manhattan, he’s seen someone being murdered in an apartment window. Thomas is crazy and so initially nobody believes him, least of all his put-upon brother. Eventually Ray decides it’s best to humour his silly brother and visit the apartment where Thomas saw the murder taking place. And then all hell, naturally, breaks loose.

See? That is ridiculous. A 21st century updating of Rear Window, and one that stretches your suspension of disbelief to snapping point and beyond. But it works. The murder is part of a MUCH bigger plot, involving political scandals and hired killers, while Ray has a mystery of his own to solve when it begins to look like his father’s death wasn’t an accident after all. So there is A LOT going on here, but I never felt it was crowded or padded. And I certainly never thought it was boring or silly. I was gripped from the off and the breakneck pace doesn’t let up at any point.

So after some less than thrilling efforts, Trust Your Eyes has returned Barclay to my eclectic list of “must read” authors. When you consider calling in sick so you can stay home and get to the end, you know you’re on to an unputdownable winner. And when you get stung by the nasty final twist, you won’t be sorry, you’ll just be impressed at his audacity.

Cannonball Read 5. Book 86: The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

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When Iain Banks passed away earlier this year, there was naturally a huge outpouring of platitudes for him and his work. I realised that the only book of his I had ever read was Dead Air. And really, I should say tried to read, as I gave up on it a few chapters in, finding it intensely boring. But his debut from 1984 is one of those books that you never hear a bad word about so I gave it a whirl. And yeah. Everyone is RIGHT. 

Narrated by sixteen year old Frank and set in a remote Scottish village, this is no ordinary coming of age novel. Abandoned by his mother, his older brother in a mental hospital, Frank whiles away his days with his father by indulging in some delightfully twisted games and rituals. Then word reaches them that Eric, the brother, has escaped from his confinement. Suddenly all bets are off and Frank’s offbeat but somehow cosy existence becomes a lot more fraught. 

If you boil it down to its parts, The Wasp Factory is nothing more than a dysfunctional family dealing with the fallout of its own fucked up-ness. Even twenty years ago, that was hardly a groundbreaking story to tell. What set pulses racing then (and now) was both the way Banks tells the story (Frank’s voice is spot on) and the brilliantly macabre detailing and embroidery Banks piles on to the basic plot. I defy anyone to read the description of exactly what it was that sent Eric off the edge of the mental cliff and not be both utterly repulsed and completely awed.

Such jaw dropping moments of brilliance are all over this novel, but I don’t need to tell you that, do I? I imagine, like the rest of the world, you have already read it. Everyone knows what an insane talent Banks was. That he didn’t even make it to sixty years of age is just horribly sad. If you’re one of the few people who hasn’t read this yet, do it. If you have, read it again.  

Cannonball Read 5, Book 85: The Carrier by Sophie Hannah

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Sophie Hannah really is all about the dark and the dysfunctional. She specialises in twisted, complicated and frankly unpleasant plots, full of weird people you wouldn’t ever want to meet in real life. And that extends the majority of the police investigating the crimes at the centre of the plot. And The Carrier really is no exception there.

Gaby Struthers is a smart successful business woman and when her flight is delayed back from Dusseldorf, she finds herself sharing a hotel room with Lauren Cookson. Lauren is, to be polite, a little bit dim but she’s also massively highly strung. During one of many rows with Gaby, she blurts something out about an innocent man going to jail for murder. Gaby is intrigued and when she finds out that the murder victim was a woman called Francine Breary and the innocent man is her husband, the only man Gaby has ever loved. And so Gaby’s tightly controlled life goes off the rails as she tries to get to the bottom of who Cookson is and just how she ended up in Dusseldorf with her.

That half of the book is grimly fascinating stuff. What sends it off kilter is that alongside that, there’s a lot of extraneous flannel with the recurring police characters. There are whole chapters devoted to arguments between Charlie, her husband and her sister. It isn’t that interesting and Hannah seems to lose interest with it mid-chapter sometimes. And a strand dealing with the big boss and his daughter isn’t really resolved so much as it’s forgotten about. If the strand involving Charlie’s sister and her affair with one of Charlie’s ex-colleagues were to bite the dust, I wouldn’t shed a tear.

Gaby’s increasingly frantic investigation and the dreary police peeps are interspersed with a series of handwritten letters to Francine, from her husband’s two best friends, with whom they lived. See, Francine had a stroke at 41 and was left with Locked In Syndrome. Tim, the husband, is claiming he suffocated her with a pillow but doesn’t know why. Lauren is claiming he didn’t kill her, someone else did and Tim is covering for them. Between them, the letters and Gaby get to the bottom of exactly what went on the day Francine was killed. Suffice it to say that the denouement is almost unbearably bleak and will haunt you for days. That nobody really gets a happy ever after shouldn’t come as a surprise, really should it? For those reasons, it’s definitely worth reading, but if you skimmed through some of the less interesting bits, nobody would blame you.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 84: The Small Hand by Susan Hill

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Since it’s October and traditionally the month we all read scary stuff, I thought I’d give The Small Hand a whirl. After all, it’s subtitled A Ghost Story and comes from the pen of the woman who gave us The Woman In Black, whose reputation most definitely precedes it.

Like all good scary stories, it’s simple and straightforward with a premise that will make you clutch at pearls. One evening, Adam Snow gets lost on a drive home from a business meeting. He finds himself outside a derelict house, The White House and while he is standing and looking at it, he feels a small, icy cold, ghostly hand take his own. Of course, there’s nothing there. Seriously, just reading that synopsis almost had me running screaming from the room. But the book itself doesn’t quite live up to its initial promise.

The main problem is that as it’s such a simple story, it can’t really be an overly lengthy one. This feels like a long short story that her editor said “Susan, why don’t you try and pad it out a bit and publish it as a short novel?” Most of the padding revolves around Snow’s job as a private dealer in rare and antique books, none of it is particularly interesting, nor is it relevant to the story. So the creeping horror leeches out of the pages every so often. Maybe Hill was thinking readers would be unnerved enough to be on edge that the little hand could re-emerge at any point. I just kept thinking “I don’t care about First Folios, JUST GET ON WITH IT” and that is not quite the same thing.

The other problem is that all the revelations that come tumbling out in the final pages aren’t particularly surprising or frightening. It’s something you can see coming from pretty early on, and it’s relayed to the reader in a somewhat hackneyed fashion to boot. This is a definite case of an excellent idea being hamstrung by its execution.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 83: The Shining by Stephen King

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There has been a LOT of press for Doctor Sleep and I have been looking forward to reading it since it was first announced, what feels like FOREVER ago. As the hype machine cranked up proper, I realised that it had been a while since I had read The Shining. And then I realised that by “a while” what I actually meant was twenty five motherfucking years. I read it when I was thirteen and now look at me, I’m thirty eight and felt I should really re-visit Danny’s fateful stay at the Overlook before reading the story of What Happened After.

And so here we are. It may have been twenty five years, but it turns out the opening line of The Shining is burned into my mind. But somehow, not much else had stuck and what I thought I’d remembered turned out to be from the film so I totally blame Stanley Kubrick for messing with my mind. We all know that Jack Torrance, a disgraced English teacher, takes a job as the winter caretaker of a remote hotel, The Overlook. The focus of the novel is on his son, who has what the Overlook’s cook calls ‘the shining”, he’s Alison DuBois with the added treat that he can see into people’s minds and read their thoughts like a book. Naturally, the location and the boy don’t mix and plenty of unpleasant shenanigans ensues.

This is early King, and I have to say it shows. While I still maintain that, when it comes to mainstream authors, nobody can spin a yarn and pull you into a story like he can, there’s a roughness to the prose and style here that has been smoothed to a gleaming polish in later works. The device of dropping people’s thoughts, in brackets, in the middle of sentences ,isn’t quite as artfully deployed as it could be. The ending, King’s most frequent failing, feels rushed and the happy ever after coda feels incongruous.

However, the characters, as always, are so richly textured and carefully detailed, that you really invest in them. The Overlook’s history is delved into so deeply it almost becomes another character in the book. It isn’t as straightforward as it being a haunted house. There’s something far nastier going on here and the dread increases with every chapter (though their artless titles does try to counteract that). Along with the dread, King ratchets up the tension by cross cutting between the Overlook cook trying to ride to the rescue through near impassible weather and Jack’s murderous pursuit of his son. By the time you get to those parts, if your knuckles aren’t white, well, they really should be. I find that I’m still a bit creeped out by this a few days after finishing it and while I’m so excited to read the sequel, I think I’ll leave it a little while before I get stuck in……

 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 82: My Education by Susan Choi

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This book wasn’t on my radar until Flavorwire talked about it a lot and piqued my interest. I do love a novel set on American university campuses, one recent favourite (The Art of Fielding) and one all time (The Secret History) both attest to that. So I was intrigued by this twisted take on the hoary old cliché of a student sleeping with her professor.

Regina Gottlieb is our narrator, beginning her graduate degree and quickly finding herself out of her depth with her English professor, Nicholas Brodeur. He has a reputation a mile wide and depending on who you listen to, it veers from skilful seducer to predatory date rapist. She is charmed into being his TA and here’s where we expect her to fall into bed with him, start a lusty affair which ultimately is the downfall of them both. They will be discovered, she will leave the university in shame, he will be fired and divorced. Right? Well, no. That’s the twist. And it’s a twist I’m about to ruin, so if you want to be disarmed by it, then stop reading this review now, and come back to it when you’ve read the book. Regina has a crazy, driven, passionate affair alright, but it’s with Brodeur’s wife Martha (surely a nod to the greatest campus wife of them all, no?).

The main issue I have here isn’t that lesbianism is about as erotic to me as knitting, it’s that Regina is incredibly tiresome. Leaving aside the destruction the affair causes, she is so painfully selfish and self centred that she really tested my patience. When they commence on their affair, naturally it must remain a secret, since Martha not only has a husband, she also has a newborn son. Regina doesn’t like this and Martha seems unable to say anything to her in those early days without it dissolving into an awful screaming row. During one of them, Martha yells at her to ask “does everything have to be so melodramatic?” to which I could only cry “amen, sister”.

The writing is beautiful, there’s no doubt about it. A lesser talented wordsmith wielding such painfully annoying characters would have had me giving up inside of 100 pages. Martha is revealed to be a sociopath, who ends the affair by sleeping with Regina’s best friend (an event you can see coming LONG before it arrives) and the fallout of that is probably supposed to make you feel sorry for Regina, but it just made me want to knife her all the more. The drawback to the dearth of likeable people in the book (there are some, but they are relegated to the sidelines) means that no matter how beautifully it’s written, it is very difficult to care. And when the final coupling, twenty years later, takes place, rather than it being a happy ending, I just felt they deserved each other.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 81: Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris

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David Sedaris is a funny funny man. I’m not a slavish fan to everything he writes, by any means, but my goodness do I enjoy reading him. I have read two other collections of his, Dress Your Family In Corduroy & Denim (from which, the essay describing his visit to Anne Frank’s House still makes me giggle today when I think about it) and When You Are Engulfed In Flames, which is also absolutely uproarious. Clearly, Sedaris loves a crazy title. Though it must be said, anyone expecting the almost constant belly laughs that latter collection provided is in for something of a surprise. Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls takes a more introspective turn. It also includes a few fictional monologues, where Sedaris takes on the voice of a few different characters, hence the “etc” in the full title.

The essays take on everything from the expected family reminiscing, to the unexpected, such as Sedaris having his first colonoscopy. We find out how difficult it can be for a legal alien to have their passport stolen as well as how annoying it can be when people co-opt your President. The range of topics is, without a doubt, very wide indeed. All of them are covered with Sedaris’s trademark sardonic tone, which often veers into haughty along the way. But there seems to be a melancholy to some of it,  as if Sedaris isn’t getting anywhere near as much delight out of his observations as we are.

The main thing I took from this collection is just how much mileage Sedaris can mine out of the everyday. A cold call from a marketing centre in India, an internal flight in the USA, he can turn anything into an epic story. It’s quite incredible, I found myself a little jealous of how he was able to spin a yarn out of essentially anything. Along with being sharp, he’s also completely unafraid to go anywhere, explore everything. It’s a trait I admire more than Sedaris seems to. He talks about his incessant diary keeping more as if it’s something he is a slave to more than something he enjoys. He dislikes his image so much that he bans photos from being taken at talks and signings. Conflicted is probably the best word to use here.

On top of ALL this, he’s also the proud owner of the dirtiest mind I have ever encountered. I went to a reading and signing on his book tour for Owls. He read one of the essays and then shared some diary entries he had made with us. One talked about how on a previous tour, a teenage boy had asked him to sign something really filthy for his mother in the front of the book. “I thought for a moment and then wrote ‘Dear Lucinda, your son left teeth marks on my dick’ and as I handed the book back and his face fell, I realised he didn’t mean for me to write something quite like that”. Well, I figure, if you ask Sedaris for something filthy, you have to take what he dishes out. So, when the time came, I said he could be as filthy as he wanted in signing my copy, I wouldn’t mind at all:

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How right I was.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 80: Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

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ADVANCE WARNING – HERE BE SPOILERS

I was sort of reluctant to read this book. Not because I don’t like Lionel Shriver, I do, but because, well, let’s not gild the lily, I’m a bit fat. The last thing I wanted to do was plough through a 400 page smug lecture on overeating, disguised as a narrative about someone having to deal with her suddenly fat brother.

The main characters are asking to be hated, just by their names. Edison is the titular brother, his sister, the narrator, is named Pandora. They have a younger sister called Solstice. Pandora is married to Fletcher. Fletcher! That’s a surname, for starters. So it’s not boding well. Worse, Travis is a failed jazz musician and speaks in the most tiresome “hey you’re a cool cat” way that doesn’t elicit any sympathy from the reader. And Fletcher is so very uptight about food and exercise that he too causes more eye rolling than anything else. However, Shriver is not only a crafty wordsmith, she really knows how to create three dimensional characters. Pandora and Edison’s upbringing with their TV star father is beautifully woven throughout the book, as is Pandora’s struggles with her own marriage and step-children.

She also shows Fiona McFarlane exactly how you should go about applying personification to sofas with this delightful aside about Fletcher’s furniture (he’s a carpenter): “so lithe were his creations that whenever I walked into the living room the furniture seemed to have been grazing on throw rugs moments before. Its back corners curled like stag horns, bowed legs prancing on pared feet, the couch weighted down with pillows, without which the skittish creature might have cantered out the door”. This, and many other fleeting descriptions made me chuckle, rather than wanting to hurl the book at the nearest shredder, like The Night Guest did.

Where it does derail here though is with the main story. It stretches credibility that Pandora would walk out of her life with Fletcher to spend a year living with Edison and getting him to slough off all the weight he has gained. It continues to stretch it that Edison manages, in just one year, to do just that. So when, and in doing so owing a massive debt to Atonement, Pandora reveals that her saving Edison from himself was a fiction she created to assuage her guilt at feeling so helpless when faced with his unassailable bulk, I didn’t know whether to be relieved or furious. Ultimately, since I was made furious by Atonement, this ended up annoying me too. I just felt a bit cheated. When Edison’s real story is relayed to us, briefly, it sounds every bit as readable as the fakery we’ve just had foisted on us. So why not just tell us that and break our hearts when he fails to conquer his demons and dies of heart failure, no doubt brought on by his weight? I’m sure some people will love that double bluff, as I am pretty much the only person I know who didn’t find the end of Atonement to be the most wonderful thing he’s ever laid eyes on. But there we are.