Cannonball Read 5, Book 99: Tell-All by Chuck Palahniuk

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When Fight Club was published, I read it and was absolutely knocked off my feet. It was a properly astonishing book, all the more incredible for being a debut. Here was a new author who I couldn’t wait to read more of. The books that followed were equally, if not more astounding. But then, around the time of Lullaby, things started to go awry and it’s been a long time since Palahniuk was on my “must read” radar. I found a copy of this in my housemate’s collection and thought I’d give him another whirl. And now that I’ve done that, I’m not sure I’ll ever read another book of his again.

Our narrator is Hazie Coogan, the paid companion of fading star Katherine Kenton, shepherding her through yet another comeback. If you believe Hazie, she’s responsible for every well known tic of every star that’s ever graced the silver screen. But if you believe Hazie, well, you’ve never read a Chuck Palahniuk novel before.

He seems to be aiming for a satire, a vicious send up of the old glamour of Hollywood and its stars. Names are dropped so often as to become meaningless and his lampooning of Lillian Hellman is so over the top it comes down the other side. For some reason, the novel is narrated as if it’s a film script, there’s lots of “we fade in on” and the like. The effect isn’t remotely cinematic, it just feels like you’re reading a particularly unimaginative novelisation of a blockbuster.

Katherine Kenton has a new beau, Webster Carlton Westward III,  and he seems intent on writing a tell-all biography of Miss Kathie. Only this one ends with Kenton’s death, engineered by Westward to look like an accident, to ensure massive sales of said book. Hazie keeps finding each draft of the final chapter and thwarting Westward’s attempts on Kenton’s life. Each one is more ridiculous than the last, of course. The problem isn’t their craziness, though. The problem is the tiresome repetition of how massive Westward’s cock is and Kenton’s waxing lyrical about it in her dying moments. The joke wears thin almost instantly, but it goes on and on and on.

All the jokes wear thin and are repeated ad infinitum. Coupled with the fact none of it’s interesting, the writing is mostly incoherent, and the ending is obvious from a mile away, and you have a strong contender for my worst book of the year. The best thing I can say about it is at 179 pages, it’s a very short and quick read.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 98: The Retribution by Val McDermid

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Val McDermid is one of those authors who, for years, I was all “I should read her books”. The TV show Wire In The Blood is one that I knew loads of people watched but somehow I never watched it, nor did I ever get round to reading it. Then, by chance, I picked up a copy of Fever Of The Bone, which is actually book six in the Tony Hill & Carol Jordan series. I loved it and went back and started at the beginning. I read the first two books but then life got in the way and books 3-5 are currently languishing unread on my very large “to read” shelf over on Goodreads.

The reason that this, book 7, has jumped the queue is it features the return of the criminal who is arguably McDermid’s greatest evil creation. Jacko Vance was the focus of book 2, which gave the TV show its name, Wire In The Blood. He is pure unalloyed evil, super intelligent and entirely without any redeeming characteristics. He has been in prison since Hill & Jordan successfully arrested him for the murder of teenage girls around twelve years ago. At the start of this book, he masterminds an escape from prison and begins to exact a long planned revenge on the people he holds responsible for thwarting his enjoyment previously.

It is, to say the least, a tense and exciting read. There is a secondary plot centring on a possible serial murderer targeting prostitutes which is equally as gripping (and as gruesome) as the main Vance storyline. Jordan’s team is being disbanded and it’s their final case before the axe falls. So there’s a similar sense of urgency with both cases. Vance’s retribution, when it starts to play out, is so horrific, so calculated, that I found myself thinking there would be some last minute swerve, that his plan wouldn’t be carried out. I underestimated McDermid there. She has no problem being absolutely brutal to characters she clearly cares about as much as the reader.

The Retribution doesn’t end so much as just come to a stop. The effects of Vance’s evil plan will clearly reverberate through future instalments of the Hill & Jordan series. The eighth book, Cross & Burn was published a month ago, picking up directly where McDermid left us. Given how unflinching and brilliant I thought this book was, I will be carrying on with the series at the absolute first opportunity.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 97: Perfect by Rachel Joyce

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There’s something about titling your book Perfect that is just asking for trouble. Whole reviews could be written about the book that only focus on how misguided or otherwise the choice of title was. When you’re following up a debut like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry then it’s really brave to essentially hand the critics a stick with which to beat you. But of course, Joyce needn’t worry. She writes like a dream.

Leap seconds have been added to time periodically and irregularly since two of them were first added in 1972. That first addition is the crux of Joyce’s gorgeous second novel. Childhood friends Byron and James are obsessed with this addition, when it will happen, whether they’ll know it’s happening, if it will be on the news that it happened, and so on and so forth, as only the young and eternally inquisitive can be. But the addition of those two seconds upend Byron’s perfect life, setting into a motion a series of events that will leave him entirely unravelled. But was time really to blame?

Joyce really knows how to nail metaphors and similes. Perfect is all but overflowing with them, and each one is immaculate, carefully worded and precisely placed. “She offered a series of waves, like polishing an invisible window. In return, the women gave tight smiles that appeared to stick to their mouths and hurt” is just one example of hundreds that made me silently awestruck by her way with words. This book also captures the truth that when you’re a child, you believe everything in your family is normal. Byron’s home life is clearly anything but, however he tells it as if it’s all just fine. That disparity is brilliantly and troublingly conveyed.

That said, there are some plot elements which caused a raised eyebrow, mostly revolving around an organ concert. I struggled to believe that events would have gone quite that far. Proper cynics will probably harp on about the coincidence at the end of the book as well, but to those hard hearted souls, I say pish. The final pages of this novel are just so warm and rich and beautiful it made me forgive any and all of its teeny tiny flaws.

Cannonball Read, Book 96: The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

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Ah, the Booker Prize. This is another longlisted novel that until it was on said longlist, I didn’t know existed. Needless to say, had it not had the publicity bump from its Booker attention, I would never have read it. The publicity bumph that “it speaks for contemporary Ireland”  and is “wry, vulnerable and all too human” made me want to puke on my shoes. But I thought, it’s only 160 pages, if I hate it, I won’t take too long to burn through it.

Well, I didn’t hate it. As we’ve covered, it’s set in contemporary Ireland, in the aftermath of the financial downturn. Each chapter is narrated by a different character and through each of them, the reader can piece together the unpleasant tale of a callous businessman and the fallout of his doing a moonlight flit. It bizarrely shares some story overlap with Fallen Land  in its failed housing estate only being partially built, but really could not be more different in pretty much every other way.

The language is just gorgeous. Ryan writes in a very evocative way, the Irish phrases and accent really jump off the page. There’s some brilliant inventions from him too, such as “the Teapot Taliban”. It’s a short book, but it’s not a shallow one. There’s a lot of plot, cleverly distributed, many characters, all richly detailed. If anything, it feels too short, the end a little abrupt. And some of the characters are so much fun you want them to have more than one chapter. But that is hardly a damning criticism, is it? A very pleasant surprise.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 95: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls by Anton Disclafani

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I have a huge soft spot for this type of book. I don’t know why, since I am so clearly not the demographic it’s aimed at, but I do. Curtis Sittenfield, Laurie Graham, you know the type. It’s why I had such high hopes for Tigers In Red Weather and was so bitterly disappointed when it turned out to be pap. I’ve been wanting to read Disclafani’s debut novel since it was published and now here we are.

Thea Atwell is fifteen years old. It’s 1930, the Great Depression is starting to snake its way through the USA and Thea has been sent to the titular Camp because there has been A Great Scandal in her family. One of which she was the centre of. Missing her family, mostly her twin brother Sam, Thea has to navigate all the expected obstacles of being at, essentially, a boarding school with horses and girls. There’s popular girls, rich girls, blah blah blah. They’re all called things like Hennie and Jettie and painted in such broad strokes it’s kind of difficult to engage with them.

That’s possibly on purpose. Thea is our narrator and she is one spectacularly selfish teenager. She seems to care for nobody but herself and pays scant attention to anything that doesn’t really involve her. The scandal which caused her to be sent away is gradually revealed to the reader, but it’s done so while Thea carries on an affair with the Camp’s headmaster. She does so actively and knowingly and it made me want to punch her in her smug stupid face. It makes it pretty tough to care about or for our plucky heroine. I can’t quite discern whether Disclafani is judging her or idolising her, but either way, she’s a vile little bitch.

When I got to the end of the novel, I didn’t give two shits about Thea, but I did feel sorry for everyone who had crossed paths with her. Not least the twin brother she apparently cared so much about, after it becomes clear she is seemingly incapable of a non-selfish emotion. When he is pouring his heart out to her about the Scandal and his role in it, her response to him is jaw dropping. She tells him it’s not his mess. He asks her whose mess it is then. She replies that she doesn’t know, but “not mine”. Wow. An unpleasant story, nastily told.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 94: The Testimony by James Smythe

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James Smythe got himself on my radar because over on The Guardian’s website, he is re-reading and discussing all of Stephen King’s work, in chronological published order. If you’re a Constant Reader, then you could do a lot worse than getting yourself over to the website and having a read through his stuff. And if you are a fan of oral histories, tense thrillers or dystopian novels, you should also read his debut novel The Testimony. 

I confess, the prime reason I bought this was it was, for a brief spell, available for free on Kindle. I’m a fan of oral histories, something which was intensified by reading World War Z earlier in the year. The main difference in terms of structure is Brooks drove it relentlessly forward, not touching on the same character (except the interviewer) more than once, Smythe’s novel cuts back and forth between twenty six people whose lives were in various ways affected by The Broadcast. They range from White House chief of staff to retirees in NYC to unemployed people in Russia. Smythe covers a lot of global territory and has one heck of a cross section.

So, The Broadcast. One day, out of nowhere, almost everyone hears deafening static. Over the following few days, there are three more Broadcasts, the sum total of the words spoken is “my children, do not be afraid. Goodbye”. And that is it. Scientists struggle to explain it, the religious claim it’s the voice of God, those who didn’t hear it can’t understand why and civilisation slowly begins to unravel itself. Terrorists begin to explode bombs, people start dying for no reason, life pretty much goes batshit crazy in the wake of The Broadcast. The characters tell their stories, which neatly fill in the bigger picture too.

I say neatly, but there is nothing neat about Smythe’s vision of the near future (we’re a couple of terms after Obama). It’s big and it’s messy and it’s actually quite brilliant. I could not put this book down, I really cared about the characters and there’s some great subtle work on Smythe’s part with the UK politician and his eventual fate. The quote on the cover is one I wholly agree with. This book is a bravura debut, it’s smart, it’s terrifying, it’ll keep you up at night in a race to finish it. And then you probably won’t be able to sleep.

 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 93: Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

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Apparently this is a “stunning debut” and an “irresistible social satire”. Well, if you say so. I found it to be a forced and incoherent novel about a bunch of rich people where one of their clan is getting married. If there was satire being aimed for here, then for me Shipstead missed the target by a very large margin.

The novel spans three days in the life of Winn Van Meter as his daughter prepares to marry. The wedding is taking place in their family retreat on the New England island of Waskeke. Around Winn, there’s an extensive supporting cast of family, extended family, bridesmaids, groomsmen and so on and this is the first issue I had. There’s just too many people, the majority of whom are not really defined enough to stick in the memory, so a few times I was all “wait, who? Oh him”. Not really ideal.

Less ideal is that the characters Shipstead does lavish some time and detail on, well, you kind of wish she hadn’t. Winn is tiresome in the extreme, his wife Biddy is a blank, the soon to be wedded daughter Daphne is every bit as monomaniacal as you would expect and as for his other daughter Livia, well, she’s a real treat. Hideously whiny and annoying, she mopes about the novel after being dumped (who can blame him?) and intending to rebound fuck the ex boyfriend out of her system (charming). At one point, Shipstead says something like “Livia aimed for a tone of mock haughtiness, but fears she came off as shrill” and not only is that spot on the money for Livia, but it’s also pretty on the nose for the tone of this novel. Aims for satire, lands on annoying. As my dear friend Jabberbookie said, the characters are all so awful, you don’t really care what happens to them.

On top of that, Shipstead throws in a lot of flashback and reminiscing, without a huge amount of success. It isn’t always clear when the narrative has returned to the present day, which makes for a slightly muddled paragraph before you can work out where you are. There are some great similes peppered throughout the book, but even they are undone by the notion that an envelope with just three pills in it would be “rattling”. My hopes were high for this, they have been dashed.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 92: The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

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This is only the second book I’ve managed on my Booker Longlist challenge of 2013. And, like the first, it’s a book that I wouldn’t necessarily have bothered to read, had I not decided to set myself this possibly ludicrous and definitely arbitrary target of making it through the Booker Dozen. It’s the shortest ever novel to make it to the Booker shortlist (indeed, at 104 pages, it only just scrapes over the eligibility line for the Cannonball Read) and it’s a nice bit of symmetry that this year’s eventual winner was the longest ever to be shortlisted (and is firmly earmarked for my Year of Big Books in 2014).

It’s a brilliant idea. Taking the most famous story ever told and re-telling it in a monologue of a furious and grief stricken mother. Mary is a helpless bystander, here given centre stage and it’s a gorgeous, heartrending and lyrical outpouring. Given its brevity, Toibin covers a lot of ground, literally and figuratively. Thanks to its recent Broadway staging, I couldn’t help but read it in the voice of Fiona Shaw though.

This might be an odd thing to say, but when I was reading it I couldn’t help but think the best way to describe this slim novel is as a Biblical Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Mary is hardly as unimportant as those two bit players, but in the story of Jesus and his crucifixion, the human element is never really focussed on (not even by Mel Sodding Gibson). Toibin has unequivocally made this a human story. Even if you don’t have a religious bone in your body (and I don’t), this painful, beautiful piece of writing is still worth your time. A quick read, but by no means an easy one.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 91: Capital by John Lanchester

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An overarching theme of my Cannonball Read this year has been “wouldn’t necessarily have made the effort but it was stupidly cheap/free on Kindle so I gave it a punt”. And Capital fits nicely into that theme. For an extended period earlier this year, it was available on Kindle for just 20p. So here we are.

The novel centres on Pepys Road, a normal street in London, and a handful of its inhabitants. Over almost 600 pages,their stories are told at a leisurely pace. Tying all the residents together is a sustained campaign against them. It starts with all the houses on the street receiving a postcard. On the front is a picture of their house, on the back is the phrase “We Want What You Have”. It spirals from there until graffiti and vandalism relating to the campaign forces them to involve the police.

In between the lengthy campaign, we meet sort of illegal aliens working as traffic wardens, bankers relying on a six figure bonus that doesn’t arrive, a Banksy-inspired artist who values his anonymity above all else, an Asian family running a corner shop and a teenage footballing sensation from Senegal. For the vast majority of this novel, Lanchester quietly sets up all his dominos regarding all their various plots and subplots, before spending the last few chapters gleefully knocking them all down. The set up is very much in the vein of “nothing is really happening but it’s so well written and engrossing you don’t really care”, of which, I have mentioned on here before, I am a huge fan.

Ultimately then, the knocking everything down and tying up all the loose ends fell a bit short for me. It wasn’t that it was bad, far from it. It was more that the groundwork was so meticulous and detailed that I’d reached the conclusions Lanchester was heading towards several chapters before we arrived there. I know it’s not a suspense novel or a whodunnit so a “gotcha” ending wasn’t really the point, and it by no means spoiled the book for me. I just wanted there to be something in the dust settling that surprised me, even a little bit. It is still an epic and brilliant novel, just a safely predictable one.

Cannonball Read, Book 90: More Than This by Patrick Ness

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This is now my third Ness novel of this Cannonball. After being emotionally destroyed by A Monster Calls and then absolutely enchanted by The Crane Wife I now find myself reading his latest YA novel. I did say in my review of The Crane Wife that I wanted to read everything Ness ever writes, so this shouldn’t really be a surprise to you all. His Chaos Walking trilogy is planned for next year’s Cannonball. Since 2014 is going to be my Year of Big Books, I figure I need to intersperse them with less gargantuan tomes if I am going to hit 52. But anyway, I digress.

Talk about hooking you in from the get-go. “Here is the boy, drowning” is how Ness opens this novel and if that doesn’t make you want to read it in one sitting, then nothing will. More Than This is the story of Seth Wearing, a sixteen year old boy whose life is so terrible he sees no other option than to end it. Instead of ending, he comes to in his childhood home in the UK, the home his family left behind for a new life in the USA, after a Very Bad Event. However, it’s a weird and unpopulated dystopian version of his remembered home and so maybe he did die and this is his afterlife. Seth can’t be sure but he needs to find out. Not least because every time he falls asleep, he dreams of the events that led to him walking into the ocean.

In his series of re-reading Stephen King novels, James Smythe notes that when he was growing up, YA didn’t really exist as a genre. And Ness makes me wish that it did. It would have been just phenomenal to have a Patrick Ness in my life when I was sixteen. Not just because he’s a gay and I’m a gay (everywhere a gay gay), but because he gets it. Ness gets teenagers and adolescence in such a perfect way and leaves you in no doubt that however rubbish it is for you as a teenager, it gets better and he’s living proof. Yes, Seth is gay (it irks me that in 2013, this is still considered “daring”) but anyone who was once a teenager can relate to parents thwarting their romantic affairs and school being a painful trial, so it in no way limits the scope and appeal of the book.

In addition to really understanding teenagers, Ness is top notch at characters and dialogue. Seth meets up with two other lost souls, Regine and Tomasz, both of whom are an absolute delight to read. Their quest to find out exactly what is going on with their (after)lives though, that does go on maybe a fraction longer than it could and Ness’s vision does owe more than a small debt to The Matrix, but those are (believe it or not) minor quibbles. The book itself does not outstay its welcome, and in the closing pages I found myself yearning for more, but Ness abides by the age old showbiz rule when it comes to making your audience want more. He doesn’t give it to us. He doesn’t need to though. The ending is gorgeous and perfect, I just didn’t want to leave this book or its characters behind.