Cannonball Read 6, Book 9: Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

17320110Eurgh. This book underlines perfectly the reasons why all my attempted Booker Prize Longlist reads have failed in the past. It came VERY close to ending my attempt this year, as at around the halfway point, I was so very bored that I nearly threw in the towel. But I persisted, and I finished it, mostly so I could finally complete a fricking Booker Challenge. That’s pretty much the only good thing I can say about it. Apparently, Aw’s previous novels have been described as “mesmerizing,” “haunting,” “breathtaking,” “mercilessly gripping,” “seductive,” and “luminous.” That is the only time those words will appear in my review of his latest work.

The blurb would have you believe this is an expansive and eye-opening novel. It’s certainly the former, but I found it to be the opposite of the latter, since I struggled to keep awake while ploughing through seemingly endless reams of Aw’s insipid and workmanlike prose. There are five interlinking narratives, each following a different character. These are interspersed with chapters from the self help manual which gives Aw’s novel its title. We have Phoebe, who has come to Shanghai on the promise of a job which it transpires does not exist. Gary, a pop star whose life spins off its axis, Britney Spears style. Justin, son and heir of a hugely wealthy family, who breaks down when tasked with shoring up his family’s waning fortunes. Yinghui, a self-made businesswoman who has history with Gary’s family. And finally, Walter Chao, the titular billionaire.

I bored myself just typing that out. So you can imagine how much fun I had trying to push through north of 400 pages of these dull characters, not really being brought to very much life by relentlessly average writing. The way the narratives are going to cross over each other is pretty obvious from fairly early on and Aw doesn’t spring any surprises. The only character I was even remotely invested in was Gary, the conflicted (in every way, even sexually) pop star, and even then I could never remember his name when I was reading a non-Gary chapter. I kept thinking he was called Keith and then would be all “oh right, it’s GARY” when he rolled back around.

The only way I managed to get through to the end of the book was by first skim reading and then skipping altogether the chapters which are from the self help manual. Not only are they long winded and arrogant, but they are dry dry DRY. In fact, the whole book is as dry and unappetising as three day old toast. This is not Aw’s first time of finding favour with the Booker judges, as he was longlisted for The Harmony Silk Factory in 2006. A year I didn’t bother to even attempt the challenge of reading the whole list. How eerily prescient of me.

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Cannonball Read 6, Book 8: A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

18079728Well. I was dreading reading this book. While Ozeki may have made history by being the first ever Buddhist monk to make the Booker shortlist, the synopsis of this novel didn’t exactly make me fall over myself to read it. In Tokyo, a sixteen year old girl, Nao, is so horribly bullied and feels so low and alone that she decides to end her life. Before doing so, she wants to write a diary chronicling the life of her great grandmother, a 104 year old Buddhist monk.  Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth (alarm bell rings), a novelist (alarm bell gets louder) who finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed ashore on the remote island where she lives with her artist boyfriend (alarm bell now deafening). Inside the lunchbox there is a seemingly random collection of artifacts. Among them is Nao’s diary. And Ruth begins to read it.

“A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”

Well, what can I say? Sometimes the thing you dread ends up being really fine. And sometimes, it ends up being such a glorious gorgeous and wonderful experience that when it’s over, you’ll want to turn to the person next to you and give them a huge hug. Whether you’re on your morning commute and it’s a total stranger, or whether you’re in bed with your partner, the closing lines of this book will make you feel like hugging someone. To begin with, it’s very much a book of two halves. Nao is brilliant. Authentic, engrossing, sweet, funny, her chapters are delightful. Ruth is a little less enthralling and I also spent most of her first appearances saying “why have you written yourself into this book???” quite a lot.

As we delve deeper into Nao’s story, it all becomes clear, even if events themselves conversely begin to shroud themselves in mystery. Nao’s journal entries become darker and darker (Ozeki really doesn’t flinch away from the misery she heaps on Nao, and some of the bullying she endures is most unpleasant to read) and Ruth becomes obsessed with finding her and finding out whether or not she went through with her planned suicide. Believe me when I tell you that you will want to know as well. Detractors could argue that the ending of the book is a little bit like “clap if you believe in fairies” and everyone will have their own take on it (kind of like the ending of Life of Pi, only less annoying).

This tale most definitely takes you on a journey, an intellectual, cerebral and impeccably researched one at that (so much so that it requires 165 footnotes and 6 appendices). It’s an epic and involving read, it made me laugh out loud and broke my heart repeatedly. It’s brilliant and everyone should read it. Though if, after the first two chapters, you don’t agree with Ozeki that The Future is Nao, then you’re reading the wrong book.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 7: Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson

17286032Now this is a bit more like it. My Booker Longlist Forced March continues, but I had high hopes for this book before I picked it up. And they were, for the most part, met and met well. A novel of families who never talk to each other, even though three generations of one family are all squished into one tiny flat in London. Laura was married to Peter until he left her and she was forced to move in with three of his ancient relatives. Laura’s daughter, Marina, is sixteen years old and decided she would rather go to boarding school in Dorset. Presumably, this was to get away from the stifling influence of the elderly relatives and her unstable mother, but now she’s there, she thinks she might have made a terrible mistake…..

Between them, Laura and Marina have to be two of the most insecure and emotionally unstable characters I’ve read in a REALLY long time. Laura is mostly an unspeakably awful woman. Her estranged husband re-appears after vanishing for a fair chunk of time and tells her he may be dying of cancer. Laura handles this by sleeping with him again while telling nobody (not even his ancient relatives) that he has rematerialised. Juggling this turn of events with having an affair with her boss means that hopeless hateful self-involved Laura doesn’t notice her poor daughter all but self-destructing.

Marina is only sixteen, so I totally forgave her awkward indecision, her constant paranoia, her self loathing, all of it. It’s so beautifully, painfully written and well, we’ve all been there haven’t we? We’ve all thought we were dating the wrong boy while mooning hopelessly over the school heartthrob who doesn’t know we exist. We’ve all thought we chose the wrong subjects to study. And we’ve all wanted our family to vanish off the face off the earth and just stop embarrassing us, for the love of all that’s holy. So I defy anyone to read Marina’s story and not, at some point, see a little bit of their sixteen year old self in there somewhere.

That’s not to say Almost English is a dull misery fest. It’s often very funny. Marina’s boyfriend’s father, TV historian Alexander Viney, tries to discern Marina’s heritage, commenting that “you look like you should be ululating at Mafia funerals”, which was just one of the many moments I laughed out loud. And Mendelson knows whereof she speaks when it comes to the Eastern European relatives of Marina, since her maternal grandparents were, in her words, “Hungarian-speaking-Czech, Ruthenian for about 10 minutes, Carpathian mountain-y, impossible to describe”. Consequently, their heavily accented English dialogue and fantastically no-nonsense outlook treads a VERY fine line between affectionate ribbing and outright caricature (erring, just, on the affectionate side).

This is a hugely enjoyable read, and one that is often frustrating for the right reasons. So many times, I found myself wanting to yell at stupid selfish Laura, and Marina has some genuinely shocking moments of self loathing, which made my jaw drop. But then, right at the end, it got a little bit frustrating for the wrong reasons. A drawn out mystery with Viney and his connection to Marina’s grandparents, when it’s revealed, left me with an overwhelming sense of “that’s it?”. The end is a little abrupt as well, but maybe I didn’t want it to be over before someone punched Laura in her massively annoying face. Easily the most enjoyable of the Longlist books so far.