Cannonball Read 6, Book 14: The Child’s Child by Barbara Vine

15823440I’ve loved Barbara Vine for like ever. I know she doesn’t exist and is in fact Ruth Rendell, but still. It’s an irony that I have not now nor have I ever had any desire to read a Rendell novel. Vine first showed up on my radar when A Fatal Inversion was televised for the BBC way back in time before the hula hoop. Okay, it was like 1992 or something but still, I’m old, alright? Anyway, I read the book of that, then burned my way through everything she’d published, and she went on to my list of Authors Who I Will Read Everything They Ever Publish. Which brings us to her latest novel, The Child’s Child. 

Grace and Andrew Eaton inherit their grandmother’s vast Hampstead house when she dies. They move in and divide the house down the middle, taking half each as their own flat, with a little bit of shared living space. The wheels start to come off when Andrew’s boyfriend moves in and upsets the sibling harmony they have established. James Derain is a novelist, highly sensitive and initially clashes with Grace over her thesis. She is looking at the treatment of illegitimacy in literature and comparing it to the treatment of homosexuality. He takes it a little too personally, but then a personal tragedy comes along and everything spins completely out of control with potentially fatal consequences.

Not every Vine novel is a home run, but they are always a good read, you know? Well, this latest is a crushing disappointment from start to finish. Only one third of the novel is actually about the Eatons. The other two thirds are an unpublished novel Grace finds while researching her thesis. Dealing in a thinly veiled fictional account of the author’s family, it covers gays and illegitimate children, but it’s not interesting and the lead character of Maud is increasingly less likeable and infinitely more crazy with each page turn. And it’s TWO THIRDS of the book. As for the Eaton’s third, well, I didn’t believe one single word of it. Not one. The characters are ridiculous, especially James Derain. The arc that drives the Eaton’s apart is dumb, the arc that pulls them back together again is so patently unrealistic, I was actually shouting at the book when it was all kicking off. An unexpected and total failure from Vine. And what’s really sad is this could well be her last novel, as Rendell is pushing 90 years old.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 13: Never Saw It Coming by Linwood Barclay

16169854Ah, Linwood Barclay. As I have documented on previous reviews, I loved him, then I nearly broke up with him, and then with Trust Your Eyes, he won my heart all over again. This short sharp little story first appeared as a novella titled Clouded Vision, which was published for the Quick Reads initiative. Barclay has expanded the original novella into a fully fledged novel (though still short, at just 270 pages), though as I haven’t read the original, I can’t do a compare and contrast.

Barclay brings back some characters from his breakthrough novel, No Time For Goodbye, here. Front and centre is fake psychic Keisha Ceylon, who specialises in finding missing people through her “visions”, for a fee of course. She “helped” the Archer family at the centre of that earlier novel, and Terry pops up for a cameo here too. She spies Wendell Garfield and his pregnant daughter on the news, appealing for the safe return of his wife Ellie and thinks “jackpot”. But then Keisha’s educated guesses are a little too close to the bone and she finds herself up to her neck in a possibly fatal situation.

There’s some other plot strands swirling around the main one there, and Barclay never lets his foot off the gas on any of them for barely a minute. To tie up all the loose ends does take some awfully huge leaps of faith, but then there aren’t that many pages to do it in, so you have to either go with it, or bow out after the first chapter. I went with it and while this is very much Barclay in a minor key, it’s still a better book than The Accident, and nowhere near bad enough to make me consider breaking up with him. Bring on A Tap On The Window.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 12: I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley

5596865I admit, a good 90% of the reason I wanted to read this book was the title. It’s a genius, a masterstroke in fact. But ultimately it turned out to be, if not quite the high point of the book, it was certainly one of the very few noteworthy moments. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed this, but when something is described as “wry, hilarious and profoundly genuine” and has a gushing jacket quote from A.M. Homes, well, you’re setting the bar terribly high for yourself. For me, Crosley fell short.

It’s not that she’s not funny. I often smiled and chuckled, occasionally she made me laugh out loud. When she’s “imagining how embarrassing it would be to explain that one’s death – or worse, one’s disfigurement – came from a flaming maxi pad to the face”, it’s hard to deny that Crosley has a way with words. I almost feel a little mean to take her to task for writing it, but there we are. She didn’t manage to convince me there was a reason to write the collection of essays that make up the book. There’s nothing unusual about them, and I guess that’s the point. Homes’s comment is that this is “a perfect document of what it is to be young in today’s world”. Maybe it’s that I’m not young, and I’m heading ever faster towards yelling at those pesky kids to get the hell of my front lawn, or maybe it’s just that Crosley really isn’t as interesting as she thinks she is. The sum total of this, rather than making me go “oh that Sloan Crosley, she’s such a wag” had me saying “you know who else was too involved in a wedding they had no desire to even be at? EVERYONE”.

Crosley is INTENSELY interested in the minutiae of her own life, and it does get wearing. David Sedaris, whom I would guess Crosley idolises and hates in equal measure is entirely fascinated with other people and has a unique take on what he observes. And that is what makes him worth reading. I got to the end of I Was Told There’d Be Cake and just thought “so?” along with “wow, you would not be my friend in real life. You’re kind of annoying.”

Cannonball Read 6, Book 11: Unexploded by Alison Macleod

18903281And so we reach the penultimate book in my apparently neverending Booker Prize Longlist challenge of 2013. Apparently, it’s a “much anticipated” new novel, which I’m sure is the case for those of us who have read MacLeod’s previous novels and knew this one was coming out. As it is, I was blissfully unaware of either, but the subject of this novel was very much up my alley, so to speak. Set in 1940, it focuses on a maddeningly middle class family, the Beaumonts. Geoffrey and Evelyn are unhappily married and living in Brighton, which is living with the very real threat of being invaded by Hitler’s army in the early years of the Second World War. Geoffrey has been made superintendent of an “enemy alien” camp at Brighton racetrack, Evelyn wafts around desperately, feeling alienated herself. Their only child, Phillip, is obsessed with the rumours that Hitler will make the Brighton Pavilion his UK HQ and is generally either fascinated by or oblivious to the horrors of the war beginning to encroach on his family. Back at the camp, Evelyn meets Otto Gottlieb, and well, the blurb would have it that “Love collides with fear, the power of art with the forces of war, and the lives of Evelyn, Otto and Geoffrey are changed irrevocably.”

I think the biggest issue I had with this book is that said change takes a bastard long time to appear, and the groundwork of laying out the lives we’re going to see change takes WAY too long and is not at any point even the slightest bit interesting. The awful middle class musings of the Beaumont couple really made me yearn for someone to wander in to the novel and shoot them both dead. It’s pushing the halfway mark before Evelyn and Otto actually meet, and nearly three quarters of this tiresome novel has elapsed before anything happens between them. Which would be fine if a) the jacket copy didn’t make it seem like there was going to be FAR more to it and b) the lead up was interesting.

Macleod also darts about in time and in character POV, which for me made it a very bitty and shallow read. I wanted more of Otto’s history, and infinitely less of Evelyn’s hand wringing. I don’t know if it’s because I saw the driest World War One play just as I started reading this, or whether it’s because I don’t think any WW novel is ever going to top Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, but I just didn’t take to this book one iota. I know it’s WWII and not I, but even so, the comparisons were made. Of course, it could also be that MacLeod has really gilded the lily with her prose. There’s some awful flowery overwritten guff that made me roll my eyes and dislike the Beaumonts even more. And my word does she ever foreground the fact that the Beaumonts have two cyanide pills, just in case. That comes to nothing, but every other page had me yelling “JUST TAKE THEM, WHY DON’T YOU?”

MacLeod does all her characters a huge disservice with the fate she ultimately deals them. I suppose we’re meant to find it heartbreaking and tragic and real. I just found it incredibly annoying and deeply unsatisfying. If the gorgeous cover and good jacked copy make you think about reading this book, I have one thing to say to you: Don’t.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 10: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

17906835In which Popcultureboy is left floored by and in awe of Catton’s supreme mastery and skill as a writer and storyteller, but is ultimately forced to conclude he found the novel easier to admire than to love. 

So here we are at the pinnacle of the Booker challenge for 2013, with the winning book. There were some firsts with this book lifting the Booker, as it was the longest ever book to do so with the highest page count (Catton is 28, and the book runs to 834 pages, as was heavily documented at the time). I have a bit of soft spot for Victorian pastiche novels, so I was really looking forward to reading this from the moment the longlist was announced. I confess, one of the reasons I took so long to get around to it is the unseemly duration of it.

Catton has divided the novel into twelve sections, each one half the length of its predecessor, to mirror the twelve phases of the waning moon. The character count is even higher. The opening section sees Walter Moody stumble upon a gathering of twelve disparate men, who have gathered to discuss a strange pattern of events that has unfolded in the previous two weeks. A fortune in smelted gold has been uncovered in the cottage of a dead hermit, a prostitute has tried to commit suicide and a prospector has vanished, seemingly without a trace. The gathered dozen seem to think the events are somehow connected and they each tell their story to Moody, to see if he can piece it all together. But of course, Moody also holds a piece of the puzzle, unbeknownst to all of them.

There is absolutely no denying that Catton really knows what she’s doing. The research for this novel has clearly been seriously in depth. The language is rich and evocative, spot on for the genre she’s trying to evoke. And of course, she’s not afraid to take her time in telling the story. If you enjoy a mystery story, then this is a glorious one, intricately layered, utterly engrossing and one that doesn’t talk down to the reader. There’s also a certain charm to the old fashioned prose, with its blanked out expletives and the like.

So there is a lot to recommend this novel, but it’s not a book to undertake lightly. It’s a proper beast of a book, that’s for sure. And for as much as I loved it, I could never quite stop a part of my brain from really doing cartwheels over the style of it. So it’s very much not a case of “style over substance” because believe me, there is a LOT of substance here. It’s an odd criticism to make, that a book is too well written, too immaculately styled, but that’s what I’m trying to get at. It was all so spot on, that every now and then, I’d be pulled out of the story by the sheer brilliance of the text.