Cannonball Read 6, Book 20: The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen

13064606This book was on many Best lists in the year it was published. Published two years after Room, it would be tough not to say Donoghue’s utterly excellent novel didn’t influence McCleen, as here we are with another narrator who also happens to be a damaged child with no concept of the real world she happens to live in. There though, all comparisons end. Judith’s mother died shortly after giving birth to her and she has been raised by her father alone. As devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, Judith and her father spend their weekends knocking on doors and telling people to prepare for the End  of the World. What free time she has, Judith spends building a model of the titular Land, where the believers end up after Armageddon. Badly bullied at school, Judith spends one weekend praying she can stay off school on Monday. She makes it snow in her model Land. On the Monday morning, it’s snowed so much overnight that schools are closed. Judith believes she’s made a miracle happen. And from there, things only get worse.

Anyone who was ever bullied at school for being different (I think that’s pretty much everyone, no?), will find something to identify with in poor innocent Judith. It also makes it quite a tough read in places. Judith is clearly damaged by her upbringing (her father made no secret of holding her responsible for her mother’s death, for example) and so indoctrinated to her religion that she very much cannot see the wood for the trees and you desperately want her to. McCleen writes in a clipped, straightforward, no-nonsense style, in short chapters, which makes this a very quick read. But, as I said earlier, not an easy one.

As Judith’s quest for miracles continues, her father’s life starts to come off the rails. They’re both persecuted by bullies, Judith at school, her father at work. They both start to become mentally affected by the persecution, with Judith believing she’s having conversations with God, as well as being guided by him in her creation of miracles. The way Judith relates all the events though, she can’t see how wrong everything is going, and there’s something horribly unsettling in how you observe these two lives coming apart at the seams in such a detached style. Eventually, everything in her life has broken apart so much that Judith finally sees the wood among the trees and thinks there’s only one way she can fix things.

And believe me when I tell you, you will fervently be wishing there’s a happy ending waiting for Judith and her poor damaged father at the end of this brief, brilliant novel. McCleen breaks your heart for them over and over again throughout the book and makes you root for them as much as she makes you want to smack them upside the head on occasion (her father  more than Judith on that score). Whether or not they get the happy ending is something you’ll need to read the book to find out. Although, when you’ve finished, you may still not be too sure about just how happy an ending it really is.

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Cannonball Read 6, Book 19: The Likeness by Tana French

18686117Tana French made a lot of noise when her debut novel, In The Woods, hit shelves seven years ago. I finally read it last year and really enjoyed it. So much so that I bought the follow up novel almost right away but have only just read it. One of the joys of owning a Kindle and living with a bibliophile who has covered every available wall space of the flat with books is I’m always spoilt for choice. So that’s part of the reason for the delay in reading it. The other part is the same as its predecessor. The synopsis all but makes me break out in hives.

Cassie Maddox is our narrator here. She was front and centre in the first book too, and as we all know, that book did not end well for her. So we find her bloodied but (only barely) unbowed and now working for Domestic Violence instead of the Murder Squad. Before all of that, Cassie worked in Undercover. When a body identical to Cassie turns up, with ID on her bearing the alias Cassie used in her only undercover op, her ex-boss convinces her that the best way to find out who the dead girl really is and who killed her is to go undercover as her. They concoct a cover story that Lexie Madison (the dead girl) almost died from her wounds, was in a coma for a while, but has made a recovery. So Cassie becomes Lexie again, moves in to her old room with her four close knit housemates, goes back to University and tries to unmask Lexie’s secret past and her killer.

And that is one BIG pill to swallow. The central conceit of this book is just so unworkable and so unbelievable that I couldn’t really get past it. If Lexie lived alone and only attended classes at Uni, then maybe she’d get away with it. But Lexie is part of a very co-dependent unit of housemates and leads seminars as part of her post-graduate degree. Come on now. Also, the book owes a debt to both A Fatal Inversion (Lexie lives in a huge house that one of the housemates inherited and together the five of them try and create a new Utopia with it. Ultimately, it doesn’t end well) and The Secret History (group of friends with an impenetrable relationship which ultimately doesn’t end well). There are many subplots and red herrings along the way which pad out the length of the book, some go nowhere, others end quite unpleasantly. All of them are narrated by Cassie in the most florid language. That girl loves a lyrical simile, that’s for sure.

And yet through all that, I was still wavering on giving this book 4 stars. For all its irritations, it was still somehow compulsively readable. I wanted to know who offed the “real” Lexie Madison. But, as the mystery progresses, Cassie is such a thundering idiot in how she handles things that I could not deal with her. Every time she opened her mouth, I wanted to punch her in it. And then when French finally unravels the mystery, well, here’s the thing: it doesn’t work. To quote an Ani DiFranco lyric “my whole life blew up and now it’s all coming down” and the coming down part in the epilogue, dealing what happens to the friends Lexie lived with, is touching and moving. Cassie’s post-Lexie life is also neatly and pleasingly laid out. But it’s the blowing up part I had issues with. When the truth comes out, for me it made the whole book even more unworkable than it already was. I ended up unable to believe a word of it and had to deduct another star for it. If you still want to read this book after reading this review, then the best thing to do is take your brain out around the halfway mark. It’ll make it much more enjoyable.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 18: Agatha Raisin & The Curious Curate by M.C. Beaton

8051243Continuing my brain dead decompression from the lengthy Booker challenge finds me reading the 13th instalment of the Agatha Raisin books. At the start of the year, for a brief window, the entire series (apart from the recently published latest instalment, the brilliantly titled Something Borrowed, Someone Dead. I’m going to just go ahead and say the death in that one is wedding related), was just 84p a piece on Kindle. So I bought them all. They are the perfect palate cleansers in between bigger and better books.

The thirteenth book is terribly similar to books 1 to 12, really. Firstly, we have a new arrival to the tiny village where Raisin is spending her retirement. In this case, it’s the terribly handsome, utterly charming, unpleasantly devious curate Tristan Delon. He’s introduced, described and killed off all in the first chapter, since Beaton really doesn’t believe in hanging around. Naturally, in the brief amount of time he’s in the book, Delon has managed to cross paths with our inimitable amateur sleuth and when the suspicion falls on the local vicar, Agatha takes it on herself to clear his name and find the real killer.

So what happens? Essentially, the same thing that happens in all the others. Agatha meddles, gets warned off by the police, ignores them, spars with the handsome neighbour, meddles some more, gets herself entangled in life threatening situations, stumbles across the identity of the killer by accident and no discernible skill. There’s some comic moments with some of her bungled investigating, for sure, but any of that is offset by how lamely she works out the killer’s identity and how repetitious her back and forth feelings over the handsome neighbour become.

And with this one, Beaton throws a lot of balls in the air, only to find out she can’t quite juggle them as well as she might. There is at least one glaring error which makes the final pages all very obvious. And to dispatch the second handsome neighbour Agatha has locked horns (but this time not loins) with only to replace him with a third would indicate Beaton doesn’t plan to deviate from the tried and tested structure just yet. Here’s hoping that she at least starts to give Agatha some self-esteem and actual sleuthing skills before too much longer though.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 17: Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer

16071656So it turns out that I have a soft spot for the unconventional amateur sleuth. Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher, Flavia de Luce, Agatha Raisin, the list goes on. It’s a miracle I haven’t read the Shardlake series, really. One amateur sleuth to which Bauer and her excellent novel owe something of a debt is Christopher Boone. The narrator of Mark Haddon’s groundbreaking Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time was never noted as specifically having Asperger’s and was investigating who killed his neighbour’s dog, which didn’t ever really put him in mortal danger. Patrick Fort, Bauer’s hero at the centre of Rubbernecker, is a little older than Boone, unashamedly Asperger’s, and finds himself drawn into investigating what really happened to the body he’s dissecting in his first year anatomy class. So while there may be some differences, I very much doubt a single review or interview made it to the end without mentioning Haddon and the shadow cast by Boone.

There is a lot more to Rubbernecker than “autistic teen gets involved in a murder mystery”. In addition to Fort and his anatomy class, we also spend time in a coma ward with a ghastly gold digging and singularly unhelpful nurse. And Patrick is studying anatomy as he’s driven to find answers about death, having witnessed his father’s death when he was a young boy. His relationship with his mother, never great, has creaked and strained all the more since and the amateur sleuthing threatens to upend things entirely, for reasons Patrick could never see coming. When Patrick disagrees with the given cause of death for the cadaver he’s dissecting, so begins an increasingly exciting investigation into what really killed him.

The skill with which Bauer weaves these disparate storylines together is really quite wonderful. Patrick’s Asperger’s provides some fantastic moments of humour, but is never held up for laughs and mockery. It’s sensitively handled without it ever obviously being a thing with moments like “Jackson had long, pale hands that flapped on slender wrists, and dyed black hair, so short at the back and so long at the front that Patrick itched to reach out and realign it with his head” and “Patrick hadn’t been to a party since he was five years old, when the clamour of twenty over-sugared children in such disorganised proximity had led to a meltdown on a scale rarely witnessed during musical chairs. The very word ‘party’ had the power to trigger in him flashbacks of wailing classmates, overturned furniture and a big brown dog gulping down jelly.”

If I have to be critical, and I suppose I do, I could say that the culprit at the heart of Patrick’s mystery is kind of obvious from relatively early on, but that would be to overlook the heartstopping excitement Bauer creates on the way to unmasking them. The other plot strands are tied up so brilliantly though, that any misgivings over the central mystery are easily forgotten, I think. And Patrick Fort is such a gorgeous creation, I found it impossible to feel cheated at any point. If Bauer wanted to write more books with Fort at the centre, I wouldn’t mind one bit. And I’m fairly sure I’m not alone in that. If you heart Christopher Boone, read this book. If you haven’t read Haddon’s book, then read that. After that, read this one.

 

Cannonball Read 6, Book 16: Agatha Raisin & The Day The Floods Came by M.C. Beaton

8537775So here we are. After the mind numbing banality and apparently endless pages of The Kills, I needed something to decompress. Something easy, something short, something that I can take my brain out for and still enjoy. Who better fulfils that remit that Miss Marple by way of Midsomer Murders? As some of you may be aware, I’ve read a fair few of these books and this instalment is number 12 in the still ongoing series. Not bad when you consider the author is knocking on 80 years old.

When we last left our hapless heroine and amateur sleuth, she was abandoned by her husband and hunky handsome neighbour James, who lost his mind and decided to enter a monastery. To mend her broken heart, Agatha takes herself off to a remote South Pacific island for some sun and relaxation. Naturally, the bride in a honeymooning couple ends up dead, apparently drowned by her husband. Back home, the weather causes rivers to flood and amid all the burst bank craziness, a dead body in a wedding gown comes floating along. Initially it’s ruled a suicide, but Agatha remembers the drowning on her holiday and has other ideas…..

And so of course, it’s business as usual, with Agatha getting in the way, being snappish with people she interviews, flirting with the new neighbour, suffering crippling bouts of low self-esteem and stumbling on the answer by chance rather than skill. Beaton is smart enough to realise Raisin’s sharp edges need a foil to blunt them, but to give us another handsome writer as the new neighbour is a little repetitive. Also on the repetition front is Beaton’s language (Agatha howls at people fairly often and more than one person is truculent) and a far-fetched, ultimately unsatisfying and entirely daft conclusion.

In addition to being utterly ridiculous, the finale also leaves several plot strands hanging unresolved. The initial murder on the island seems to be a Maguffin (I’m being very kind there) and another sub-plot with someone trying to murder Agatha is either resolved very haphazardly or not resolved at all, I couldn’t really tell which. And yet somehow for some reason, I forgive all the faults and carry on reading. I have no clue why. Maybe I’m waiting for them to suddenly become amazing. It’s likelier that I enjoy losing myself in harmless mindless nonsense.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 15: The Kills by Richard House

18224507Since I don’t want to be a total Debbie Downer about this book, I’m going to start with a positive. Ten years after first attempting to do so, I have finally ploughed my way through all 13 books on the Man Booker Prize Longlist. Some years I didn’t bother to try (mostly years when Hilary Mantel was on the list) and other years I’ve lost interest or had such a bad book experience with one of the novels that I’ve abandoned it. But, spurred on by Cannonball participation, I went all in with 2013’s list and now, finally, I can rest. After the ups and downs of said list, I don’t think I’ll be attempting a repeat of the challenge. Especially after ending on such a very long book, about which I have very little good to say.

Fellow Cannonballer Travis recently lamented that almost every book with a big page count he’s attempted has disappointed him and gone unfinished. All I can say is, Travis, don’t even go near The Kills. Four interconnected novels allegedly telling one massive story, it clocks in at 1024 pages in hardback form, a veritable brieze block of a book. Comprising Sutler, The Massive, The Kill and The Hit, House has apparently written an epic novel of crime and conspiracy. The publicity machine loves to tell us how House moves across continents, characters and genres and that 2013 did not produce a more exciting novel. Also, in a groundbreaking world first, House has created multimedia content to accompany the novel. Links to the appropriate content are noted throughout, they can all be found here. And while that’s all well and good, if you’re not going to write an interesting epic novel, then what on earth is the point?

The blurb also tells us that the book opens with a man on the run and ends with a body burned beyond recognition. That plus the previous excited tub thumping made me think I was in for a breathless, pulse racing, Bourne style read. How wrong I was. Even without those expectations though, I wouldn’t have been able to escape that The Kills is an overstuffed, overlong, over-populated, overambitious and overly dull disappointment. The conspiracy is never properly unravelled. Sutler is at the heart of it and disappears entirely for about a third of the book. When he returns, there’s three possible versions of him on the loose, we never find out who any of them actually are. The heavily sketched in backstory about an unsolved murder in Italy which may never even have happened (and the only element of the story to feature in all 4 of the linked novels) actually causes one of the characters to say this: “Perhaps someone will write a book about making a film about a story that is taken from this book which is taken from a real-life story that was copied from a story in a book. You know?” I don’t know about you, but I didn’t make it to the end of that little statement without wanting to smack both the person saying it and the author who wrote it.

The Kills is full of characters banging on so lengthily and so inanely, so if reading these kind of exchanges is your thing, then have at it. However, if you prefer your crime/conspiracy/action books to actually contain crime/conspiracy/action then this probably isn’t a wise choice. After acres and acres and ACRES of painfully incoherent and tiresomely dull chit chat between equally boring characters (the sisters in the final section, The Hit, really take the biscuit on that), the book winds to a drab and boring close. What’s more, as a final insult to the reader who bothered to stick with the book for the whole journey, it does so without resolving a single plot strand.

I didn’t bother to look at any of the multimedia content House created. He notes that the book can be enjoyed (his word, very much not mine) without them. The experience of those who have bothered doesn’t seem to be overwhelmingly positive, with one user noting that he reads books to get away from computers and another noting that the content of the website was just as boring as the book. So, all in all, while House should be commended for undertaking such an experiment, I can’t say that I found it to be a success.