Cannonball Read 6, Book 24: Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

18481678How do you solve a mystery when you can’t remember the clues?

I mentioned in an earlier review that I do love me an unconventional detective and thus I was really looking forward to reading this book. And, having been lucky enough to score and advance copy, I’ve just finished it and it didn’t disappoint. Maud is old. Maud is forgetful. She makes cups of tea and doesn’t drink them, makes toast and sets fire to the kitchen. But Maud is sure of one thing. Her best friend, Elizabeth, is missing. And Maud has to find her.

Emma Healey is making her debut with this unusual novel and she is, not to put too fine a point on it, disgustingly young. It’s likely there will be brickbats thrown her way just for that, but the chances are increased by the fact she’s written a novel in the first person and the narrator is over eighty years old. To me, it just made the level of insight Healey writes with all the more incredible. Maud is a living, breathing, fully three dimensional creation. As her grip on day to day life diminishes and her dogged monomaniacal quest to find Elizabeth strengthens, Maud will grip your mind and break your heart with every page turn.

But even the most skilled of authors would struggle to fill a book running to almost 300 pages with one dotty old woman who regularly forgets what she’s doing. As is true of most Alzheimer’s sufferers, while Maud has trouble remembering things that happened a few minutes before, the events of fifty years ago are recalled with piercing clarity and in minute detail. And Maud’s past harbours a dark secret, another mystery she couldn’t solve, even when she was in full control of her faculties. A few years after the end of World War II, Maud’s sister Sukey disappeared. Suspicion fell on her wayward husband, but nothing was ever proved and Sukey was never seen again.

Haunted by her past, Maud is determined to find Elizabeth but finds herself thwarted at pretty much every turn by her own failing brain power as well by Elizabeth’s son, who Maud is convinced is behind his mother’s disappearance. A word of advice for people thinking of reading this book: start it when you have a full day or two free so you can switch your phone off and lose yourself in the gorgeously written journey Maud goes on. Once you start, you won’t want to put this down until you reach the final page. Another word of advice though. If you have even the tiniest fear of growing older, then I would approach this with extreme caution. Healey nails Maud’s state of mind so accurately that if you share any of her concerns around ageing, then you might have a very different experience reading this than I did.

I’m not overly sure I agree with the review featured on the book jacket describing it as a psychological thriller though. It is not so much a “whodunnit” as it is a “has anyone actually done something?” and while I’d be tempted to deduct some points for the “eureka” moment towards the end, the whole book is so intricate, intelligent and delightful, it would just be mean of me. It is a richly satisfying read and despite the premise, one that will appeal to a far wider audience than the Cosy Crime demographic it is aiming for. Read it.

And one last note, one that you’ll need to remember is coming from a Kindle evangelist. Do not read this one in e-book format. Viking have done an absolutely bang up job with the book, it looks and feels gorgeous. More than one person I showed it to commented that it looked like I was reading an old fashioned Agatha Christie. I mean, look. It’s just perfect:

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Cannonball Read 6, Book 23: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

17684326Pen names are funny things aren’t they? It’s pretty impossible for the real author behind them to stay hidden for long. Either the books become so successful that the lack of personal appearances becomes telling, or someone in the know leaks the story just because they can. Sometimes, authors have pen names so they can publish books outside their own genre with impunity (Barbara Vine and Richard Bachman spring to mind here) and it’s no secret who the real author behind it is. It is a proper shame that Galbraith’s true identity as J.K. Rowling was leaked by some smug moron on social media so very quickly, as it would have been fascinating to see if The Cuckoo’s Calling could have become a bestseller in its own right. It certainly had the reviews to make it so, and not just from critics, but from other authors too, none of whom were aware Galbraith was a pseudonym.

None of that hoopla can take away from this that it’s a cracking read with a magnificent antihero creation at its centre. Improbable name aside, Cormoran Strike is brilliant. After losing a leg to a landmine in Afghanistan, he has been working as a private investigator ever since. When we meet him, he is at a particularly low ebb. Sleeping in his office after breaking up with his girlfriend, down to one client and fast heading towards bankruptcy, Strike is not so much about to throw in the towel, but accept the inevitability of it being thrown in whether he likes it or not. Then, John Bristow comes to see him. His adopted sister, the supermodel Lula Landry, committed suicide by jumping off her penthouse balcony a few months ago, but Bristow thinks someone killed her and wants Strike to find out who. Strike thinks he’s on a hiding to nothing, but Bristow tells him money is no object, so Strike agrees to look into it. And finds that Bristow may have a point.

Say what you like about Rowling, she’s a damn good story teller. And she knows how to create three dimensional characters too. Cuckoo’s Calling is stuffed to the gills with people who, in less talented hands, would undoubtedly be shrieking caricatures. Rowling isn’t afraid to flesh them out, make us believe in and care about them. And the mystery of who killed Lula and why is sufficiently twisted to justify the book’s length (over 500 pages in paperback). But when Strike finally gets to the bottom of it and lays it all out for the reader, it is breathtaking in its audacious simplicity. It takes a writer of considerable daring to pull off what she does with this denouement, and while it may require a couple of forgiving moments with some of the leaps in logic, I was still absolutely engrossed and impressed.

Pleasingly, Rowling hasn’t allowed her cover being blown to give up on her alter ego or her antihero. A second Strike novel is coming out any moment now. I can’t wait to read it and I hope there are many more to come.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 22: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

17702699Anyone who read my reviews regularly last year will be aware that I have developed something of a book crush on Patrick Ness. He’s a brilliant author and, as some have said of Rainbow Rowell, an author I wish had been around when I actually was a Young Adult, as it would have made my teenage years that much more bearable. He is also bloody good value for money on Twitter, so if you don’t already, you should totally follow him. His live tweeting of reading the first Twilight book was comedy gold.

But I digress.

The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first book in his Chaos Walking trilogy, which is what really put him on the map 6 years ago. Between this trilogy and A Monster Calls, he has won pretty much every YA literary award there is. Having now read the first third of said trilogy, I can totally see why. This book grips like a vice from the first page and, well like the title says, it never lets go. Welcome to Prentisstown, a place like no other. Everyone can hear each other’s thoughts (the Noise) and you become a man at age 13, though a year does last 13 months. One day, Todd and his dog Manchee (whose thoughts Todd can also hear) stumble across an area of total silence. The lack of Noise should not be possible and Todd soon finds out that Prentisstown is nothing like he thought it was and is fleeing for his life with Manchee in tow. But being on the run is a little difficult when your pursuers can hear your every thought.

I’m fairly sure I’m one of the last people on the planet to read the trilogy but in the event that I am not, why are you still here? You should be heading to the bookshop/library/Kindle store to be getting stuck in. You won’t regret it. It is a relentlessly paced read, one I struggled to put down as I just couldn’t wait to find out more about Todd’s epic journey of discovery. Some people may struggle with the misspelled words and poor grammar Ness uses for the Prentisstown dialect (I did, briefly), but just go with it. Trust me. Todd and Manchee are great company, poor spelling or no. What is really going on in Prentisstown isn’t fully revealed here, but *spoiler alert*, the reason for the silence is a girl. See, while women can hear the men’s Noise, men can’t hear theirs. Todd has been told that the virus which caused the Noise was fatal to women, as the entire female population in his town is dead. But if that didn’t kill them, what did?

A grim and unique premise, a bleak and unforgiving setting, by rights Knife should be a punishing read. But Todd’s naiveté and his friendship with Manchee, his slow burgeoning friendship with Violet (the girl with the Silence) make this as charming as it is exciting (and yes, bleak). However, I need to warn readers of a sensitive disposition. Ness pulls the rug towards the end of this book and you won’t want to believe he has been so cruel. But he has been. I knew what was coming (Twitter caught me unawares one day) and even that didn’t really help matters. Patrick Ness is a cold hearted bastard. You have been warned.

He’s also an out and proud homosexual who is all about promoting equality and acceptance. He put a gay teen front and centre of More Than This  but didn’t make the book all about his being gay. At the start of this trilogy, he quietly shows us that Todd has been happily raised by a gay couple who love him as much as they do each other. And for that, he really can’t be praised enough. Basically, read this book. And then read the next two. I plan to read them before the year is out, so reviews of them will be here soon enough.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 21: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

17612888Marisha Pessl arrived in a blaze of glory seven or eight years ago. Her debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, was a critically lauded runaway bestseller. I read it and loved every page of it. Then, she did a Donna Tartt and vanished for aeons. I was about to give up on another novel being published when last year along came her follow up, Night Film. Unlike Tartt, the follow up wasn’t as critically reviled as The Little Friend, but it didn’t attract the universal acclaim its predecessor had. But then, lightning doesn’t strike twice, does it?

Veering far from her debut, this novel centres on Scott McGrath. An investigative journalist, Scott narrates the tale, telling us how in his relentless pursuit of the notoriously reclusive film director Stanislas Cordova, he nuked his own career and turned himself into a journalistic pariah. Now divorced and seriously down on his luck, he is drawn back into the web of Cordova when his 26 year old daughter Ashley is found dead in an apparent suicide. Eager to prove she was in fact murdered, McGrath begins to look into Ashley’s last days on earth, aided and (not always) abetted by two waifs and strays he picks up in the course of his investigation.

Pessl goes all out with the telling of this story. There are recreations of websites, police reports and magazine articles peppered throughout McGrath’s narrative, the attention to detail of which is all highly impressive. And you can’t accuse her of trying to detract from the story, since Pessl can really tell a story, and the history of the Cordova family is undeniably one heck of a story. A Kubrick inspired creation, to be sure, Cordova’s films are banned for their disturbing imagery and violence, his fans hold secret screenings and have a message board set up on the “dark web”, devoted to analysing every frame of them. Rumours and myths about Cordova abound, and McGrath has to try and find the reality in amongst all the crazy if he’s going to discover just what drove Ashley to end her life. Or if someone else ended it for her.

Inevitably, he can’t find that out with pushing himself ever further down the rabbit hole and allowing his life to spin almost entirely out of his own control. As he uncovers evidence of voodoo, witchcraft, black magic, secret sex clubs and underground networks, his obsession threatens to consume him entirely. It is a riveting story, immaculately paced, deep and more layered than you would expect. The supporting cast take a little bit of disbelief suspension, it’s fair to say, but Pessl makes them endearing enough that I forgave their outlandishness. I could have done without the excessive use of italics Pessl uses to make her point as well, but I was gripped from page one and by the time I got to the end I felt like I hadn’t breathed for about 100 pages.

Whether you find the ending a giant cop out or a bravura decision is of course entirely dependent on just how much you believe of everything you read leading up to it. For me, the unravelling of Ashley’s mystery was most definitely the latter. The coda Pessl tacks on though? I wasn’t entirely sure I bought it. All in all, a bloody good read and a worthy successor to Special Topics in Calamity Physics.