Cannonball Read 6, Book 28: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

18949650Hoo boy. I said 2014 would be my Year of Big Books and this is most definitely a Big Book in all senses of the word. It is close to 600 pages in hardback with fairly small print, so it’s literally big. It covers a span of over fifty years and many characters, so it’s figuratively also big. And it’s not actually published until September 2nd 2014, so the fact that I have been able to read an advance copy is frankly HUGE.

The proof copy I have just finished expressly states that it is not for quotation, but the jacket copy is not included in that, so here we are:

The Bone Clocks follows the twists and turns of Holly’s life from a scarred adolescence in Gravesend to old age on Ireland’s Atlantic coast as Europe’s oil supply dries up – a life not so far out of the ordinary, yet punctuated by flashes of precognition, visits from people who emerge from thin air and brief lapses in the laws of reality. For Holly Sykes – daughter, sister, mother, guardian – is also an unwitting player in a murderous feud played out in the shadows and margins of our world, and may prove to be its decisive weapon.”

I won’t lie. When I read that description, I was a little, um, apprehensive. See, David Mitchell blew my mind with Cloud Atlas and I absolutely loved loved loved Black Swan Green. But then along came The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and I was crushed. I found it unreadable and gladly jettisoned it after 50 pages. But with The Bone Clocks, I think it’s safe to say it is an epic and triumphant return to form. The book opens in 1984, with Holly Sykes deciding to run away from home after an argument with her mother. Headstrong and furious she refuses to give in and go home, and thus she encounters a strange woman who offers a small kindness in exchange for ‘asylum’. Decades will pass before Holly fully understands exactly what that flip little moment has got her into.

After the opening, narrated by Holly, each section of the book moves forward in time and has a different narrator, as Holly becomes a supporting player in her own huge story. That is until the final section, Holly once again is our narrator, a stylistic echo of Cloud Atlas, if ever there was one. I can’t quite say enough good things about this insanely inventive, daring, bravura novel. The wheels could very easily have come off, as Mitchell spends almost two thirds of the novel keeping that murderous feud in the shadows, drip feeding little bits of information to the reader, enough to make you think “what the actual fuck” and compel you onward at the same time. It’s a fine balancing act, one which Mitchell pulls off masterfully. It’s nearly 400 pages in before the murderous feud is brought front and centre and fully explained and even then, it’s done so in a way which bamboozles as much as it enlightens. I mean that as a compliment.

The final chapter suggests a future not unlike the post-electric wasteland Anne Washburn imagines in Mr Burns, only even bleaker and with more violence. It’s always risky when authors take on the near future but Mitchell is far more successful than Jennifer Egan was in A Visit From The Goon Squad, which I enjoyed right up until that final fateful awful chapter. Similarly, The Teleportation Accident went that one step too far. I suspect Mitchell won’t come out of the reviews unscathed for his ideas of how technology will progress before collapsing in on itself, but I went with it. His writing is just so glorious (I wish I could quote any number of choice passages, but you’ll just have to read the book and find out how gorgeous it is) and the characters so brilliant, vivid and real (Hugo Lamb, making a return appearance after one chapter in Black Swan Green, is especially magnificent), that by the time you get to the final chapter, you’ll believe anything Mitchell tells you and be willing for some kind of light in the darkness to emerge. Whether it does or not, I couldn’t possibly say, but I implore you to read this book.

 

Cannonball Read 6, Book 27: Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

20895196Ah, Stephen King. He’s been my number one go-to author since I was in my early teens and read It and The Tommyknockers. I pretty much never looked back from that point on and while not every book he publishes is a slam dunk (Dreamcatcher is one of the most jawdroppingly terrible things, and I never even bothered to finish Lisey’s Story I was so bored and annoyed by it), when you’re as prolific as King is, that’s no real surprise. But I’d still much rather read an off target Stephen King novel than the best work of some other authors.

Luckily for all of us, Mr Mercedes is very far from an off-target book. It’s funny how King is so often written of as a horror novelist and when he is so much more. Here he delivers an out and out thriller, something the publishers are so keen to publicise, the front cover of the novel tells you that it’s “a riveting suspense thriller”. Bill Hodges is a retired cop, and is still haunted by the one unsolved case he had when he retired. A crazy person stole a Mercedes and drove it in to a crowd of people. Eight died, fifteen were injured, the killer never apprehended. Said killer is Brady Hartsfield, who lives across town from Hodges and decides he’s going to tie up the one loose end he has and goad Hodges into killing himself. He writes to Hodges and suggests they start chatting on a social website, Under Debbie’s Blue Umbrella (hence the cover). But both the cat and the mouse have underestimated each other and events threaten to overtake both of them. Soon Hodges, along with two unexpected and unlikely sidekicks, is in a race against time to stop Hartsfield before he can kill again.

Alfred Hitchcock discussed the art of suspense and he said (I’m massively paraphrasing): “show two men talking at a table for 10 minutes, and then detonate a bomb under the table, the audience are first bored then shocked. Show the audience the bomb first, THEN show the men talking, and for ten minutes, that audience will be losing their minds, waiting for the men to be blown up or saved”. King takes that lesson and runs with it here. The first half of Mr Mercedes is all set up. King takes time fleshing out his characters and making you care about (or in the case of Hartsfield, massively dislike and be creeped out by) them. Around the halfway mark, things begin to unravel in ways you don’t initially expect and that’s when you need to make sure you’ve cleared your diary and you should turn your phone off. You won’t want to stop until you get to the very end.

The last 200 pages are easily among the most exciting and pulse racing I have read in a very long time. I have dinged King in the past for being too fond of a happy ending (Cell is the worst offender there, I think), but not only do you want this all to end well for Hodges and his buddies, King genuinely made me fear about whether it would or not. Much like Hartsfield in the Mercedes at the start, King has disabled the airbags on his narrative. There was a time, following King’s near death experience, when it looked like he might never write again and that what he did write would be inferior stuff (Bag of Bones was the first book to emerge after that brush with death and it’s really not one of his best). How wrong we all were. It’s now been fifteen years since that event, and in that time King has published some of his finest work. He shows no signs of slowing down and indeed I was thrilled to discover Mr Mercedes is actually book one of a planned trilogy and part two should be out next year. Get in.

 

Cannonball Read 6, Book 26: I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

14781675This book seems to be everywhere at the moment. It has been prominently displayed in bookstores since its hardback publication last year and the paperback just came out, causing a fresh wave of publicity. There are posters everywhere I turn, all of them emblazoned with pull quotes from glowing reviews about how exciting, pulse racing, daring, smart and thrilling it is. You’ll see there’s a sticker on the cover there that denotes it is “the only thriller you need to read this year”. Having now finished it, I can only scratch my head and quote Tori Amos to ask “baby, what have you been smoking?”

The back cover does, I’ll admit, hook you in. “A young woman murdered in a run-down Manhattan hotel. A father publicly beheaded in the blistering sun of Saudi Arabia. A man’s eyes stolen from his living body as he leaves a secret Syrian research laboratory. Smouldering remains on a mountainside in the Hindu Kush. A plot to commit an appalling crime against humanity. One thread binds them all, one man to take the journey. Pilgrim.” But Hayes, an ex-screenwriter making his debut as a novelist, puts his foot wrong from the very beginning. Some of the plot points he asks to swallow are served up in indigestible chunks. I could not ever believe an ex-agent from a top secret agency only ever known as The Division would write a book detailing forensic criminal investigation and how you would commit a perfect murder, let alone that anyone would ever allow it to be published, for starters. But that book was used to plan the hotel murder which opens the book, and it’s the reason our Pilgrim narrator is there and that the whole book kicks off at all. So, whatever.

Another issue I had with the book is how much Hayes loves a back story. After a couple of chapters in the hotel dealing with the murder, he then delves into the backstory of Pilgrim, his NYPD buddy who also read the book and consults him from time to time and into the history of the man plotting to commit the appalling crime, only known as Saracen. We don’t return to the story and start to gather any kind of momentum for 150 pages. And those 150 pages could easily have been 30. And even better, there’s five “missing years” in Saracen’s backstory, one that otherwise has a forensic level of mind-numbing detail. Those years are missing purely because if they weren’t, something that takes Pilgrim A REALLY LONG TIME to figure out would have been immediately obvious.

Once Saracen’s plot becomes known to Pilgrim (spoiler alert: it’s smallpox. Saracen managed to steal the vaccine, using someone else’s eyes, and then synthesise the virus in his garage, having taught himself how from the internet. I shit you not.) the race to find Saracen takes him to Turkey, where we have a shitload more backstory. Parachuted in under the cover story of investigating the death of an American billionaire, Pilgrim actually has to investigate that and the Saracen plot as well, to maintain cover. While delving into the death, desperation forces his hand and there’s a plot point involving fireworks and giant mirrors that even Dan Brown would have raised an eyebrow at and said “bitch, please”. It also doesn’t stack up with someone who repeatedly says “had I been paying more attention at the time, I would have noticed…” or something along those lines. I got to the point where every time he said it, it caused an eye roll and an exclamation of “you’re supposed to be the best secret agent alive!”

Repetition is another of Hayes’s problems. When endlessly discussing the smallpox scenario, I lost count of how many times I read the words “crash through the vaccine”. The writing generally isn’t anywhere near as good as it thinks it is. There are flashbacks which last over several chapters and are purely there to introduce one character and one tiny plot point. And those flashbacks are clumsily constructed, to say the least. Hayes also talks down to his audience, pausing to explain what a tagine is, which just made me yell “I KNOW WHAT A FUCKING TAGINE IS”. Having patronised us, he then talks about craigslist as if it’s actually a list belonging to a guy named Craig and worst of all, doesn’t know what a zombie is. When detailing how Saracen will unleash the smallpox he notes that after exposure, the exposed can then “accurately be described as zombies – one of the walking dead.” Anyone who’s ever seen a zombie film will be happy to tell you that zombies are actually undead and unless the smallpox has killed you and then you’ve come back to life with a desire to eat brains, you’re not a zombie.

So there we are. A fast paced thriller that is neither fast paced nor especially thrilling. Ambitiously constructed, sure, but Hayes’s reach far exceeds his grasp and what could have been an absolute slam dunk is instead by turns frustrating, dull and laughable.

 

Cannonball Read 6, Book 25: NOS4R2 by Joe Hill

17202851I mentioned in my review of Horns last year that if I had Stephen King for a father, I wouldn’t have been a writer for love nor money. The shadow he casts is impressive, to say the least (and Mr Mercedes is imminent, about which I am very excited). So if it were me, the prospect would have been too daunting to undertake. But Hill dropped his family name and tried for as long as possible to keep his origins out of the press. It wasn’t that long, since he basically looks EXACTLY LIKE HIS DAD. And it turns out, with this creepy epic, that the family resemblance doesn’t stop there.

The A of the US title has been swapped for an R here in the UK (presumably in the US it really is pronounced Nosfer-ay-tu) but that is by the by. Victoria McQueen, aka “The Brat”, discovers one summer that she has a special talent. If she needs to find something, all she has to do is cross the Shorter Way Bridge and she finds it. Never mind that the Bridge was torn down years before and that bridges can’t move. Whenever she needs it, the Bridge is there. But then her “gift” causes her to cross paths with the hideously evil child murder, Charles Talent Manx.  She becomes the only child to ever escape him and he ends up in prison. The rest of the children Manx took are trapped forever in Christmasland, where it’s Christmas every day, but nobody is having any fun.

I really struggled to sum up the plot of this one, as you can probably tell. Not only is it epic and sprawling, it is also twisted and evil. In the best ways. Hill takes his time to set things up, creating fully rounded characters for us to care about as he does so. And then he pulls the rug and puts the reader into a full tilt thriller that manages to be both chilling and hugely exciting at the same time. The section where Vic encounters Manx for the first time and escapes him is up there in terms of making your palms sweat with anxiety with the breakout sequence in Emma Donoghue’s Room. 

The chilling and the creepiness isn’t retained to the supernatural elements of the book either. With Bing Partridge, Manx’s educationally subnormal and increasingly unhinged helper, Hill has given us one of the most memorably unpleasant characters in recent years. Between him and Manx and the horrors of Christmasland, I would recommend reading this book in broad daylight. And you’ll probably feel like you need to take a shower afterwards. Believe it or not, that is really high praise. Oh and special mention for the brief mention of the True Knot, a neat little crossover from Doctor Sleep. King is forever self-referencing (the pinnacle of which has to be 11.22.63), and now Hill seems to be blending his and his father’s fictional worlds, so in about five books time, it will all be so meta my brain may well implode.