Cannonball Read 6, Book 34: The Humans by Matt Haig

21265230So here’s a funny thing. I have a book by Matt Haig on my “to read” shelf over on Goodreads. It’s called The Dead Fathers Club and it’s on there because a) I am always up for reading modernised novels based on Shakespeare plays (I’m already beside myself about the Hogarth Shakespeare project, but that’s another story) and because b) my father died all too recently. That’s not really the funny thing. The funny thing is, since I bang on about books pretty much all the time over on my twitter account, out of the blue, Matt Haig started following me. I followed him back and earlier this year, to celebrate the paperback publication of The Humans, he had a little twitter competition to give away some signed copies. All you had to do was watch this video and tweet him the name of the film he is making a reference to at the end. I entered and blow me down if I didn’t win.

That’s an awfully long preamble with a full on name drop in it, I know. But I’m about to rhapsodise over this gorgeous little book and so it’s only fair that you can all decide how big you think your pinch of salt should be as you read it. The Humans tells the story of an alien from the planet Vonnadoria who takes the corporeal form of Professor Andrew Martin. See, our poor doomed professor just solved the Riemann Hypothesis, and the Vonnadorians don’t think the messy human race is ready for the massive technological advancements said proof will provide. So our otherwise unnamed narrator takes on Martin’s form, after Martin is killed, with the primary objective of eliminating everyone who knows about the Riemann solution, all the time fitting in on Earth and not drawing undue attention to himself.

It doesn’t start well when he materialises in the middle of Cambridge, stark naked and without a firm grasp on the English language (so not unlike Arnie at the beginning of The Terminator then). He winds up sectioned for his own protection and the whole “episode” is written off as a breakdown. Freed into the care of his family, Martin sets about his task. But, of course, it’s not as easy as all that. Along the way, he realises that the Martin family are massively dysfunctional and is overcome with a desire to help them. He starts to care about his wayward teenage son and his unhappy wife (all the while conversing with the family dog) and begins to feel emotions. The alien Andrew Martin takes a slow journey from pitying and hating the human race, baffled by our everyday existences, to discovering that those existences can be pretty wonderful things.

Matt Haig has spoken openly about his struggles with depression and anxiety and so it’s no surprise to read in the afterword that he conceived the idea for this book when he was in the grips of anxiety so bad that the thought of going to the shops would induce a panic attack. Anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, not understood themselves or the people around them, but always been able to find the joy in a piece of music, poetry or a good book (which is pretty much all of us), will see themselves in this wonderful story. Anyone who reads the toy castle analogy of what it’s like to live will not forget it in a hurry, and the three page chapter titled “How To Be A Human” contains enough beautifully constructed wisdom to make you ache.

It seems odd that a book like this should be labelled important, but it is. If you think I’m being ever more hyperbolic, I refer you to this review.  It’s easy to take a potshot at its predictability that alien Andrew does a better job at being a human than his flesh and blood counterpart, but I don’t think anyone would get past the first thirty pages without realising exactly where it’s headed. If ever there was a case of “it isn’t where you go, it’s how you get there”, it would be this one. For an ending to be so clear cut from so early on but to still cause a lump in my throat is no mean feat. Anyway, I’ve banged on for long enough now, so do yourselves a favour. Buy this book. Read it. And then read it again.

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Cannonball Read 6, Book 33: The Gunslinger by Stephen King

884572After ploughing through the biggest of the big books with The Quincunx, I was, as I saw someone put it on Twitter after back to back reading The Luminaries and The Goldfinch, “yearning for a pamphlet”. And what better palate cleanser, I thought, than the opening volume of Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower series? It’s a trifling 210 pages and it’s the opening gambit to a series of books that increase in page count as they do in scope. Bound to be a winner, right? Well, as it turns out, no.

As it turns out, I really didn’t enjoy this at all. I didn’t get any real sense of anything, time, character, place, nothing. I didn’t really care who anyone was, where they were going or why. Roland, our titular gunslinger, is an enigma, as is the Man in Black he is relentlessly pursuing. There are some peripheral characters swirling around too, but they’re even less filled in and hard to care about. Especially as one of them already seems to be dead. Or something.

Another aspect that kept yanking me out of the story is that the quality of writing is noticeably lower than that of his later output. King, like all novelists, grew more accomplished with each book he wrote and while I have banged on at length about how wonky his output got after he had his near death experience, there’s no denying for me that he started out good and became really truly great. The Gunslinger was started in 1978 and published in 1982 and, well, it shows. The language is repetitive, it’s littered with adverbs, the structure is confused and incoherent, it essentially drove me a little bit crazy trying to read it.

I got through it though, but I really was not that fussed. However, everyone else I know who has tackled the Dark Tower series assures me that this is merely the undercooked appetiser which belies the delicious banquet to follow. So I won’t give up and still plan to carry on reading them, not least because every volume of them is sitting on bookshelves in my flat. I’m also advised by a fellow King aficionado that re-reading ‘Salem’s Lot before carrying on with them would also be a worthwhile detour. So since that’s also on shelves here, I will be doing that too, I imagine.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 32: The Quincunx by Charles Palliser

222627Well, I said 2014 would be a year of Big Books and you really don’t get much bigger than this. Last year, when I bought my copy of The Luminariesa colleague said to me “you know, if you really want to read a proper faux Victorian novel, you should check out The Quincunx”. As I pondered whether something could be proper and faux at the same time, I wandered into my nearest bookshop and picked up a copy. It is a HUGE book in every sense of the word. It’s a trade cloth sized paperback, and it weighs in at 1191 pages of fairly small type. The story is both sprawling and intimate (focussing on the possible inheritance of one person, but said inheritance is tied into decades of family history and encompasses five different families). As reviews stated at the time, Palliser pretty much out-Dickens Dickens.

Quincunx is not, as you might expect, a Chaucerian bit of slang for vagina, but the five point design you see on the face of dice. And fives are what this novel is all about. It’s divided into five sections, each section into five books and each book into five chapters. We have a first person narrator, John Mellamphy, and we have an omniscient narrator who pops up at the beginning of each section to drip feed us information. Master Mellamphy begins to believe that he is actually John Huffam and the rightful heir to the Huffam estate. His mother possesses a codicil to a will that would prove as much, but there are other families who would stop at nothing to ensure the codicil never sees the light of day.

As John sets out to discover the truth about his heritage, his journey takes him far and wide throughout England and encounters pretty much every level of society. For quite a while, his mother is with him and her naïveté might just drive you out of your mind. She’s so staggeringly that you feel for John when he yells at her for being so trusting of complete strangers and the like. When John leaves her behind, the story really does kick up a gear. Misery upon misery is piled upon our possible Huffam until you can’t quite believe he isn’t crushed by the sheer weight of them.

Just when you think that you can’t take anymore gloriously detailed glumness, the events of the novel become so intense and exciting that if you’ve been enjoying it up to that point, then strap in, because you won’t be putting the novel down until you get to the end. Honestly, the last 300 pages will have your pulse racing and I pretty much couldn’t read it fast enough. The ending deviates from the traditional norm Palliser is emulating, in that it is most definitely ambiguous. I can’t decide whether to be annoyed by this or not. I really wanted a definitive happy ending for John Huffam as he really suffers for his art over the course of 1150 pages and at least a decade (Palliser never gives you his age or a true idea of the span of the novel). But we don’t get a definitive unhappy ending either. There are definitely more elements of misery than joy in the final chapters, but there’s enough of a glimmer that I want to believe it wasn’t all for nought. Whatever the conclusion I draw, I can say this for sure. Reading this book was most definitely NOT for nought. An absolutely staggering piece of fiction. For those of you who love classic novels and bemoan the fact they don’t make them like they used to, well, THEY DO.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 31: The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes

21252457A debut novel and one picked as an Amazon Rising Star this year, Haynes has written something that I feel can’t help but draw comparisons to The Secret History. Our narrator, Alex Morris, has lost her fiancé in horrific circumstances and to help recover, leaves her London life behind, moves to Edinburgh and takes a job at a Pupil Referral Unit, a unit run by one of her best friends from her University days. One particular class of five awkward, wayward, unpleasant and yes violent teens gets under her skin. They’re known as a problem class and they intimidate every other teacher in the unit. Alex is determined to reach out to them and to help them so uses dramatherapy techniques with Greek Tragedies to try and turn them into normal functioning adults. That this Does Not Go Well is only a surprise, I expect, to Alex. A new tragedy is unfolding in front of her, but she is still too shell shocked by the events in London to see it.

Awkward teenagers. Greek Tragedies. Fucked up situations. You can see why the comparisons to Donna Tartt’s debut would be made, no? But this is a much more straightforward affair. It’s very well written, Haynes clearly knows her Greek drama (an afterword about this will really leave you in no doubt) and she has a way with characters too. Alex is deeply flawed, which makes fully sympathising with her situation very difficult. Which is a great element to the book. If she had been painted as a holier than thou do-gooder, you wouldn’t believe in or care about her. Alex makes bad decisions for good reasons and is a bit of a mess, which makes her eminently relatable. And there is a running joke over how perfect her solicitor is that made me laugh more than once.

Not all of the five teens which make up the core group Alex teaches come off quite so well. It took a while before I could differentiate between two of the three girls and remember their names. Also, Haynes plays very coy with revealing exactly what has happened, even though it’s told in flashback. Which is fine, except it’s obvious what’s happened from about halfway through due to use of diary excerpts throughout the book, so the coyness is unnecessary and becomes slightly irksome. That doesn’t mean that watching it all play out is boring, far from it. It still manages to be a page turner, even when you know what’s coming, and that’s no mean feat, really.

Ultimately, this is definitely worth a read and Natalie Haynes is an author to watch.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 30: The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley

17834904Flavia de Luce, we meet again. I’ve been nuts about the magnificently precocious 12 year old amateur sleuth ever since the opening pages of the first book, when she looked at the cook employed by her father at their huge country house and thought “will no-one rid us of this turbulent pastry chef?” She is an absolute delight of a character, though the series has shown signs of stalling, as Flavia continues to be the same age and remain in the same location, edging ever closer to Midsomer Murders territory.

So it’s a huge relief that this, the sixth instalment of the series, ups the game considerably. The cliffhanger ending of the previous novel was that Flavia’s mother Harriet had been found and was returning to Bishop’s Lacey. We start this book with the not altogether unsurprising development (since she has been missing for over ten years) that Harriet’s corpse is what has been found and her body is being returned to the village for burial. De Luces crawl out of the woodwork like never before, a mystery man goes under the train carrying Harriet’s body, Flavia becomes convinced she can resurrect the dead and somewhere, Winston Churchill pops up to ask about pheasant sandwiches. No, I haven’t had a stroke. See, Flavia’s mother was a government spy and Flavia begins to find out that the de Luce name is very heavily involved with protecting the realm and so it’s no wonder Harriet was killed. But who killed her? And who killed the man under the train? And why is there so much focus on pheasant sandwiches?

All will, of course, become clear, but not before Flavia meets her match in her equally precocious and multilingual cousin Undine and her frosty mother Lena. Bradley is back on form and some of the scenes between Undine and Flavia are properly laugh out loud funny with gems like “in ordinary circumstances, I would have responded to such a command by sending up a reply that would given Undine’s mother a perm that would be truly everlasting, but I restrained myself”. But the real joy in this book is that Bradley has aimed so much bigger with the murder mystery. Unmasking the perpetrator poses more questions than it answers and the end of this book sees Flavia parted not just from Buckshaw and Bishop’s Lacey, but from the UK entirely.

This epic widening of the canvas is something the series has been crying out for and here it is at last. I’ve dinged the last couple of books for being so safe in that regard and so I have nothing but praise now that all bets are off. Flavia will return next year in the 7th book, As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust, and I say brava.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 29: In The House Upon The Dirt Between The Lake and The Woods by Matt Bell

16041846Ah this book. Last year, it was everywhere I turned. It was on list after list after list of recommendations, of mid year and year end round ups. It was hotly anticipated and has been highly lauded. So even though it wasn’t really something I would normally go after, I thought I would see what all the fuss was about. And as unwieldy as it is, I do really like the title. It’s not yet published in the UK, so I imported it via a friend visiting from the USA. It tells the story of a married couple who move to the titular house to start a family. But this is a fairy tale world, where the wife can sing things into existence and the husband can commune with the wildlife and as every pregnancy fails, events become ever darker and more sinister.

Things do get off to a promising start. Our narrator, the husband (Bell doesn’t give them anything as straightforward as names), takes one of the failed foetuses into himself, calls it a fingerling, and begins to listen as it talks to him. It’s super creepy and kind of brilliant and the rage that consumes him as they watch his wife take ever more desperate measures to pretend her last pregnancy has not failed is quite chilling. But things begin to go downhill fast. Bell is making his debut as a novelist, and the idea isn’t enough to be spun out to a full length novel at just over 300 pages. It’s a short story, stretched far beyond its scope for narrative and Bell’s use of language. What starts out as equal parts florid, lyrical and spiky soon becomes tiresome, repetitive and dull. I really wanted to like it. And for about 50 pages, I did enjoy it.

Problem is, I then had another 250 pages to wade through, with nameless characters I’m not overly invested in. The wife is barely there, and once you get past the lengths she’s gone to for a child, there’s not really anything more there to hold on to. Instead we have seemingly endless pages of the husband fishing in the lake and trapping animals in the dirt.  And I hope you like the words “house”, “dirt”, “lake” and “woods”, because you will read them approximately eleventy billion times before you get to the end of this not really that long but still far too long book.

Ultimately, if you read this sentence: “The squid was a hunter and a trapper too, and I was the squid and the squid was me, and we shot through the ink toward the bear, searching for that thin breadth of bone-spaced chance, and as we jetted through that horror I heard the fingerling’s voice call out to me, call out in many voices for me to save him, to take him back in, begging as only a child can beg” and you think “holy fuck that’s amazing” then this is the book for you and I hope you enjoy it much more than I did. If you rolled your eyes and thought “oh for heavens sakes” then don’t even pick it up. I prefer books with characters and a narrative, something I can get interested in and care about. If I am left in awe of the wordsmithery along the way, bonus. If I’m not gripped and I call think is “STOP SAYING THE WORDS ‘HOUSE’ AND ‘LAKE'” then nobody is having any fun. Ah well!