Cannonball Read 6, Book 52: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

16068905Last year, my Cannonball book was a crashing disappointment. A one star disaster that I HATED. I didn’t want to repeat the same problem this year. I wanted book 52 to be a treat, a rave review, a delight. A book I tore through in a day because I couldn’t put it down. After loving Eleanor & Park so hard, I bought Fangirl so this was the obvious logical choice to take centre stage as book 52 this year. An obvious shoo in for a gushing and effusive review. Alas, it’s not to be. While it’s miles better than last year’s crap out, Fangirl still really disappointed me.

Again, I know I’m not the demographic Rowell is shooting for, but I also know I don’t believe in limiting my book consumption based on something as arbitrary as that. So we have twins Cath and Wren (their mother didn’t want one child, let alone two, so when she had twins, she took the one name, Catherine, and split it in half. Already, I’m like “oh fuck off”), who have been abandoned by their mother and raised by their bipolar father. They both love Simon Snow (a painfully obvious stand in for Harry Potter) and Cath writes Simon Snow fan fiction. They’re about to go to college, the same college. Wren decides not to share a dorm with Cath because it’s time to put away the childish things but Cath won’t let go of her Simon Snow obsession, her fan fiction and her huge online following. Cue much angsty hand wringing as twins separate from each other.

I would possibly have cared more about Cath’s awkward social behaviour or Wren’s journey off the rails by way of too much drinking if either of them were likeable. But Wren is a shallow little mean bitch, so we’re supposed to side with Cath. Poor sweet awkward Simon Snow loving Cath. Problem there is Cath is a TOTAL FUCKING DRIP. She’s so wet and lame and boring and OH MY GOD you just want to smack her in the face. When her roommate’s ex-boyfriend falls for her, Cath is so intensely, well, Cath about it that I was rooting for Levi (for it is he) to give up on her and go find someone who doesn’t hyperventilate when you mention touching her boobies. Levi is the sole decent character. He’s ace, and Rowell clearly has a hard on for him, and so she should. He’s the only reason, pretty much, that I slogged on to the end.

The biggest problem with the book though is Simon Snow. Each chapter is prefaced with an excerpt from either one of the official Snow books, or Cath’s fan fiction. After reading one or two of them, I found them so eye gougingly awful that I skipped them. I love Harry Potter books so much, that for someone to try and emulate them, and to then have fan fiction of that emulation, it’s like trying to read a photocopy of a photocopy. We are treated to whole chapters of Cath’s fan fiction later in the book, which I simply couldn’t bear to read. She has Simon Snow and the bad vampire boy go gay for each other and the thought of someone as messed up as Cath trying to portray that, I just couldn’t bear to find out how awful it was. And then, as if I didn’t already want to smack her enough, when Levi asks her to read him some more when he’s at his fraternity, Cath replies something like “I don’t think I can read this to you with actual gay people in the house”. Oh wow just FUCK OFF.

It’s saved, just about, by a nice last chapter and some actual non-fan fiction from Cath (who spent the whole book being told what a great writer she is and whining about how she didn’t want to write anything other than Simon Snow. Fuck off.). But all in all, after the dizzy and gorgeous heights of Eleanor & Park, this was a disappointment, to say the least.

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Cannonball Read 6, Book 51: The Vacationers by Emma Straub

18641982I thoroughly enjoyed Straub’s debut novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, and feel we should gloss over the embarrassingly long time it took me to clock that she is daughter of Peter Straub. So when The Vacationers came along and seemed to be setting itself up to be everything Seating Arrangements should have been but wasn’t, I was sold. The blurb tells you it’s “an irresistible, deftly observed novel about the secrets, joys, and jealousies that rise to the surface over the course of an American family’s two-week stay in Mallorca” and for once, it doesn’t oversell things.

The Post’s are the family in question. Franny and Jim are marking their 35th wedding anniversary by taking their extended family to a sprawling Mallorcan villa. I say marking rather than celebrating because Jim has just been fired from the magazine where he’s worked forever, for screwing the very young intern. Their youngest daughter, Sylvia, just graduated high school and is headed to college, but she’s eager to arrive there unburdened by her virginity, so it’s lucky her fussy mother has arranged a tutor to give her Spanish lessons, and said tutor is young and HOT. Her older brother Bobby, who fled to Florida from his New York upbringing, is there with his much older personal trainer girlfriend Carmen. Bobby has issues which will naturally come to the fore as well. Then we have Frannie’s best friend Charles and his husband Lawrence, along for the ride even though they’re in the midst of trying to adopt a baby.

With this many characters driving the story, with that much baggage, Straub doesn’t really need a plot. Each chapter covers one day of the holiday as tensions rise and fall, secrets are uncovered, tennis legends are harassed, children are embarrassed and so on. The writing is pin sharp, the characterisation flawless. When Frannie thinks of her future unfolding, she notes that “she was six years away from a senior discount at the movies. Six years of looking at Jim in the kitchen and wanting to plunge an ice pick in between his eyes”. And Straub sure has a way with words, when Jim grossly reminisces about sex with the intern which caused his downfall we get “he’d been surprised the first time he’d reached his hand inside her skirt and felt her pussy, waxed and cool, as smooth as a hotel pillowcase”. I’m not ashamed to say I laughed out loud at that particular simile.

If you want a book that has a big plot and a lot of forward motion with a neat ending, this is not the book for you. If you want to read a character driven novel with some richly drawn people being delightfully awful to themselves and others, this is the book for you. Unlike others of its kind, Straub manages to balance making them unlikeable without making you hate them. The Posts and their friends delighted, disgusted and fascinated me, but they never bored or offended me. Good stuff.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 50: Just What Kind Of Mother Are You? by Paula Daly

18104711I love a good thriller. Anyone who’s been reading my reviews since I started Cannonballing will have noticed that I’m a bit partial to a Sophie Hannah here, a Val McDermid there. So this much talked about debut from Paula Daly, with its intriguing tagline of “Your friend’s child is missing. It’s your fault” seemed right up my street. So it’s a shame it ended up leaving me flat.

Our put upon heroine is Lisa Kallisto. Living in the quiet Lake District, she’s a working mother of three kids, so she’s a bit pushed busywise, is Lisa. Her best friend is posh Kate, who’s married to well to do Guy. Their children are besties with Lisa’s children. When Lisa takes her eye off the ball over a planned sleepover at her house with her teenage daughter Sally and Kate’s daughter Lucinda, then Lucinda vanishes, leaving Lisa held responsible, wracked with guilt and determined to get to the bottom of what’s happened. Lucinda isn’t the first girl in the area to go missing though, and when the first girl turns up stripped naked and shellshocked by her ordeal, Lisa goes into a desperate tailspin as she races against the clock to find Lucinda.

See how that should be quite gripping? But Daly is so hellbent on trying to show us how Lisa’s life is beset with domestic normality and working class drudgery, that whole swathes of the book are devoted to banging on about her busy life and are not that interesting. Once we get into the investigation, alternate chapters go to DC Joanna Aspinall, told in the 3rd  person and again, tons of time given over to her awkward living arrangements and her pursuit of a breast reduction. It makes for fully rounded characters, yes. It also makes for some dull reading in what is supposed to be a thriller.

I would forgive that amount of extraneous faffery if the story being told was a cracking one, but this ended up falling short. All the clues as to what’s happened to Lucinda are uncovered by chance and coincidence. The mystery behind the other girls who are disappearing and then showing back up naked and abused is resolved by a tip off from the public. And when the full unpleasant truth as to where Lucinda went and why is unravelled, it’s both so lame and far-fetched as to cause much rolling of eyes and comments of “bitch, please” from the reader. Disappointing. But enough glimmers of talent shone through that I’d be willing to give her next book a try. Let’s see how it goes.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 49: Dare Me by Megan Abbott

14062212I have mentioned before how I’ll happily read books where I am FULLY aware I am really not said book’s target market. It’s been a while since I wandered so far outside of my demographic as I have here with this story of cheerleaders, rivalry and Generally Bad Goings-On. But Abbott has garnered acclaim for her YA as well her non-YA novels, a few of which I’m also interested in reading. And who among us watched Bring It On and thought “yeah, I bet it’s not really this nice”? Well, this book is for all of us.

It’s a tale as old as time. A Queen Bee is loved and feared in equal measure until a better Queen comes along and takes her throne. The deposed queen becomes obsessed with exposing the new queen as a fake and a phoney and having the scales fall from everyone’s eyes. It never normally ends well. Here, the Queen Bee is head cheerleader Beth Cassidy and in a nice take, the threat comes not from a new girl who can flic-flac her into next week, but from the new cheer coach, who has no time for the way Beth runs her squad. And in an even nicer twist, Beth isn’t just driven into a jealous rage, but is a full blown insane psychopath who will stop at nothing to end the coach’s reign. And when the coach hands her the way to upend her life on a silver platter, shit gets real ugly real fast.

Narrated by Beth’s best friend, Addy Hanlon, there’s no denying that Abbott knows how teenage girls operate. It all feels brilliantly and unpleasantly authentic. One of the many reasons I can’t bear the movie Juno is it all feels like a guess, Diablo Cody thinks it’s how teenage girls talk to each other. I didn’t believe a single word anyone said in that film. I believed every word of this book though. It’s smart, it’s incisive and it’s gripping. Seriously. I know I’m talking about a cheerleading book, I haven’t lost my mind.

Things go from bitchily amusing to ever darker when the Coach is caught red-handed having an affair. If you have any plans to read this book, I’m about to get all spoilerific, so look away now. Coach has an affair with Will, a hot military recruiter and when he turns up dead, and it turns out not to be the suicide initially posited, the noose curls ever more tightly around Coach French’s neck and we all breathlessly await Crazy Beth to storm in and kick her chair away. For me, the end could have gone about four different ways and the direction Abbott eventually pulls you in was one I didn’t see coming until it was almost upon me. That’s how good she is. It’s how good this book is. If you’ve ever wanted to be a cheerleader, been bullied by a mean girl, idolised your best friend, been a cheerleader, been mean, idly plotted your frenemy’s downfall, you’ll find something to relate to in this deliciously nasty little gem.