Cannonball Read 7, Book 4: In the Morning, I’ll Be Gone by Adrian McKinty

17187220I may have mentioned before that McKinty was something of a wild card discovery. I read the first in the Sean Duffy series, The Cold Cold Ground, purely as there was a gay element to it (shallow, moi?) and very much enjoyed it. So here we are at the third entry into the series, which sees McKinty essentially using the framework of the IRA bombing of the Brighton Tory Party Conference in 1984 to write about something that he is clearly more fascinated with: a locked room mystery.

Dermott McCann has escaped from the Maze prison. Duffy was friends with him in school, so is brought back from his disgraced exile he gets himself into in the opening pages to track him down. He hits brick wall after brick wall until McCann’s former mother-in-law contacts him and offers him a trade. Her youngest daughter, Lizzie, died a few years back and the death was ruled accidental. Mary Fitzgerald is convinced otherwise and tells Duffy that she knows where McCann is and if he can prove Lizzie was murdered and hand over the killer, she’ll reveal McCann’s location to him.

And so here we are at the real meat of the story, the locked room. Lizzie died in a pub locked from the inside and nobody else was there. Duffy takes his time to be convinced that Mary has any basis for her theory other than grief, but keeps plugging away as it’s his only lead to find McCann. That Lizzie was indeed murdered is not a spoiler (it would be a massive cheaty load of nonsense if she really DID die in an accident) and McKinty’s freewheeling storytelling style draws you in to the mystery very well. The machinations of living in 80’s Ireland are also fascinating, but some of them are mentioned far too often. I got to the point where I REALLY didn’t need to be told Duffy was checking under his car for bombs.

The end section, dealing with the tracking down of McCann and the realisation of where the bomb has been placed makes for some very gripping and occasionally unpleasant reading too. And while the epilogue may overegg the pudding a touch, it’s still good to know that plans to make this a trilogy were abandoned and a forth Duffy instalment was published earlier this year.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 46: The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

18925235Now, as the blog title tells you, I really do read a lot. But it’s an odd gap in my book life that I haven’t read very many Agatha Christie novels. Those I have read, I read when I was in my teens and don’t really remember them anyway. So I decided to address this and read all the Poirot and Marple books, as well as her most famous stand alone novels like And Then There Were None. So what better place to start than at the beginning of the Poirots, with his introduction in The Mysterious Affair at Styles?

Well, like all beginnings of a series, it’s a slight little thing. Narrated by Captain Hastings, who has encountered Poirot in a professional capacity prior to the start of the novel. He’s staying at Styles and one night, the lady of the house, Emily Inglethorpe, is fatally poisoned. Handily enough, Poirot is staying in the village and knows the Inglethorpes well. Hastings asks him to investigate and naturally he agrees.

This is a book which can be enjoyed on many levels. There are many occasions where you can snigger behind your hand at the unintentional double entendre (people “ejaculate in surprise” more than once, for example). You can read it as an unrequited love story between Hastings and Poirot to rival that of Smithers and Mr Burns. You can read it as the first instalment of a sociopathic Belgian who goes around killing people and then getting away with it by framing someone else and blinding everyone else with the science of his “little grey cells”. Or you can read it as a straightforward mystery. Sadly, it’s that last one which is probably the least satisfying.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s by no means terrible. But it’s just a little but silly, protracted and then when the killer is finally revealed, oddly unsatisfactory. It’s not difficult to work out where it’s going, despite the amount of red herrings Christie litters about the place. I am not discouraged from carrying on with the series, not by a long stretch, as I am sure there are many delights in store. But as introductions go, this is a very inauspicious one.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 73: May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

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I have been delaying the writing of this review, simply because I don’t really know what to say about the book. It’s been hugely praised, it’s won a lot of awards (notably beating Hilary Mantel to the Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier this year) and it’s this tubthumping that brought the novel to my attention. Lord knows I love a big American novel, but the hushed tones referring to this as a Great American Novel? Having completed the book, I don’t quite buy that.

Harold Silver has a perfectly ordinary life. His brother is a successful TV producer with a wife and two kids. One Thanksgiving, a tiny little moment has a Butterfly Effect and not long after, Harold finds himself divorced and guardian to his niece and nephew. Harold is a Nixon scholar, and on top of everything else, finds himself relieved of his position as lecturer and free to concentrate on the book he’s been writing for years on end.

And so Harold begins to rebuild his life, even as it spins ever further out of control. And here’s my problem. I didn’t believe a single word of it. I saw the points Homes was making, but I didn’t buy them. I bought the characters, thought they were all well rounded and Harold was always fascinating, making for an unreliable but never dull narrator. But pretty much every big event that happens after Harold’s life has been upended caused me to roll my eyes and say “really?”

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, I did. And that’s why I have been so reticent to write my review. This is undeniably a good book, I just didn’t think it was a GREAT book. And it certainly outstays its welcome. I read an interview with Homes where she said that this book “just kept going” and she was interested to see where she could take it. This explains a lot. An experience I enjoyed, but one I am most definitely not keen to repeat.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 72: Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May

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This is the kind of book I normally avoid like the plague. It sounds all too similar to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, another book I have avoided like the plague, not least because everyone I know who read it wanted to punch Dave Eggers in his smug face. But something made me want to read this. Given my current parental circumstances, I seem to be drawn to novels (apart from Eggers) which focus on the loss of a parent (I’m currently reading May We Be Forgiven, so, you know, yeah).

Billy Smith is nineteen, his younger brother Oscar is just six. Their mother is dead. Billy’s father has never been a strong presence in his life, sending texts like “sorry to hear that m8” as consolation.  Oscar’s father is similarly hopeless, shagging their aunt and belatedly making an effort with Oscar to try and claim custody. Billy reacts how any nineteen year old whose mother is killed in a botched robbery would: he falls apart. But thinks he’s holding it together.

The book is narrated by Billy in the first person and May does an excellent job of getting inside his head and using his voice. It makes for a brilliantly frustrating reading experience. Oscar is an amazing resilient kid who loves and idolises his big brother. Reading sections where Billy tells us all how much he loves Oscar and would do anything before him, before systematically fucking everything up, like any grief stricken nineteen year old would, has you both rooting for and yelling at him.

Peppered throughout is a history of the young drug addict who killed his mum, along with several more ridiculous, more senseless, more pointless deaths gleaned from the pages of one of Billy’s obsession, chav mags (Chat, Pick Me Up, Love It, and the like). The title is how Billy refers to them, since if you boil down the front cover headlines, that’s what they’re advertising.

As the book hurtles toward a conclusion, Billy sinks lower and lower into his anger and grief, even to the point where you begin to question his sanity. Mercifully, the final few pages start to pull us out of the nose dive and allows some hope to start shining in. The final lines of the book are so gloriously, perfectly uplifting, they make it ALL worth it. Highly recommended.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 29: Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

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“Agent Starling, you think you can dissect me with this blunt little tool?”

You may wonder why I’m quoting Hannibal Lecter to open a review of a book which is narrated by a 14 year old girl grieving the death of the gay uncle she was in love with, but I’ll get to that. Set in 1987, June Elbus’s beloved gay artist uncle Finn is dying of AIDS and painting one last portrait of his nieces. In the aftermath of his death, June discovers a boyfriend of Finn’s she never knew existed. At Finn’s posthumous request, she reaches out to the boyfriend, thus uncovering a whole raft of family secrets.

I really wanted to love this book. But, to quote a friend on Goodreads, I found myself mostly just getting through it. The problems with it are fundamental. Firstly, nothing much happens in the book at all. Whole and seemingly endless chapters are spent on June’s sister appearing in a performance of South Pacific at their school, for example. Secondly, June and indeed all the characters in this book are on a sliding scale of stupid and annoying. Every time one of them does something, it made me want to roll my eyes.

Neither of those would be an issue if it weren’t for the third problem of the book. Here is where the Lecter quote comes in because my GOD. The writing is so straightforward, unimaginative, repetitive and dull that it sucks what little life there is right out of the pages. It could have been called Tell The Wolves I Went Places and Did Stuff. It also means I didn’t believe a single character, one thing they did or a single word any of them said. This could have been brilliant. Instead it’s below average and my two star rating is frankly a generous one.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 26 – Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

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Dear Ms Collins,

I wonder, did you ever watch the first series of the Joss Whedon show, Dollhouse? Did you notice how it started off really slow, then it got crazy awesome until the season finale suddenly dumped the cast into a post apocalyptic war zone on the flimsiest of pretexts and was incoherent, nonsensical and uninteresting? So bad, in fact, that it killed any desire to watch another episode ever again? Well, that’s kind of how I feel about your trilogy here.

In the final book, Katniss Everdeen has become the face of the revolution. She is Panem’s Mockingjay, the figurehead of hope that the Capitol can fall. Her own district has been bombed out of existence. She and a bazillion other refugees are hiding out in an underground district that was previously thought to have been wiped out. And they’re going to fight, goddamnit. Well, mostly Katniss is going to whine. And behave like a spoilt and irresponsible tool. Oh, and at no point will she be even slightly inspiring, not to anyone IN the book, let alone to anyone reading it.

The final assault on the Capitol is clumsily and incoherently told, its aftermath utterly ludicrous. I know it’s not real, but when you lose your internal logic, so you lose your reader. Well, this reader anyway. Peeta’s arc is so inconsistent as to be essentially unfathomable, Katniss acts so put upon the whole time, it’s a miracle she has ANY friends at all, Gale doesn’t really seem to ever serve much of a purpose. It all feels so half hearted, drawn out and unsure of itself. There’s some brave decisions made about who lives, who dies and who is ultimately responsible, but the points kind of get lost under the soppy romance, the whining and the moping.

I wish I’d stopped after the first book. What a shame.

Yours,

Popcultureboy.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 22: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

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A much heralded debut novel that comes with the Oprah Book Club seal of approval, what could possibly go wrong? A portrait of the titular Hattie, told through the eyes of her 11 children and 1 grandchild, with each chapter focusing on a different member of the tribe, this sounds like a breeze. And that was my problem. It was a little too breezy. A little too glossed over and surface-y. I wanted it to go a little deeper.

It’s a nice idea, to devote one chapter to an individual member of the tribe (or in two cases, to two members of the tribe with a shared story), but there’s some problems that come with that. Firstly, once the chapter is over, the tribe members are pretty much out of the story altogether, which makes it difficult to care about them. Secondly, it’s not strictly adhered to, with one chapter in particular dealing more with events going on around them, than with the tribe member themselves.

The other main problem I had with the book, is the portrait of Hattie it paints is of a thoroughly unpleasant woman. I know that someone in her circumstances is hardly going to be all sunshine and lollipops, but I found her endless barrage of mean to be a little wearying.

But this is making me sound  like a Debbie Downer who hated the book. I didn’t. I really very much enjoyed the book, there’s some strong and beautiful writing here. All the characters, whether they are pleasant or not, are all richly and deeply drawn. That’s no mean feat, given the constraints Mathis put on herself to sketch them in. A striking and very promising debut, which only loses the 4th star for its lack of depth.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 13: The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

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Four years ago, Emma Donoghue was very much under the radar. But then she published Room and that all changed. As everyone knows, that staggeringly great book was inspired by the Josef Fritzl case and was narrated by a five year old boy who had only ever known the titular Room. It was something of a departure for Donoghue who usually writes historical fiction that is based on real events and has a distinct lesbian slant. This book was written before Room but published in the UK afterwards and is in her more usual vein. 

Based on a divorce case that scandalised Victorian England, The Sealed Letter is a fascinating read. Harry & Helen Codrington are very unhappily married, Helen fosters a friendship with Emily “Fido” Faithfull. Harry is an Admiral and posted to Malta, Helen and their two children go with him and for seven years, Fido and Helen lose touch. A chance meeting when the Codringtons return to London sees Fido drawn inexorably into Helen’s clandestine affair with Captain David Anderson.

Not only does this novel grip with its laying bare how horrifying it was to undergo divorce proceedings in 1865, but the personal story of Helen and Fido is absolutely riveting. Sympathies and allegiances for the strident spinster and her adulterous best friend shift from chapter to chapter. The sealed letter of the title is a ruse, one used to force Fido to testify in her friend’s divorce proceedings. Donoghue has taken the known facts of this scandal and with considerable skill, woven a beautiful work of fiction around it. One that, in its last lines, makes you look back over all you’ve read and re-calibrate your opinions one final time. And I say brava.

Donoghue notes on her website that this is the final installment in an unofficial trilogy that examines the British Class System and is her first 19th century novel. So many books that attempt this kind of story end up being dry as dust, but Donoghue’s meticulous research coupled with a very relatable style of writing means this is anything but.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 7: The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life by William Nicholson

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What a dreary bore. Here’s the thing about everyday life. It’s not that intense. I have no problem with books that deal with ordinary people, nor do I have an issue with books where nothing much happens (one of my all time favourites is The Crimson Petal & The White where barely anything happens for 800 pages). Provided the writing is enchanting enough, that is. The writing here is as tediously straightforward as the setting, the characters and their supposedly intense lives. 

Set in a Sussex village over a 6 day period in May 2000, the book relates the lives of villagers as they interconnect with one another. Not a single one of them is remotely interesting, and the level of detail borders on the excruciating. Pages and pages and pages are devoted to one man phoning a sex chat line to get off, people watching and discussing an episode of Friends, someone buying a dress for the opening of the Glyndebourne Opera season. Dull in the extreme. Self important bores being self indulgently boring, I hated all of them. 

I read books to escape. If you’re going to ground a book in the mundane everyday world we all inhabit, you have to make it really dazzling and you have to make the reader care about  the characters. This overwritten, under-plotted, plodding bore is a massive failure on all levels for me and I couldn’t wait for it to be over. I won’t be reading any more of Nicholson’s work, thank you very much

Cannonball Read 5, Book 5: Ed King by David Guterson

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A modern retelling of a classic tale is generally enough to pique my interest and make me want to read the book. There have been some notable Shakespearean retreads in the form of A Thousand Acres, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and Serena. I was eager to read all three of those, and disappointed by them too (the latter two went unfinished). So when this little treat popped up as a Kindle deal of the day, loudly trumpeting itself as a modern American retelling of Oedipus Rex, I bought it before even noticing who the author was. 

And the author is the reason this book has gone ignored for almost a year. I HATED Snow Falling on Cedars. I found it to be a tedious boring cheat of a book. I braced myself for more of the same here and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

Guterson takes only the barest bones of the Oedipus story (abandoned baby grows up to kill his father and marry his own mother) as the basis for the novel. Ed’s mother is a British au pair, knocked up at the age of 15 by the philandering husband of her employer, she agrees to have the baby adopted, until she realises she can pretend to keep it and blackmail the father into monthly payments for the baby’s upkeep. She abandons Ed at an orphanage and so begins the inexorable march towards all their dooms. 

In my first CBR review, I noted that sometimes, it isn’t where you go, it’s how you get there. Since everyone knows the final destination of Ed (and in case anyone doesn’t, his demise is revealed in the opening chapter), Guterson has a lot of fun fleshing out the lives of Ed, his birth and adoptive parents, and everyone who swirls in and out of the saga, which ends up spanning just over half a century.  Much time is devoted to Ed’s upbringing and meteoric rise to success as the inventor of a pseudo Google. It’s alternated with his birth mother Diane’s ever so colourful life. They don’t reconnect until three quarters of the way through the book.

And so the reader might feel a little short changed that it’s at this point Guterson chooses to press the fast forward button. Acknowledging directly to the reader that it’s all a bit icky, their relationship is whipped through at a vast rate of knots, the merry go round only slows down when the Awful Truth begins to make itself known. Despite the fact we’ve all been 300 pages ahead of our hero, the unravelling of his life is still breathtaking to read. It’s a bit of a shame that the final few pages don’t match the gut punching wrench of those that immediately precede it, though. The ending is a bit of a fumble and frustratingly inconclusive, believe it or not. However, I’m going to go with Ed’s verbose and anagram addicted pilot who points out that “our destiny” rearranges to “it’s your end”.