Cannonball Read 7, Book 5: The Point of Rescue by Sophie Hannah

2980614Normally, when I post a review of Hannah’s books on here and tweet the link, I’ll include her twitter handle. She gives good chat on there and also reads the reviews (she commented on something specific in one of mine, so it’s not like she was just all “oh thanks” about it). I won’t be doing it on this one, because holy fucking shit I thought this book was absolutely terrible.

Admittedly, I’ve read the books out of sequence, which doesn’t help matters. I started with book 5 in the series, went back and read books 1 and 2, jumped ahead and read books 7 and 8 and now am back here at book number 3. It’s very clear, given how much more I enjoyed the later books, that Hannah has, improved greatly as a writer. It also doesn’t help that I watched the TV adaptation of this a few years back and the TV writers really smoothed over a hell of a lot of cracks in the book.

The premise is a bloody good one though. Sally Thorne is a mother of two with a high stress job. She uses a cancelled work conference as an excuse to escape for a week from her life. She pretends to her husband it’s not cancelled and has a week in a spa hotel, where she ends up having a shagtastic time with a bloke called Mark Bretherick. The next time she hears that name is when his wife and daughter are found dead at home. Only, the Mark Bretherick on the news is not the man Sally Thorne spent her dirty week with…..

From there, the book goes somewhat off a cliff. Firstly, the characters are mostly ridiculous. I know a few mums, all of whom are juggling work and home life, none of whom seem to find it as impossibly difficult as Sally Thorne does. Her hysterically over the top reactions to pretty much everything to do with her job and her home life become very tiresome very quickly. There are too many police characters and expert witnesses, all of whom are a parade of stereotypes and caricatures. The only ones in any kind of focus are the main pair, Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer. And their relationship is maddening, nonsensical.

The reveal of whodunnit and why is protracted, repetitive, tiresome and wholly unconvincing. Having spent a VERY LONG TIME waffling on about all kinds of boring twaddle, a race to find a missing witness is rushed and fumbled. All in all, this book is an unholy mess and you’re well advised to skip it if you’ve started reading the series. Nothing happens to any recurring characters that is of any import. Life is too short.

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Cannonball Read 6, Book 38: Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

17726082I really enjoyed Setterfield’s debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale. It was a book as much about the love of books as it was the dark tale it was telling, and telling it with an unreliable narrator to boot. It left a lasting impression and when I spotted her follow up, a ghost story no less, on the shelf in Foyles, I had to buy it. I bloody love ghost stories. I love being scared when I’m reading or watching something, it’s the best. I haven’t had a book send shivers down my spine since Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger (there’s one scene in that book so tense and frightening, it nearly caused a panic attack. High praise indeed). So I was properly excited to read this one. And that’s where it all goes wrong.

It doesn’t help that the marketing for the novel has this to say about it: “Bellman & Black is a heart-thumpingly perfect ghost story, beautifully and irresistibly written, its ratcheting tension exquisitely calibrated line by line”. I spent the whole book waiting for there to be anything approaching tension, but I couldn’t find it among the long rambling descriptions of mundane day to day workings of mills and funeral emporiums. So, our hero is William Bellman. At the age of 11, he has the best catapult and is the envy of all his friends. He kills a rook with it one day, which apparently will be important later. He grows up and leads a charmed life, until people around him begin to die. At every funeral William attends, a stranger is present, dressed in black and smiling at him. After losing his wife and all but one of his children to illness, William is almost insane with grief and at his wife’s grave, he encounters the stranger again. This time, they talk and the stranger makes a proposition.

From that proposition, William builds a successful funeral emporium, the titular Bellman & Black. The first half of the novel is focussed so much on William’s work at the family mill, it’s mostly quite dull. The second half focuses on the building of this new venture and is even more dull, because people stop dying. Nothing ratchets up line by line, apart from maybe my impatience for something to actually happen, for Setterfield to pay off Bellman’s obsession with rooks, why people died around him, something, anything. But when it comes, the payoff is a crushing, boring, and very much not scary disappointment.

If you don’t believe the hype, and don’t know this is supposed to be heart thumping, perfect and tense or whatever, then there’s something quite absorbing about the earlier parts of the book. William is a charming rogue of a character, and the happiness he finds with his family being so comprehensively shattered makes for some bleak reading. But nothing can save the second half, where William is cold, closed off and occasionally barking mad, monomaniacally focussed on his business. Such a disappointment.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 11: Unexploded by Alison Macleod

18903281And so we reach the penultimate book in my apparently neverending Booker Prize Longlist challenge of 2013. Apparently, it’s a “much anticipated” new novel, which I’m sure is the case for those of us who have read MacLeod’s previous novels and knew this one was coming out. As it is, I was blissfully unaware of either, but the subject of this novel was very much up my alley, so to speak. Set in 1940, it focuses on a maddeningly middle class family, the Beaumonts. Geoffrey and Evelyn are unhappily married and living in Brighton, which is living with the very real threat of being invaded by Hitler’s army in the early years of the Second World War. Geoffrey has been made superintendent of an “enemy alien” camp at Brighton racetrack, Evelyn wafts around desperately, feeling alienated herself. Their only child, Phillip, is obsessed with the rumours that Hitler will make the Brighton Pavilion his UK HQ and is generally either fascinated by or oblivious to the horrors of the war beginning to encroach on his family. Back at the camp, Evelyn meets Otto Gottlieb, and well, the blurb would have it that “Love collides with fear, the power of art with the forces of war, and the lives of Evelyn, Otto and Geoffrey are changed irrevocably.”

I think the biggest issue I had with this book is that said change takes a bastard long time to appear, and the groundwork of laying out the lives we’re going to see change takes WAY too long and is not at any point even the slightest bit interesting. The awful middle class musings of the Beaumont couple really made me yearn for someone to wander in to the novel and shoot them both dead. It’s pushing the halfway mark before Evelyn and Otto actually meet, and nearly three quarters of this tiresome novel has elapsed before anything happens between them. Which would be fine if a) the jacket copy didn’t make it seem like there was going to be FAR more to it and b) the lead up was interesting.

Macleod also darts about in time and in character POV, which for me made it a very bitty and shallow read. I wanted more of Otto’s history, and infinitely less of Evelyn’s hand wringing. I don’t know if it’s because I saw the driest World War One play just as I started reading this, or whether it’s because I don’t think any WW novel is ever going to top Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, but I just didn’t take to this book one iota. I know it’s WWII and not I, but even so, the comparisons were made. Of course, it could also be that MacLeod has really gilded the lily with her prose. There’s some awful flowery overwritten guff that made me roll my eyes and dislike the Beaumonts even more. And my word does she ever foreground the fact that the Beaumonts have two cyanide pills, just in case. That comes to nothing, but every other page had me yelling “JUST TAKE THEM, WHY DON’T YOU?”

MacLeod does all her characters a huge disservice with the fate she ultimately deals them. I suppose we’re meant to find it heartbreaking and tragic and real. I just found it incredibly annoying and deeply unsatisfying. If the gorgeous cover and good jacked copy make you think about reading this book, I have one thing to say to you: Don’t.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 68: Transatlantic by Colum McCann

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This is probably the least worthwhile review I’ll have written so far. If I hadn’t set myself this possibly ludicrous Booker Prize Longlist challenge, I wouldn’t have bothered reading Transatlantic. People frothed at the mouth so much about his previous novel, Let The Great World Spin, that I couldn’t not read it. And I was so hugely underwhelmed by it, that when this was published to similar frothing, I didn’t care.

But, in for a penny and all that, so when I managed to obtain a copy for next to nothing, I kicked off the Booker challenge, wondering if I’d be won over. I wasn’t, I’m sad to say. There’s something about McCann’s style which disengages me from the action and leaves me cold.

And there’s a lot of action. The book spans many years and miles, starting in 1919 as two aviators try to make the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic. From there it hops forward in time, meditating on identity and history through the generations of a family who are connected to the aviators in the opening chapter. They connect with many more important people over the years (emancipated slaves, senators and the like), refracting their own history through the prism of theirs.

Which is all very admirable and you can’t deny McCann’s vision and scope. But I just didn’t care. I found the characterisation to be alternately twee, shallow, patronising and stereotypical. When almost every line of dialogue makes you roll your eyes, it’s not a good sign. The plot did not engage me so much as irritate me and I was glad when it was all over. An expected disappointment,  but a disappointment nonetheless.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 52: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

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Ugh. I was hoping that the book I hit the first Cannonball with was going to be an awesome epic. I selected this book on that premise. Post apocalyptic and highly regarded, I thought I was on to a winner. So I’m a little bit gutted that I flat out fucking hated this book.

So, a killer flu has offed 99.9% of the population. Still alive are Hig, his dog Jasper and Hig’s nearest neighbour, Bangley, a “gun-toting misanthrope” according to the synopsis. Bitch, please.  Hig flies his 1956 Cessna out as far as he dares, looking for the possibility that some shred of civilisation survived. Hearing a voice on his radio one day, he risks it all to try and connect with a couple of survivors.

The main issue I had with this book is that it’s murderously dull. And the reason I found it so effing boring is all due to Heller’s painfully flat and clipped style he’s adopted for Hig’s first person narrative. Randomly punctuated, oddly repetitive and seemingly too cool for speech marks, the way Heller chose to tell what is actually a good story took this from “promising” to “dear God, shoot me before I have to read another page of it”.

A true disappointment, and one in which I am a fairly lone dissenting voice, I admit. If you love E. Annie Proulx and The Passage, then this is your ideal book. If the former makes you want to set your face on fire and the latter was a crushing disappointment (ie, you’re me), then this really is one to avoid.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 47: Canada by Richard Ford

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“First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.”

As opening lines go, that is a doozy. Completely hooks you in to what you think will be an exciting story. Dell Parsons and his twin sister Berner (really) are shocked to learn their parents Beverly and Neeva (really) have, in financial desperation, robbed a bank. When the law catches up with them, Dell is spirited across the border to Canada, into the care of Arthur Remlinger, who is harbouring secrets of his own.

Sometimes, nothing happens in a book. And when it’s done well, that can still be wonderful to read. The Crimson Petal & The White, for example, is one of my favourites and pretty much nothing happens there for 900 pages. This book is the opposite. The excitement suggested by those opening sentences quickly vanishes. Ford takes what should have been a gripping page turner and smothers it in page after page of painfully turgid, overly lengthy exposition.

Continually telling the reader that something happened before backtracking to spend countless pages leading back up to it is really not exciting either. It’s hard to build any kind of momentum when we have already been told, often times more than once, what the destination will be. I found it impossible to care about anything that happened in this book, or anyone that it happened to. I read this on the strength of how much I loved Independence Day and how much praise it’s been receiving. I won’t be reading another Richard Ford novel. Ever.

 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 45: The Half-life of Hannah by Nick Alexander

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This is a tough review to write, mainly because adequately expressing just how much I absolutely loathed everything about it is unimaginable. Nick Alexander has written nine novels and is something of a Kindle sensation, apparently. After reading this sorry excuse for a book, I really cannot fathom why.

So Hannah is 38 years old and has been married to Cliff for 15 years. On a two week holiday to France, with Cliff and their 11 year old son Luke, everything begins to unravel. Her sister, niece and sister’s gay best friend are along for the holiday too. They are all insufferable upper middle class twats who shorten everyone’s name. The gay best friend says horrendous cliched nonsense like “you know how I am around hetties” and is permanently on heat. Hannah is massively uptight, her sister is an irresponsible moron.

As if the broad stroke characterisation was not bad enough, the plot is the most laugh out loud ridiculous, poorly constructed and executed load of hogwash I have read in a really long time. We are supposed to believe that Cliff could successfully deceive Hannah into believing his brother had died for over ten years, by stealing the mail he sends her. Heaven forfend he should ever phone when Cliff is out. When this lie is uncovered, Hannah’s reaction is just so stupid, so unbelievable, so wildly irritating that if it hadn’t been on Kindle, it would have been hurtled across the room.

The ineptitude of Alexander to realistically flesh out his characters or believably relay the events they experience is very cruelly exposed in the deus ex machina he employs to bring it all to a hasty conclusion. It’s crass and stupid in the extreme, and made me wish that Cannonball Read came with a zero stars option. I hated this with the burning passion of a thousand suns. Save yourself the time. Don’t read it.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 37: 600 Hours of Edward by Craig Lancaster

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It’s difficult to really describe just how much I absolutely HATED reading this book. It sounded intriguing. Edward, a 39 year old man with OCD and Aspergers lives alone in his regimented world, until the arrival of a new neighbour and her nine year old son intrudes upon his existence in unexpected ways. Sounds like it could be interesting. That is until, on the first page, it’s apparent the book is narrated in the first person by Edward, and that’s where it all fell apart.

If you love the minutiae of someone’s life, what time they wake up in the morning, what they eat, where they go and how they get there, what TV they watch, then this is the book for you. There is probably about 10 pages in this book that actually move the story forward. The rest is all a seemingly endless retread of TV shows he is watching, food he is buying and eating, as well as a garage he keeps painting. It is mind numbing to the point of being absolutely unbearable. I found myself skim reading whole sections, because I just didn’t care to read the plot of a Dragnet episode or the life lesson it teaches Edward.

This kind of monotonous and relentless narrative voice would be fine, if it had anything original to say. It doesn’t. Mark Haddon struck gold with his Aspergers narrator, but Lancaster fails dismally. *Spoiler alert* Edward has a tortured relationship with his father, who dies suddenly about two thirds of the way through. I lost my dad last year, and any father/son stuff has me boo-hooing in seconds (I even blubbed at a Man of Steel trailer the other day). The only tears Lancaster pulled out of me were ones of boredom. Epic and unmitigated fail.

It only took me three and a half hours of my life to read about 600 of Edward’s. It’s 210 minutes I’m never getting back. There’s a sequel. Given the non-ending of this book, I am not what you’d call inspired to check it out.

 

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