Cannonball Read 5, Book 106: Speaking From Among The Bones by Alan Bradley

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Oh, Flavia De Luce. As literary creations go, she’s probably my most favourite of the past few years. She had me at “will nobody rid us of this turbulent pastry chef?” in her first outing. But I still find myself waiting for a plot that is even half as engrossing and satisfying as her gung-ho narration. I’m also still waiting for her to start ageing and now at five books in, it’s really just not conceivable that this much murder and mayhem can befall one small village in under 12 months. I mean, I know there’s Midsomer Murders, but come on.

The book opens with Bishop’s Lacey preparing for the quincentennial of St Tancred, an occasion to be marked by opening his tomb in the local church. Naturally, Flavia is there and of course she finds a recently deceased church organist where a 500 year dead saint should be. Most 11 year olds would be traumatised, but with four successful murders solved, Flavia is galvanised to be at the forefront of this one and sets about trampling all over the investigation with her signature blunt and precocious style.

It’s a very tricky tightrope to walk, making your protagonist insufferable within the story but absolutely charming to the audience. It’s one that is rarely achieved for me, as I generally find myself as annoyed as all the other characters. Notable exceptions include the two most recent Sherlocks, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. And now, Flavia De Luce. Pretty much everyone who speaks to Flavia in the books ends up wanting to throttle her. But I found myself enchanted and cackling away at her brilliantly pithy commentary.

As for the mystery itself, it’s all bogged down in with missing jewels and love triangles and lead poisoning (!) and if it weren’t being relayed with as much gusto, it would really be shown up for the sub-par Agatha Christie it really is. The murderer is fairly obvious from quite early on, but Bradley thinks he’s filling the pages with red herrings. He isn’t. There is another storyline running throughout this instalment though; the de Luce’s impending financial ruin. They are so broke they have to put their mansion up for sale. I really thought seeing Flavia in such circumstances could really shake the next book up but Bradley decided to throw in a curve ball to end the book. It’s a top notch cliffhanger and hopefully a game changer. We shall see.

 

And that is a WRAP for Cannonball Read 5! Stay tuned for my first review for Cannonball 6.

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Cannonball Read 5, Book 105: The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

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When I first saw the film Billy Elliot, I said at the time that it overwhelmed me so much that I wanted to go out in the street and hug random strangers. With The Fault In Our Stars, I wanted to stage my own personal World Book Night. I wanted to buy 100 copies and hand them to random people, urging them to read it. It’s a beautiful and special piece of work that EVERYONE needs to read.

It was always going to be a tricky one for me to read, as our feisty teenage heroine Hazel Grace has an incurable cancer (not a terminal one, though really what IS the difference there?) and it’s one of those fuckers which stole my dad from us, so ya know. I expected it would make me a little weepy. I didn’t expect it to move me quite so epically and so often as it did. Hazel is strong-armed into going to Cancer Support Group by her over-protective parents and one day Augustus Waters comes along to the group. Hazel thinks he’s hot, then finds out he’s charming and then suddenly her life is on a very different path. Though it’s a path where cancer still comes along for the ride.

Hazel loves Augustus and I swear with God as my witness, if there’s a person out there who reads this book and doesn’t love him EVERY BIT AS MUCH (if not more) then that person has no soul. Hazel is in awe of him from minute one and she’s authentically teenage about it too: “Look, let me just say it: He was hot. A nonhot boy stares at you relentlessly and it is, at best, awkward, and, at worst, a form of assault. But a hot boy….. well.” And that’s the kicker. Not only has Green written teenagers who sound like teenagers (intelligent, erudite ones to be sure, but teenagers all the same), they don’t sound like they have a bad case of Dawson’s-Creek-itis to go with their cancers. And the approach they have to their illness, irreverent and determined, feels so much more real than having them mope around feeling sorry for themselves and waiting to die.

A large part of the book is taken up with Hazel’s desire to track down the author of her favourite book, An Imperial Affliction. It too is about a teenage girl fighting cancer and famously ends mid-sentence. Hazel simply HAS TO KNOW what happened next so keeps writing to the author. Except he is a recluse who lives in Amsterdam and never writes her back. And so Augustus (having fallen in love with AIA as well as with Hazel) spends his Wish from the Make A Wish Foundation on a trip to Amsterdam. Normally, a teen romance would have me puking on my shoes, but the whole Amsterdam section made me alternately joyful and weepy.

Peter Van Houten, the author of AIA, is an alcoholic mess and disappoints them both with his actions when them meet him. Refusing to answer Hazel’s questions, Augustus pledges that he will write her a sequel instead. He’s that kind of guy. But life gets in the way, Van Houten gets a shot at redemption and when Hazel finally reads what Augustus wrote, well. It’s possibly the most achingly beautiful thing I’ve read all year.

Reading this book really brings it home as to why I absolutely bloody love books. It is easily in my top ten books that I have read this year. Some books when you recommend them to people, you’ll say “yeah it’s really funny” or “it’s so exciting to read” or some such. With this book, if I may quote those South Park boys in a very different context, all I can say is “this book will change your life”. So read it. I hope you love it. Because I do, John Green. I do. 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 104: The Woman Who Died A Lot by Jasper Fforde

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It was my dear friend Jabberbookie who turned me on to Thursday Next. I remember her describing it to me and thinking “that sounds just a shade too kooky for me”. But I went with it and The Eyre Affair is an absolute marvel. It’s a recurring theme on this blog of “oh, it didn’t really sound like it was my thing but I gave it a try and it changed my life et cetera et cetera” and the first four novels in this series absolutely come under that heading. But I feel the series peaked with the Hamlet crossover brilliance of Something Rotten and it’s been on a downward slope ever since. The previous entrant, One Of Our Thursdays Is Missing was pretty bad, but for some reason, I found myself hoping that this cumbersomely titled seventh entry into the Thursday Next canon would swing it back around. Alas, it was not to be (see what I did there?).

One problem I have is Fforde has taken Next in a direction no true fan would want her to go. When we meet her in book one, she’s fearless and vivacious and gung-ho about her role as a Literary Detective. For some reason, Fforde has aged her and made her somewhat infirm, both physically and emotionally. Imagine if James Bond had been on a Zimmer Frame by his seventh book, and fretting about his wife and kids. A terrible idea, no? And yet, that’s where we are. He’s taken an awesome creation and absolutely hobbled her, for reasons known only to himself. So before we even start, this book needs to really go some to make me love it.

Well, guess what? Doesn’t happen. I really thought this was an absolute mess. There’s SO MUCH GOING ON, for starters. There’s about eleven different strands of the plot all vying to be the main story, all without any success. Not only is Fforde trying to shoehorn in a boatload of storylines, he’s really trying to draw the reader in to his alternate universe. The level of detail Fforde is now going into borders on the psychotic and makes for a punishing read, rather than a jolly and fun one, which it feels like he’s aiming for. Weirdly, this incredible attention to detail sits uneasily alongside some really clumsy moments (not least the conclusion of the Aornis Hades subplot), which just makes the whole thing feel lumpen and unwieldy.

How much you enjoy this book really hinges on how you take the following sentence. Unable to continue as literary detective, Next lands the role of Swindon’s chief Librarian. In Fforde’s world, this is the equivalent of being head of MI5 and American Express at the same time and thus is a lot of work. This means she has an array of personal assistants. And so: “This is Geraldine,” said Duffy. ‘The assistant’s assistant to the assistant personal assistant of my own personal assistant’s assistant”. If you’re wide eyed and agog with admiration at how much of a wordsmith genius he is, then by all means have at it with this book. If, like me, you’re rolling your eyes half way through the sentence and thinking “oh for heavens sakes”, then just read the first four awesome books, pretend Thursday dies at the end of book four and leave it there.

It’s never fun when a series of books you love goes off a literary cliff, and the steep decline in quality of the Thursday Next books aggrieves me hugely. The beginning of the series flow with the effortless brilliance of a visionary genius. The last two read like the desperate over-elaboration of the firmly mediocre. There will, we are told, be an eighth book, Dark Reading Matter. And so there might be. For me, the ride has now come to a complete stop and so it’s time to get off. Such a shame.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 103: Mary Ann In Autumn by Armistead Maupin

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I don’t think there’s a homosexual alive of my generation who doesn’t love Maupin’s Tales of the City series. I only discovered them when the first was adapted into a miniseries (for shame), but of course, like every gay boy, I then read them and took the character of Mouse as my spiritual guide. But I loved the books in spite of their flaws. There was noticeable decline in quality as the series marched through six entries. I was always taken aback at how artlessly Maupin shoehorned in the necessary info to each later novel for those who haven’t read any of the others. First of all, why would you bother to start a series of books half way through? Secondly, there are surely better ways to do it than regurgitating whole chunks of the previous books. But then after eighteen years, Maupin redeemed himself eternally and permanently with Michael Tolliver Lives!, an absolute joy of a book. Maybe he always planned it, maybe not, but Maupin continues the coda for his beloved characters with Mary Ann In Autumn. 

Mary Ann Singleton is a divisive character. She started out gorgeously sweet and naive, but for some, she quickly became into a godawful pain in the bum, and horribly unpleasant with it by the time the original series drew to its conclusion. I don’t remember disliking her and we pick back up again with Mary Ann staring down the barrel of a cancer mandated hysterectomy, another divorce, and far worse, old age. She returns to San Francisco and to Mouse to have her surgery. All the other favourites are present and correct, with Shawna, Jake and of course Anna Madrigal all swirling around with their own plots and sub-plots. Funnily enough, Maupin weaves all the backstory you need to know into each plot line with a deft and skilful touch, and I could have actually used more! It’s been so long since I read the original books that some of the machinations remained opaque to me. And one particular, crucial plot point feels very forced.

But those are minor quibbles. These books were never about being believable, they were about larger than life characters you fell in love with and the silly shit they got up to. Mary Ann In Autumn is full of them and they’re mostly fabulous. For the first time, I understood what it was about our titular heroine that drove people so insane with fury. The way she handles her impending divorce hardly covers her in glory, even if she IS the cheated on, rather than the cheater. But she’s a fully rounded, realistic, three dimensional creation, if she weren’t, nobody would care so much.

It’s somewhat daring that Maupin chooses, nearly thirty years on, to resolve a cliffhanger (literally, it turns out) from the first book in the series. It take this entry into a darker place than you’d expect towards the end, but you know what they say. It’s always darkest just before the dawn. The final pages are as bright and sunny as anything you could possibly want to read. Sometimes, when series are resurrected after long gaps, detractors will bang on about creative and literal bankruptcy being the twin reasons for doing so. Whether the latter had anything to do with it I neither know nor care because I can’t accuse him of the former. The later Tales books are leaps and bounds better than their predecessors and the ninth and final entry, The Days Of Anna Madrigal is published next month. The countdown starts here. And then, if Jake could get his own spin off novel, that would be just great.

 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 102: Let’s Go Play At The Adams’ by Mendal W. Johnson

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I didn’t know this book existed until Joseph D’Lacey wrote about it for a scary books feature around Halloween. It’s out of print and a tough mother to find, but thanks to my friend Louisa‘s tireless efforts, a copy was procured and I was able to find out whether it lived up to D’Lacey’s description of it as “utterly harrowing”.

Oh, it does.

So, the Adams are rich, their parents jet off to Europe for 10 days, leaving their two children in the care of a babysitter, college student Barbara. Along with three friends, the bored almost teenagers take Barbara hostage, because they can, because it’s a fun silly game. Right? When the magnitude of what they have done begins to become apparent, suddenly, letting Barbara go no longer seems like an option and the kids need a new ending to their game.

Johnson hits the ground running, with Barbara taken prisoner in the first few pages. There is then, for the full duration of the novel, no let up in her plight. Johnson gets inside her head and the heads of her five captors brilliantly, the motivations for everyone’s behaviour are all so horribly believable. It makes for a tense and nauseating read, for sure. I found that I was torn between being unable to put it down as it was so gripping and brilliant and almost unable to carry on reading it as it was just so bleak. One of the more unusual reactions I’ve had to reading a book.

Detractors knock the book for its one dimensional characters, for being unrealistic and also for being boring. I can’t quite fathom any of that. Poor tragic Barbara is fully fleshed out, which makes her ordeal even more difficult to read. The five sociopath teens are also given far more depth than you’d expect, some of what Johnson comes up with for them is properly chilling. As for boring, it’s far far from it. It’s not an easy read, nor is it fast paced. There are whole chunks where nothing happens as Barbara tries to think her way out of her predicament. But if you confuse “in depth” with “boring”, then that’s not really my problem.

This book really isn’t for everyone. The unrelenting bleakness of it will be too much for some people, even those inured to the gore and horror and torture porn that is rife today. Let’s Go Play At The Adams’  is a different beast altogether. It gets under your skin and it will stay there long after you finish reading it.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 101: The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman

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First things first, isn’t that just an absolute beauty of a cover? So gorgeous, it is what initially drew me to the book. And then I read the jacket copy and it made me want to puke on my shoes. “a historical novel that doesn’t know what year it is; a noir novel that turns all the lights on; a romance novel that arrives drunk to dinner; a science fiction novel that can’t remember what ‘isotope’ means”. Do me a favour. That kind of self indulgent nonsense to me is the equivalent of that annoying colleague we all have who spends all day going “look how wacky I am” when in actuality, they’re a boring twat. I had a horrible feeling that reading the book would essentially be like enduring an endless Christmas party with said colleague, so I gave it a wide berth. Until now.

Egon Loeser is our hero, driven by two obsessions. The first is with his hero, the Renaissance stage designer Adriano Lavinci, and his fate (the titular accident). The second is with his need to get laid, and laid by the most beautiful woman in 1930’s Berlin, Adele Hitler. These desires send Loeser out of Berlin and to LA, where history is something that happens while he is hungover and ignores it. Reading this book in public drew me some very odd looks, as it is, both often and hugely, laugh out loud funny. Beauman really knows the power of a well aimed quip and the perfectly positioned barb. He also gets some black comic mileage out of Loeser being bored by his Jewish friends back home who keep sending him really long letters about the awful time they’re having, which he can’t be bothered to read.

For me, Beauman couldn’t sustain this enjoyment across the whole novel. When it becomes mired in a whodunnit for a bit, it isn’t nearly as interesting as it thinks it is. That’s not to say when everything Beauman has spent A Very Long Time building up is artfully knocked down, that it isn’t enjoyable, it is. But I found myself being impressed with how technical and intricate he was as a writer, rather than really properly caring about anything that was happening, you know?

And the less I say about the final two or three pages, the better. It does what I call a Visit To The Goon Squad, in that it veers so spectacularly away from everything else, it almost verges on pointless. A slightly more ruthless edit would have elevated this from being funny and clever and really good, to properly great.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 100: The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

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In the wake of the publication of the final Harry Potter novel, I would not have wanted to be JK Rowling. I know she has a charmed life, earns more money in a minute than I do in a year and what have you, but the weight of expectation which fell on her must have been absolutely crippling. Everybody and their mother was falling over themselves to see what she did next, to praise or denigrate her next novel. It’s no surprise that after this one, she adopted a pseudonym, is what I’m saying.

“A Big Novel About A Small Town” is how it’s billed. I think everyone knows that Rowling’s debut novel for adults deals with the fallout when town councillor Barry Fairbrother dies unexpectedly and leaves the titular vacancy on the council. His death and the fight for his empty seat are the catalyst for ugly goings on which sheer off the idyllic coating of Pagford and reveal the nastiness lurking beneath. Anyone who has ever spent any amount of time as a resident in a place such as Pagford will find all of it so very familiar.

I had some issues. Firstly, yes, it’s a big novel. But it doesn’t need to be. When Pottermania exploded, they stopped editing Rowling’s books and lord knows that was a mistake. She is a very good writer, she has an ear for great dialogue, but she has overstuffed this novel and it could really use a filleting. Also, she’s filled it mostly with crudely drawn stereotypes, rather than living breathing characters and that made it difficult for me to fully connect with the machinations of the novel. The Weedon family and the Price patriarch are the main culprits of lazy styling, I thought.

There are a lot of characters too, which is another aspect of the novel she could have trimmed. The lesbian sister storyline, for starters, could have easily been jettisoned without harming the flow or structure of the book. It does mean that the book is never boring, of course. I have been something of a Debbie Downer here, but I did enjoy it. It was an easy and mostly fun read, and Rowling’s marshalling of her big cast and multiple arcs is always impressive. Ultimately though, this is so twee and safe (for all her use of the word “cunt”, there’s no denying this is a safe book, I feel) that I have to file it under “good” rather than “great”. It feels like a Jilly Cooper novel mated with a Joanna Trollope one. There’s undeniably a lot of people who would eat that up. I am not one of them.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 99: Tell-All by Chuck Palahniuk

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When Fight Club was published, I read it and was absolutely knocked off my feet. It was a properly astonishing book, all the more incredible for being a debut. Here was a new author who I couldn’t wait to read more of. The books that followed were equally, if not more astounding. But then, around the time of Lullaby, things started to go awry and it’s been a long time since Palahniuk was on my “must read” radar. I found a copy of this in my housemate’s collection and thought I’d give him another whirl. And now that I’ve done that, I’m not sure I’ll ever read another book of his again.

Our narrator is Hazie Coogan, the paid companion of fading star Katherine Kenton, shepherding her through yet another comeback. If you believe Hazie, she’s responsible for every well known tic of every star that’s ever graced the silver screen. But if you believe Hazie, well, you’ve never read a Chuck Palahniuk novel before.

He seems to be aiming for a satire, a vicious send up of the old glamour of Hollywood and its stars. Names are dropped so often as to become meaningless and his lampooning of Lillian Hellman is so over the top it comes down the other side. For some reason, the novel is narrated as if it’s a film script, there’s lots of “we fade in on” and the like. The effect isn’t remotely cinematic, it just feels like you’re reading a particularly unimaginative novelisation of a blockbuster.

Katherine Kenton has a new beau, Webster Carlton Westward III,  and he seems intent on writing a tell-all biography of Miss Kathie. Only this one ends with Kenton’s death, engineered by Westward to look like an accident, to ensure massive sales of said book. Hazie keeps finding each draft of the final chapter and thwarting Westward’s attempts on Kenton’s life. Each one is more ridiculous than the last, of course. The problem isn’t their craziness, though. The problem is the tiresome repetition of how massive Westward’s cock is and Kenton’s waxing lyrical about it in her dying moments. The joke wears thin almost instantly, but it goes on and on and on.

All the jokes wear thin and are repeated ad infinitum. Coupled with the fact none of it’s interesting, the writing is mostly incoherent, and the ending is obvious from a mile away, and you have a strong contender for my worst book of the year. The best thing I can say about it is at 179 pages, it’s a very short and quick read.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 98: The Retribution by Val McDermid

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Val McDermid is one of those authors who, for years, I was all “I should read her books”. The TV show Wire In The Blood is one that I knew loads of people watched but somehow I never watched it, nor did I ever get round to reading it. Then, by chance, I picked up a copy of Fever Of The Bone, which is actually book six in the Tony Hill & Carol Jordan series. I loved it and went back and started at the beginning. I read the first two books but then life got in the way and books 3-5 are currently languishing unread on my very large “to read” shelf over on Goodreads.

The reason that this, book 7, has jumped the queue is it features the return of the criminal who is arguably McDermid’s greatest evil creation. Jacko Vance was the focus of book 2, which gave the TV show its name, Wire In The Blood. He is pure unalloyed evil, super intelligent and entirely without any redeeming characteristics. He has been in prison since Hill & Jordan successfully arrested him for the murder of teenage girls around twelve years ago. At the start of this book, he masterminds an escape from prison and begins to exact a long planned revenge on the people he holds responsible for thwarting his enjoyment previously.

It is, to say the least, a tense and exciting read. There is a secondary plot centring on a possible serial murderer targeting prostitutes which is equally as gripping (and as gruesome) as the main Vance storyline. Jordan’s team is being disbanded and it’s their final case before the axe falls. So there’s a similar sense of urgency with both cases. Vance’s retribution, when it starts to play out, is so horrific, so calculated, that I found myself thinking there would be some last minute swerve, that his plan wouldn’t be carried out. I underestimated McDermid there. She has no problem being absolutely brutal to characters she clearly cares about as much as the reader.

The Retribution doesn’t end so much as just come to a stop. The effects of Vance’s evil plan will clearly reverberate through future instalments of the Hill & Jordan series. The eighth book, Cross & Burn was published a month ago, picking up directly where McDermid left us. Given how unflinching and brilliant I thought this book was, I will be carrying on with the series at the absolute first opportunity.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 97: Perfect by Rachel Joyce

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There’s something about titling your book Perfect that is just asking for trouble. Whole reviews could be written about the book that only focus on how misguided or otherwise the choice of title was. When you’re following up a debut like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry then it’s really brave to essentially hand the critics a stick with which to beat you. But of course, Joyce needn’t worry. She writes like a dream.

Leap seconds have been added to time periodically and irregularly since two of them were first added in 1972. That first addition is the crux of Joyce’s gorgeous second novel. Childhood friends Byron and James are obsessed with this addition, when it will happen, whether they’ll know it’s happening, if it will be on the news that it happened, and so on and so forth, as only the young and eternally inquisitive can be. But the addition of those two seconds upend Byron’s perfect life, setting into a motion a series of events that will leave him entirely unravelled. But was time really to blame?

Joyce really knows how to nail metaphors and similes. Perfect is all but overflowing with them, and each one is immaculate, carefully worded and precisely placed. “She offered a series of waves, like polishing an invisible window. In return, the women gave tight smiles that appeared to stick to their mouths and hurt” is just one example of hundreds that made me silently awestruck by her way with words. This book also captures the truth that when you’re a child, you believe everything in your family is normal. Byron’s home life is clearly anything but, however he tells it as if it’s all just fine. That disparity is brilliantly and troublingly conveyed.

That said, there are some plot elements which caused a raised eyebrow, mostly revolving around an organ concert. I struggled to believe that events would have gone quite that far. Proper cynics will probably harp on about the coincidence at the end of the book as well, but to those hard hearted souls, I say pish. The final pages of this novel are just so warm and rich and beautiful it made me forgive any and all of its teeny tiny flaws.