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.

Advertisements

Cannonball Read 7, Book 1: A Tap at the Window by Linwood Barclay

18681902Year of Crime Book 1

As we all know, Linwood and I, we go back a bit. Lately, things have been a  little rocky between us, with a duff novel followed up by an absolute rip roaring one. So when it came to this one, I was all “which camp will it fall into?” As it turns out, it fell smack dab between those two stools.

Our protagonist hero is Cal Weaver, a private investigator whose life is looking pretty bleak. His marriage is failing following the drug related accidental death of his teenage son. One night, he picks up a school friend of his dead son’s outside a bar and that seemingly innocuous event ends up sending his life into even more disarray. He is pulled into a murky plot involving police corruption and murder.

It’s an intriguing, interesting and fairly layered plot and Cal is a sympathetic protagonist that a reader can really get behind. His obsession with finding out who supplied the drugs which ended up in his son’s system the night he died is an understandable one, and it’s not a spoiler to say that said plot strand will end up intertwining with all the rest. A big issue I had with the book though is that the rest of the strands are all so broadly drawn and full of caricatures that I found them a little hard to swallow.

Clunky elements or not, Barclay is still a writer worth reading and while I’d put a huge majority of the endgame together before we got there, there were some stings in the tail I didn’t see coming. All in all, this is by no means a failure, but I have enjoyed other books of his a lot more.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 57: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

22733864Station Eleven made a lot of noise when it was published earlier this year. It was heaped in critical praise and when it began to be shortlisted for prestigious awards, even more noise was made about how Mandel had written a novel so brilliant it had defied the limitations of its genre. Such hyperbolic waffle tends to make me roll my eyes and end up disappointed (I’m looking at you, Donna Tartt), so I approached Station Eleven with caution. And as any regular reader will know, the caution proved unnecessary as this is one hell of a book.

The book opens with a brilliant MacGuffin. Arthur Leander, a renowned Hollywood star, has returned to the stage to play the title role in King Lear (think Michael Keaton in Birdman, only not bonkers). One night during the performance, he up and dies on stage from a heart attack in mid-sentence. An ex-paparazzi turned trainee EMT (who used to stalk Arthur in their previous lives) tries to save him while a child actress looks on in horror. Later that night, a deadly flu virus, previously contained to Georgia (not the US Georgia) breaks its borders and over a very short time, takes out 99.9% of the world population.

Mandel then weaves together multiple narratives and time strands to create a world where everything we took for granted is gone. One chapter is devoted to listing everything that is now gone in the brave new world the Georgia Flu created. Leander was a MacGuffin but he’s also the epicentre. All the characters in the novel somehow come back to him. Kirsten, the child actress, becomes a performer with the Travelling Symphony, going from town to town acting out Shakespeare plays for the remaining few. Jeevan holes up with his crippled brother to try and escape contracting the virus. Arthur’s wives, ex-wives, best friend and his child are all in the mix as Mandel leaps back in forth in time to give us Arthur’s history and where they all end up in the post-civilisation America.

It could have gone horribly wrong. With so many different strands and a non-traditional structure, Mandel could so easily have come unstuck. But she takes all those strands and weaves them together as delicately and effortlessly as a seasoned Chanel seamstress. She creates moments that will make you laugh, moments that will terrify (Kirsten’s encounter with the insane Prophet who has taken over a township is not for the faint-hearted) and many more moments that will bring a lump to your throat. If David Mitchell hadn’t published The Bone Clocks, then this would be my outright winner of 2014. As it is, Station Eleven will have to share the podium. I’m sure Mandel won’t mind :-).

Cannonball Read 6, Book 53: The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

21840310This should have been my Cannonball. One of the joys of becoming a Cannonball Reader and starting this blog has been occasionally managing to get my hands on an advance reading copy of an upcoming novel. And this one, which is published mid January 2015, is a real treat. It’s being touted as the next Gone Girl and the first must read book of 2015. SJ Watson, who made a huge splash with his own debut novel a few years back, is quoted on the cover. And for once, the book lives up to the hype.

 

To everyone else in this carriage I must look normal; I’m doing exactly what they do: commuting to work, making appointments, ticking things off lists.

Just goes to show.”

Rachel takes the same train to work every day. And every day, the train stops at a red signal where Rachel can see into the house of a seemingly perfect couple. She observes them doing nauseating Perfect Couple things and she creates names and narratives for them in her mind. Then one day, Rachel sees something she shouldn’t and when one half of said Perfect Couple is then reported missing, Rachel is pulled into a mystery, one that becomes more dangerous with every turn. And Rachel has secrets of her own….

Hawkins clearly owes a debt to Hitchcock and to Christie with the set up of her debut. And with a central character who can’t recall a pivotal event along with a shady member of the medical profession who may or may not be involved, it also owes a slight debt to SJ Watson. And I was reminded of the long forgotten 80s Jane Fonda film, The Morning After. So that’s a lot of influences and homages, but Hawkins uses all of that as a framework to hang a very identifiable character on. Rachel is wholly three dimensional, deeply flawed, hugely frustrating, but you want her to succeed in finding out what happened to her Perfect Couple as much as you want to smack her upside the head and shout “GET A GRIP, LADY”.

Hawkins has written what can only really be described as an accomplished debut. It pulls you in right from the start and she handles the shift in narrative voices very well. They’re all easily distinguished (and if any reader doesn’t want to knife the awful smug new mother who pops up, then more power to you) and well crafted. I couldn’t put it down and burned through it in a matter of days. I had a couple of issues with the ending. Having set everything up so meticulously, Hawkins does make a bit of a mess when she knocks it all down. But the mess isn’t so awful that you can’t forgive it. It’s more a new puppy peeing on the rug than your awful ex spilling a glass of red wine on your cream carpet.

Essentially, it’s a great book and if you love twisty little thrillers, then 2015 is going to start very well for you.

 

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.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 48: The Shock of The Fall by Nathan Filer

16120760‘I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother. His name’s Simon. I think you’re going to like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages he’ll be dead. And he was never the same after that.’

Nathan Filer won the Costa Book of the Year award last year  for this intensely well crafted debut novel, and now I have read it, I wholeheartedly agree with their decision. He also rightly won the First Novel award from Costa as well. The story is a relatively straightforward one, of a teenager’s descent into schizophrenia, but said teenager is also our narrator, so things are not always as simple as they appear. Mathew Homes was a perfectly happy boy with a brother he adored. His brother Simon has Downs Syndrome and is adored by the whole family. But, as Mat unflinchingly states, Simon died at a very young age, which starts Mathew down his path of mental disarray.

Mathew is writing his story of his descent into the depths of schizophrenia on an old typewriter given to him by his Nan, interspersed with his ongoing story of his journey back to square one. The differing fonts and styles are elegantly rendered and make this book an aesthetic joy as well as a literary one. It is very intelligently written, Mathew’s feeling that he’s fine and coping when it’s clear in everything he’s saying that the opposite is the case makes for some emotionally tough reading.

And as Mat slowly peels away the layers of memory and misremembering into what exactly happened with Simon’s death, the emotional punches just keep on coming. Mat has always blamed himself for what happened and so “this is my care plan: As a small boy, I killed my own brother and now I must kill him again. I’m given medicine to poison him, then questioned to make sure he’s dead”. The last third of this book is properly wrenching and making it through the final chapter dry eyed is no mean feat. It’s a great book, brimming with heart and never looking away from the emotional rawness that comes with long term grief and blame. It’s not an easy read, but it’s most definitely a worthwhile one. Highly recommended.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 44: & Sons by David Gilbert

21100454Every year, there’s another attempt at writing The Great American Novel. And the latest instalment in that neverending series is David Gilbert’s latest novel, & Sons. Very early on, Gilbert sets out his stall with “Fathers start as gods and end as myths and in between whatever human form they take can be calamitous for their sons”. So we know what we’re dealing with. This is the story of A.N. Dyer, a Salinger-esque novelist, as reclusive as he is revered, and his three sons. The eldest is Richard, who fled to California after surviving a massive drug addiction, and is trying to carve out a career as a screenwriter. In the middle is Jamie, a documentary filmmaker whose world is spinning of its axis with the death of his first girlfriend, whose demise he documented at her request. And then there’s 17 year old Andy, whose unexpected and apparently adulterous arrival into the Dyer family cleft it in twain. Our narrator is Phillip Topping, son of A.N Dyer’s lifelong friend, whose funeral is the catalyst for the events of the book. Attempting to deliver the eulogy, Dyer has a meltdown and calls his two wayward sons home, to settle his affairs.

It’s a very much character-driven book. Phillip grew up alongside the Dyer boys, but feels very much like the poor relation and reminisces a lot about his teenage years with the Dyers. There’s mention that Phillip has just imploded his own family and professional situation with an adulterous liaison but that doesn’t seem fully explored. I suspect that is because Phillip is a horribly selfish and really not that pleasant narrator. An event towards the end of the book tipped my annoyance at his whining into full on hate. He’s an arsehole and spending time in his company isn’t always fun. I also had issues with the structure of the first person narrative, with the narrator detailing whole swathes of the book for which he just is not present and can’t know about.

The writing is without a doubt extraordinary though. It goes a long way to making up for those faults. It is by turns beautiful, heartbreaking and hilarious. It’s never short of engrossing and his similes are quite genius  – “She was wearing of all things a maid’s uniform, which have her the distinct impression of being swallowed whole by a leaping killer whale”. Purely from that perspective, I found this a joy to read, but there was a prevailing feeling over the book as a whole. It really felt like Gilbert worships at the altar of Jonathan Franzen in general, The Corrections in particular. Every page screamed “I AM WRITING A SERIOUS LITERARY WORK”. I was reminded of when I saw Sally Ann Triplett as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes. She clearly thought she was giving a star making turn, but those kind of performances are meant to appear effortless and I have never seen a performer working SO HARD to get there. & Sons feels like that. The effort drips off of every sentence.

There’s also a plot point revolving around the youngest Dyer which doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the novel and the way Gilbert chooses to wrap it up didn’t sit well with me either. All in all, I found this a hugely enjoyable book, and while it’s undeniably a great read, I didn’t think it was quite the Important Book Gilbert was aiming for.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 43: Six Years by Harlan Coben

17447634I have never read a Harlan Coben book before. I keep confusing him with Dennis Lehane. Whenever I see anything about Harlan Coben, I always think “oh, yeah, he wrote Mystic River, I really want to read that. Wait. NO HE DIDN’T”. But I loved the French movie they made from his book Tell No-One and the plot for this sounded super intriguing so I thought what the heck.

So the titular time period is how long lapses between Jake Sanders watching the love of his life Natalie Avery, marry another man and said man turning up dead. At the wedding, Natalie made Jake promise to leave her alone, which Jake did. But, with The Other Guy now out of the picture, Jake goes to the funeral to get a glimpse of the woman he’s been carrying a torch for all this time. Only the grieving widow is absolutely not Natalie. Jake begins to break his promise to Natalie, that he would leave her alone, and begins to retrace the path of their all too brief affair. Only the place they met doesn’t seem to exist and people who knew them both at the time don’t seem to remember him either.  So Jake keeps on digging until he realises all too late in the day that he REALLY SHOULD HAVE LISTENED when Natalie made him promise to back off.

I’ll say this for the book, it rattles along at a fair old pace and I happily got caught up in it and wanted to see exactly how it was going to play out. I love plots like this in crime novels (Linwood Barclay’s No Time For Goodbye is still the pinnacle for me) so I was all “oooh, I wonder what the heck is going on, I bet it’s awesome”. The problem with the book, rattling along and readable as it is, I didn’t buy a single word of it. Characters were either too convoluted to be believable (Jake is a lecturer at a university. A fellow lecturer there used to work for the FBI, when they weren’t being an undersecretary of state. I’m so sure, Harlan.), or their actions were too annoying or incredulous to really get behind. Jake meets Natalie, they have a crazy passionate love at first sight relationship, but she pulls a volte face and says “oh, this dude I dated once, he’s totally the one. I’m marrying him. Come to the wedding, but after that never look for me again”. So far, so far-fetched. But Jake honours that promise. For six years. He doesn’t at any point think “I don’t buy this insane wedding” or “I wonder how Natalie is doing” and have a brief little social media cyberstalk. Come on now. That’s not really a plot point that had me saying “wow yeah totally get it”.

Leaving aside the fact that Jake is told several many times to stop looking for Natalie or he’s going to get her and other people killed if he doesn’t, but he doesn’t (douchebag), what Jake finds out along the way stretches the credibility further, until the final pages lay it all out for you and rather than going “oh my holy wow that’s just I had no idea oh my god”, you’re far likelier to roll your eyes and say “give me strength”. You know how you’ll spot a loose thread on a shirt and go to pick it out, only to find it’s unravelled a whole sleeve and the shirt is fucked? This book is full of plot points like that. I took issue with so many little points about technology and the like only to find if I applied enough thought, I’d knocked over the entire house of cards. That said, it’s never not entertaining. It’s just not quite the impenetrable and smart mystery Coben thinks it is.