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 36: J by Howard Jacobson

22370991So this year, I’m not doing the whole Booker Prize Longlist. After last year’s epic slog and some disappointments of a very large magnitude, I approached this year’s list with a more discerning eye. I immediately discounted three of the titles, while noting with varying degrees of smuggery that I owned another two of the list and had already read one of them. A fourth title, this one, was also sitting on one of the bookshelves in the flat, but it didn’t belong to me. It was one I was very dubious about. Jacobson won the Booker in 2010, one of the years I tried and failed in my Longlist challenge. His was one I didn’t read, and is STILL one I haven’t read. So I wasn’t sure, but I thought, well, it’s sitting right here, what harm can it do?

“Two people fall in love in a world where the past is a dangerous country, not to be talked about or visited. As they discover where they came from and where they are going, a bigger, more shattering truth is revealed to them.”

The reason for the past never to be discussed is some huge catastrophic event occurred, one so awful that it can’t be remembered and has become so cloaked in mystery down the years, that it’s now referred to only as “what happened, if it happened”. Everyone changed their name, and so did every town, in the aftermath, in a bid to wipe the slate clean. This explains why everyone in the book has such horribly unwieldy names like Kevern and Ailinn (our main protagonists), as well as Demelza, Kroplinn, Ythel and the like, as ugly to look at as they are to pronounce.

So Kevern and Ailinn meet and begin a relationship. He is softer than most other men she’s been with, as a lingering symptom of WHIIH is a streak of unpleasant violence in the populace. To try and stem it, only Benign Visual Arts are permitted and OfNow monitors the public mood. There are several subplots relating to all this, swirling around the central story of two damaged souls trying to find their way together. Kevern’s father crossed his lips with two fingers whenever he spoke the letter J, hence the title and the cover design, and now Kevern does too, though he no longer recalls why. Jacobson litters the book with odd little moments like this which makes for interesting if never truly gripping reading.

And that was my issue. The book is fine, but I didn’t think it was great. And when the shattering truth is finally revealed, I wasn’t really that fussed. He did pull off a nice coup that made me gasp earlier in the novel though, which is an impressive feat. If the final pages had lived up to that, it would have been a whole different story. As it is, the hype from the publishers that this “deserves to be spoken in the same breath as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World“, I couldn’t help but think that Huxley did it first and did it better.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 33: The Gunslinger by Stephen King

884572After ploughing through the biggest of the big books with The Quincunx, I was, as I saw someone put it on Twitter after back to back reading The Luminaries and The Goldfinch, “yearning for a pamphlet”. And what better palate cleanser, I thought, than the opening volume of Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower series? It’s a trifling 210 pages and it’s the opening gambit to a series of books that increase in page count as they do in scope. Bound to be a winner, right? Well, as it turns out, no.

As it turns out, I really didn’t enjoy this at all. I didn’t get any real sense of anything, time, character, place, nothing. I didn’t really care who anyone was, where they were going or why. Roland, our titular gunslinger, is an enigma, as is the Man in Black he is relentlessly pursuing. There are some peripheral characters swirling around too, but they’re even less filled in and hard to care about. Especially as one of them already seems to be dead. Or something.

Another aspect that kept yanking me out of the story is that the quality of writing is noticeably lower than that of his later output. King, like all novelists, grew more accomplished with each book he wrote and while I have banged on at length about how wonky his output got after he had his near death experience, there’s no denying for me that he started out good and became really truly great. The Gunslinger was started in 1978 and published in 1982 and, well, it shows. The language is repetitive, it’s littered with adverbs, the structure is confused and incoherent, it essentially drove me a little bit crazy trying to read it.

I got through it though, but I really was not that fussed. However, everyone else I know who has tackled the Dark Tower series assures me that this is merely the undercooked appetiser which belies the delicious banquet to follow. So I won’t give up and still plan to carry on reading them, not least because every volume of them is sitting on bookshelves in my flat. I’m also advised by a fellow King aficionado that re-reading ‘Salem’s Lot before carrying on with them would also be a worthwhile detour. So since that’s also on shelves here, I will be doing that too, I imagine.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 28: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

18949650Hoo boy. I said 2014 would be my Year of Big Books and this is most definitely a Big Book in all senses of the word. It is close to 600 pages in hardback with fairly small print, so it’s literally big. It covers a span of over fifty years and many characters, so it’s figuratively also big. And it’s not actually published until September 2nd 2014, so the fact that I have been able to read an advance copy is frankly HUGE.

The proof copy I have just finished expressly states that it is not for quotation, but the jacket copy is not included in that, so here we are:

The Bone Clocks follows the twists and turns of Holly’s life from a scarred adolescence in Gravesend to old age on Ireland’s Atlantic coast as Europe’s oil supply dries up – a life not so far out of the ordinary, yet punctuated by flashes of precognition, visits from people who emerge from thin air and brief lapses in the laws of reality. For Holly Sykes – daughter, sister, mother, guardian – is also an unwitting player in a murderous feud played out in the shadows and margins of our world, and may prove to be its decisive weapon.”

I won’t lie. When I read that description, I was a little, um, apprehensive. See, David Mitchell blew my mind with Cloud Atlas and I absolutely loved loved loved Black Swan Green. But then along came The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and I was crushed. I found it unreadable and gladly jettisoned it after 50 pages. But with The Bone Clocks, I think it’s safe to say it is an epic and triumphant return to form. The book opens in 1984, with Holly Sykes deciding to run away from home after an argument with her mother. Headstrong and furious she refuses to give in and go home, and thus she encounters a strange woman who offers a small kindness in exchange for ‘asylum’. Decades will pass before Holly fully understands exactly what that flip little moment has got her into.

After the opening, narrated by Holly, each section of the book moves forward in time and has a different narrator, as Holly becomes a supporting player in her own huge story. That is until the final section, Holly once again is our narrator, a stylistic echo of Cloud Atlas, if ever there was one. I can’t quite say enough good things about this insanely inventive, daring, bravura novel. The wheels could very easily have come off, as Mitchell spends almost two thirds of the novel keeping that murderous feud in the shadows, drip feeding little bits of information to the reader, enough to make you think “what the actual fuck” and compel you onward at the same time. It’s a fine balancing act, one which Mitchell pulls off masterfully. It’s nearly 400 pages in before the murderous feud is brought front and centre and fully explained and even then, it’s done so in a way which bamboozles as much as it enlightens. I mean that as a compliment.

The final chapter suggests a future not unlike the post-electric wasteland Anne Washburn imagines in Mr Burns, only even bleaker and with more violence. It’s always risky when authors take on the near future but Mitchell is far more successful than Jennifer Egan was in A Visit From The Goon Squad, which I enjoyed right up until that final fateful awful chapter. Similarly, The Teleportation Accident went that one step too far. I suspect Mitchell won’t come out of the reviews unscathed for his ideas of how technology will progress before collapsing in on itself, but I went with it. His writing is just so glorious (I wish I could quote any number of choice passages, but you’ll just have to read the book and find out how gorgeous it is) and the characters so brilliant, vivid and real (Hugo Lamb, making a return appearance after one chapter in Black Swan Green, is especially magnificent), that by the time you get to the final chapter, you’ll believe anything Mitchell tells you and be willing for some kind of light in the darkness to emerge. Whether it does or not, I couldn’t possibly say, but I implore you to read this book.

 

Cannonball Read 6, Book 22: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

17702699Anyone who read my reviews regularly last year will be aware that I have developed something of a book crush on Patrick Ness. He’s a brilliant author and, as some have said of Rainbow Rowell, an author I wish had been around when I actually was a Young Adult, as it would have made my teenage years that much more bearable. He is also bloody good value for money on Twitter, so if you don’t already, you should totally follow him. His live tweeting of reading the first Twilight book was comedy gold.

But I digress.

The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first book in his Chaos Walking trilogy, which is what really put him on the map 6 years ago. Between this trilogy and A Monster Calls, he has won pretty much every YA literary award there is. Having now read the first third of said trilogy, I can totally see why. This book grips like a vice from the first page and, well like the title says, it never lets go. Welcome to Prentisstown, a place like no other. Everyone can hear each other’s thoughts (the Noise) and you become a man at age 13, though a year does last 13 months. One day, Todd and his dog Manchee (whose thoughts Todd can also hear) stumble across an area of total silence. The lack of Noise should not be possible and Todd soon finds out that Prentisstown is nothing like he thought it was and is fleeing for his life with Manchee in tow. But being on the run is a little difficult when your pursuers can hear your every thought.

I’m fairly sure I’m one of the last people on the planet to read the trilogy but in the event that I am not, why are you still here? You should be heading to the bookshop/library/Kindle store to be getting stuck in. You won’t regret it. It is a relentlessly paced read, one I struggled to put down as I just couldn’t wait to find out more about Todd’s epic journey of discovery. Some people may struggle with the misspelled words and poor grammar Ness uses for the Prentisstown dialect (I did, briefly), but just go with it. Trust me. Todd and Manchee are great company, poor spelling or no. What is really going on in Prentisstown isn’t fully revealed here, but *spoiler alert*, the reason for the silence is a girl. See, while women can hear the men’s Noise, men can’t hear theirs. Todd has been told that the virus which caused the Noise was fatal to women, as the entire female population in his town is dead. But if that didn’t kill them, what did?

A grim and unique premise, a bleak and unforgiving setting, by rights Knife should be a punishing read. But Todd’s naiveté and his friendship with Manchee, his slow burgeoning friendship with Violet (the girl with the Silence) make this as charming as it is exciting (and yes, bleak). However, I need to warn readers of a sensitive disposition. Ness pulls the rug towards the end of this book and you won’t want to believe he has been so cruel. But he has been. I knew what was coming (Twitter caught me unawares one day) and even that didn’t really help matters. Patrick Ness is a cold hearted bastard. You have been warned.

He’s also an out and proud homosexual who is all about promoting equality and acceptance. He put a gay teen front and centre of More Than This  but didn’t make the book all about his being gay. At the start of this trilogy, he quietly shows us that Todd has been happily raised by a gay couple who love him as much as they do each other. And for that, he really can’t be praised enough. Basically, read this book. And then read the next two. I plan to read them before the year is out, so reviews of them will be here soon enough.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 94: The Testimony by James Smythe

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James Smythe got himself on my radar because over on The Guardian’s website, he is re-reading and discussing all of Stephen King’s work, in chronological published order. If you’re a Constant Reader, then you could do a lot worse than getting yourself over to the website and having a read through his stuff. And if you are a fan of oral histories, tense thrillers or dystopian novels, you should also read his debut novel The Testimony. 

I confess, the prime reason I bought this was it was, for a brief spell, available for free on Kindle. I’m a fan of oral histories, something which was intensified by reading World War Z earlier in the year. The main difference in terms of structure is Brooks drove it relentlessly forward, not touching on the same character (except the interviewer) more than once, Smythe’s novel cuts back and forth between twenty six people whose lives were in various ways affected by The Broadcast. They range from White House chief of staff to retirees in NYC to unemployed people in Russia. Smythe covers a lot of global territory and has one heck of a cross section.

So, The Broadcast. One day, out of nowhere, almost everyone hears deafening static. Over the following few days, there are three more Broadcasts, the sum total of the words spoken is “my children, do not be afraid. Goodbye”. And that is it. Scientists struggle to explain it, the religious claim it’s the voice of God, those who didn’t hear it can’t understand why and civilisation slowly begins to unravel itself. Terrorists begin to explode bombs, people start dying for no reason, life pretty much goes batshit crazy in the wake of The Broadcast. The characters tell their stories, which neatly fill in the bigger picture too.

I say neatly, but there is nothing neat about Smythe’s vision of the near future (we’re a couple of terms after Obama). It’s big and it’s messy and it’s actually quite brilliant. I could not put this book down, I really cared about the characters and there’s some great subtle work on Smythe’s part with the UK politician and his eventual fate. The quote on the cover is one I wholly agree with. This book is a bravura debut, it’s smart, it’s terrifying, it’ll keep you up at night in a race to finish it. And then you probably won’t be able to sleep.

 

Cannonball Read, Book 90: More Than This by Patrick Ness

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This is now my third Ness novel of this Cannonball. After being emotionally destroyed by A Monster Calls and then absolutely enchanted by The Crane Wife I now find myself reading his latest YA novel. I did say in my review of The Crane Wife that I wanted to read everything Ness ever writes, so this shouldn’t really be a surprise to you all. His Chaos Walking trilogy is planned for next year’s Cannonball. Since 2014 is going to be my Year of Big Books, I figure I need to intersperse them with less gargantuan tomes if I am going to hit 52. But anyway, I digress.

Talk about hooking you in from the get-go. “Here is the boy, drowning” is how Ness opens this novel and if that doesn’t make you want to read it in one sitting, then nothing will. More Than This is the story of Seth Wearing, a sixteen year old boy whose life is so terrible he sees no other option than to end it. Instead of ending, he comes to in his childhood home in the UK, the home his family left behind for a new life in the USA, after a Very Bad Event. However, it’s a weird and unpopulated dystopian version of his remembered home and so maybe he did die and this is his afterlife. Seth can’t be sure but he needs to find out. Not least because every time he falls asleep, he dreams of the events that led to him walking into the ocean.

In his series of re-reading Stephen King novels, James Smythe notes that when he was growing up, YA didn’t really exist as a genre. And Ness makes me wish that it did. It would have been just phenomenal to have a Patrick Ness in my life when I was sixteen. Not just because he’s a gay and I’m a gay (everywhere a gay gay), but because he gets it. Ness gets teenagers and adolescence in such a perfect way and leaves you in no doubt that however rubbish it is for you as a teenager, it gets better and he’s living proof. Yes, Seth is gay (it irks me that in 2013, this is still considered “daring”) but anyone who was once a teenager can relate to parents thwarting their romantic affairs and school being a painful trial, so it in no way limits the scope and appeal of the book.

In addition to really understanding teenagers, Ness is top notch at characters and dialogue. Seth meets up with two other lost souls, Regine and Tomasz, both of whom are an absolute delight to read. Their quest to find out exactly what is going on with their (after)lives though, that does go on maybe a fraction longer than it could and Ness’s vision does owe more than a small debt to The Matrix, but those are (believe it or not) minor quibbles. The book itself does not outstay its welcome, and in the closing pages I found myself yearning for more, but Ness abides by the age old showbiz rule when it comes to making your audience want more. He doesn’t give it to us. He doesn’t need to though. The ending is gorgeous and perfect, I just didn’t want to leave this book or its characters behind.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 40: World War Z by Max Brooks

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This book is a remarkable achievement. What could have so easily been a shallow shoot em up (which is what the upcoming movie seems to have gone for, which may explain the negative buzz) is instead an in depth look at all the ramifications of its titular War. The unnamed journalist travels across the world, meeting with key players in halting the zombie invasion that nearly wiped out humanity. From those who witnessed Patient Zero, to rebuilding a shattered Earth, the scope of Brooks’ vision is quite breathtaking.

I’m probably one of the few people on the planet who hadn’t read the book when it was first published back in 2006. I toyed with it, but for some reason never got round to it. Kicking myself for that now. The book is grimly fascinating and breathlessly exciting with it. There were several first person accounts that had my palms sweating. I haven’t been this gripped by a book in a long time.

There are some detractors who bemoan the similarity of the voices telling the story. I don’t agree. Throughout, I marvelled at the dexterity Brooks was demonstrating and how well he differentiated his characters. There are a lot of them, and all of them have a different story to tell. Not one of them is any less than utterly fascinating. To maintain that level of interest and excitement when you’re refracting such a huge narrative through such a large prism is an absolute marvel. Top notch stuff.

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 25: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

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After inexplicably reading all 4 books in the Twilight “Saga” (inverted commas have to be used there, because, really, who on earth is Meyer kidding?), I was in no mood to get myself acquainted with another YA series of books. But more than a few friends went bonkers about the first book and the movie and kept on telling me I should read it. So eventually I was like “Oh my God, ALRIGHT” and I read the first book. And I bloody loved it. So much so that I bought the other two books that make up the trilogy and was excited to have uninterrupted days to read them in.

Well. I honestly wonder if they were conceived as a trilogy at all. Part of me wonders if the first novel had a success far beyond anyone involved could have ever expected and the trilogy was born out of that. Catching Fire picks up not too long after book one left off, with Katniss and Peeta about to embark on the Victory Tour. Katniss’s unorthodox win has caused President Snow a bit of consternation, there’s whispers of uprisings against the Capitol. He needs Katniss to put things right, or there will be grave consequences.

Those consequences turn out to be, through a never before mentioned caveat of the Games, that Katniss has to return to the arena for a second go round of Hunger Games. Which would be fine if a) they weren’t just an uninteresting retread of the games in the original novel and b) they arrived sooner. It’s over halfway through before we get back to the Games. The lead up is not that interesting either. Some points are repeated so often it made my teeth itch (by the eleventy fifth time she mentions her dead father, I was ready to yell “oh really, is your father dead? How did he die, Katniss? WHY DON’T YOU TELL US?”)

To add insult to injury, having spent SO long getting us there, waylaying the journey with tiresome love triangles and whatnot, Collins then pulls the rug, crams a shedload of exposition into the last five pages (none of which makes a lick of sense) before a cliffhanger we could all see coming sets us up for the final instalment. I really was crushingly disappointed by how lame this book was.