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.

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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 34: The Humans by Matt Haig

21265230So here’s a funny thing. I have a book by Matt Haig on my “to read” shelf over on Goodreads. It’s called The Dead Fathers Club and it’s on there because a) I am always up for reading modernised novels based on Shakespeare plays (I’m already beside myself about the Hogarth Shakespeare project, but that’s another story) and because b) my father died all too recently. That’s not really the funny thing. The funny thing is, since I bang on about books pretty much all the time over on my twitter account, out of the blue, Matt Haig started following me. I followed him back and earlier this year, to celebrate the paperback publication of The Humans, he had a little twitter competition to give away some signed copies. All you had to do was watch this video and tweet him the name of the film he is making a reference to at the end. I entered and blow me down if I didn’t win.

That’s an awfully long preamble with a full on name drop in it, I know. But I’m about to rhapsodise over this gorgeous little book and so it’s only fair that you can all decide how big you think your pinch of salt should be as you read it. The Humans tells the story of an alien from the planet Vonnadoria who takes the corporeal form of Professor Andrew Martin. See, our poor doomed professor just solved the Riemann Hypothesis, and the Vonnadorians don’t think the messy human race is ready for the massive technological advancements said proof will provide. So our otherwise unnamed narrator takes on Martin’s form, after Martin is killed, with the primary objective of eliminating everyone who knows about the Riemann solution, all the time fitting in on Earth and not drawing undue attention to himself.

It doesn’t start well when he materialises in the middle of Cambridge, stark naked and without a firm grasp on the English language (so not unlike Arnie at the beginning of The Terminator then). He winds up sectioned for his own protection and the whole “episode” is written off as a breakdown. Freed into the care of his family, Martin sets about his task. But, of course, it’s not as easy as all that. Along the way, he realises that the Martin family are massively dysfunctional and is overcome with a desire to help them. He starts to care about his wayward teenage son and his unhappy wife (all the while conversing with the family dog) and begins to feel emotions. The alien Andrew Martin takes a slow journey from pitying and hating the human race, baffled by our everyday existences, to discovering that those existences can be pretty wonderful things.

Matt Haig has spoken openly about his struggles with depression and anxiety and so it’s no surprise to read in the afterword that he conceived the idea for this book when he was in the grips of anxiety so bad that the thought of going to the shops would induce a panic attack. Anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, not understood themselves or the people around them, but always been able to find the joy in a piece of music, poetry or a good book (which is pretty much all of us), will see themselves in this wonderful story. Anyone who reads the toy castle analogy of what it’s like to live will not forget it in a hurry, and the three page chapter titled “How To Be A Human” contains enough beautifully constructed wisdom to make you ache.

It seems odd that a book like this should be labelled important, but it is. If you think I’m being ever more hyperbolic, I refer you to this review.  It’s easy to take a potshot at its predictability that alien Andrew does a better job at being a human than his flesh and blood counterpart, but I don’t think anyone would get past the first thirty pages without realising exactly where it’s headed. If ever there was a case of “it isn’t where you go, it’s how you get there”, it would be this one. For an ending to be so clear cut from so early on but to still cause a lump in my throat is no mean feat. Anyway, I’ve banged on for long enough now, so do yourselves a favour. Buy this book. Read it. And then read it again.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 32: The Quincunx by Charles Palliser

222627Well, I said 2014 would be a year of Big Books and you really don’t get much bigger than this. Last year, when I bought my copy of The Luminariesa colleague said to me “you know, if you really want to read a proper faux Victorian novel, you should check out The Quincunx”. As I pondered whether something could be proper and faux at the same time, I wandered into my nearest bookshop and picked up a copy. It is a HUGE book in every sense of the word. It’s a trade cloth sized paperback, and it weighs in at 1191 pages of fairly small type. The story is both sprawling and intimate (focussing on the possible inheritance of one person, but said inheritance is tied into decades of family history and encompasses five different families). As reviews stated at the time, Palliser pretty much out-Dickens Dickens.

Quincunx is not, as you might expect, a Chaucerian bit of slang for vagina, but the five point design you see on the face of dice. And fives are what this novel is all about. It’s divided into five sections, each section into five books and each book into five chapters. We have a first person narrator, John Mellamphy, and we have an omniscient narrator who pops up at the beginning of each section to drip feed us information. Master Mellamphy begins to believe that he is actually John Huffam and the rightful heir to the Huffam estate. His mother possesses a codicil to a will that would prove as much, but there are other families who would stop at nothing to ensure the codicil never sees the light of day.

As John sets out to discover the truth about his heritage, his journey takes him far and wide throughout England and encounters pretty much every level of society. For quite a while, his mother is with him and her naïveté might just drive you out of your mind. She’s so staggeringly that you feel for John when he yells at her for being so trusting of complete strangers and the like. When John leaves her behind, the story really does kick up a gear. Misery upon misery is piled upon our possible Huffam until you can’t quite believe he isn’t crushed by the sheer weight of them.

Just when you think that you can’t take anymore gloriously detailed glumness, the events of the novel become so intense and exciting that if you’ve been enjoying it up to that point, then strap in, because you won’t be putting the novel down until you get to the end. Honestly, the last 300 pages will have your pulse racing and I pretty much couldn’t read it fast enough. The ending deviates from the traditional norm Palliser is emulating, in that it is most definitely ambiguous. I can’t decide whether to be annoyed by this or not. I really wanted a definitive happy ending for John Huffam as he really suffers for his art over the course of 1150 pages and at least a decade (Palliser never gives you his age or a true idea of the span of the novel). But we don’t get a definitive unhappy ending either. There are definitely more elements of misery than joy in the final chapters, but there’s enough of a glimmer that I want to believe it wasn’t all for nought. Whatever the conclusion I draw, I can say this for sure. Reading this book was most definitely NOT for nought. An absolutely staggering piece of fiction. For those of you who love classic novels and bemoan the fact they don’t make them like they used to, well, THEY DO.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 29: In The House Upon The Dirt Between The Lake and The Woods by Matt Bell

16041846Ah this book. Last year, it was everywhere I turned. It was on list after list after list of recommendations, of mid year and year end round ups. It was hotly anticipated and has been highly lauded. So even though it wasn’t really something I would normally go after, I thought I would see what all the fuss was about. And as unwieldy as it is, I do really like the title. It’s not yet published in the UK, so I imported it via a friend visiting from the USA. It tells the story of a married couple who move to the titular house to start a family. But this is a fairy tale world, where the wife can sing things into existence and the husband can commune with the wildlife and as every pregnancy fails, events become ever darker and more sinister.

Things do get off to a promising start. Our narrator, the husband (Bell doesn’t give them anything as straightforward as names), takes one of the failed foetuses into himself, calls it a fingerling, and begins to listen as it talks to him. It’s super creepy and kind of brilliant and the rage that consumes him as they watch his wife take ever more desperate measures to pretend her last pregnancy has not failed is quite chilling. But things begin to go downhill fast. Bell is making his debut as a novelist, and the idea isn’t enough to be spun out to a full length novel at just over 300 pages. It’s a short story, stretched far beyond its scope for narrative and Bell’s use of language. What starts out as equal parts florid, lyrical and spiky soon becomes tiresome, repetitive and dull. I really wanted to like it. And for about 50 pages, I did enjoy it.

Problem is, I then had another 250 pages to wade through, with nameless characters I’m not overly invested in. The wife is barely there, and once you get past the lengths she’s gone to for a child, there’s not really anything more there to hold on to. Instead we have seemingly endless pages of the husband fishing in the lake and trapping animals in the dirt.  And I hope you like the words “house”, “dirt”, “lake” and “woods”, because you will read them approximately eleventy billion times before you get to the end of this not really that long but still far too long book.

Ultimately, if you read this sentence: “The squid was a hunter and a trapper too, and I was the squid and the squid was me, and we shot through the ink toward the bear, searching for that thin breadth of bone-spaced chance, and as we jetted through that horror I heard the fingerling’s voice call out to me, call out in many voices for me to save him, to take him back in, begging as only a child can beg” and you think “holy fuck that’s amazing” then this is the book for you and I hope you enjoy it much more than I did. If you rolled your eyes and thought “oh for heavens sakes” then don’t even pick it up. I prefer books with characters and a narrative, something I can get interested in and care about. If I am left in awe of the wordsmithery along the way, bonus. If I’m not gripped and I call think is “STOP SAYING THE WORDS ‘HOUSE’ AND ‘LAKE'” then nobody is having any fun. Ah well!

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 6, Book 17: Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer

16071656So it turns out that I have a soft spot for the unconventional amateur sleuth. Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher, Flavia de Luce, Agatha Raisin, the list goes on. It’s a miracle I haven’t read the Shardlake series, really. One amateur sleuth to which Bauer and her excellent novel owe something of a debt is Christopher Boone. The narrator of Mark Haddon’s groundbreaking Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time was never noted as specifically having Asperger’s and was investigating who killed his neighbour’s dog, which didn’t ever really put him in mortal danger. Patrick Fort, Bauer’s hero at the centre of Rubbernecker, is a little older than Boone, unashamedly Asperger’s, and finds himself drawn into investigating what really happened to the body he’s dissecting in his first year anatomy class. So while there may be some differences, I very much doubt a single review or interview made it to the end without mentioning Haddon and the shadow cast by Boone.

There is a lot more to Rubbernecker than “autistic teen gets involved in a murder mystery”. In addition to Fort and his anatomy class, we also spend time in a coma ward with a ghastly gold digging and singularly unhelpful nurse. And Patrick is studying anatomy as he’s driven to find answers about death, having witnessed his father’s death when he was a young boy. His relationship with his mother, never great, has creaked and strained all the more since and the amateur sleuthing threatens to upend things entirely, for reasons Patrick could never see coming. When Patrick disagrees with the given cause of death for the cadaver he’s dissecting, so begins an increasingly exciting investigation into what really killed him.

The skill with which Bauer weaves these disparate storylines together is really quite wonderful. Patrick’s Asperger’s provides some fantastic moments of humour, but is never held up for laughs and mockery. It’s sensitively handled without it ever obviously being a thing with moments like “Jackson had long, pale hands that flapped on slender wrists, and dyed black hair, so short at the back and so long at the front that Patrick itched to reach out and realign it with his head” and “Patrick hadn’t been to a party since he was five years old, when the clamour of twenty over-sugared children in such disorganised proximity had led to a meltdown on a scale rarely witnessed during musical chairs. The very word ‘party’ had the power to trigger in him flashbacks of wailing classmates, overturned furniture and a big brown dog gulping down jelly.”

If I have to be critical, and I suppose I do, I could say that the culprit at the heart of Patrick’s mystery is kind of obvious from relatively early on, but that would be to overlook the heartstopping excitement Bauer creates on the way to unmasking them. The other plot strands are tied up so brilliantly though, that any misgivings over the central mystery are easily forgotten, I think. And Patrick Fort is such a gorgeous creation, I found it impossible to feel cheated at any point. If Bauer wanted to write more books with Fort at the centre, I wouldn’t mind one bit. And I’m fairly sure I’m not alone in that. If you heart Christopher Boone, read this book. If you haven’t read Haddon’s book, then read that. After that, read this one.

 

Cannonball Read 6, Book 14: The Child’s Child by Barbara Vine

15823440I’ve loved Barbara Vine for like ever. I know she doesn’t exist and is in fact Ruth Rendell, but still. It’s an irony that I have not now nor have I ever had any desire to read a Rendell novel. Vine first showed up on my radar when A Fatal Inversion was televised for the BBC way back in time before the hula hoop. Okay, it was like 1992 or something but still, I’m old, alright? Anyway, I read the book of that, then burned my way through everything she’d published, and she went on to my list of Authors Who I Will Read Everything They Ever Publish. Which brings us to her latest novel, The Child’s Child. 

Grace and Andrew Eaton inherit their grandmother’s vast Hampstead house when she dies. They move in and divide the house down the middle, taking half each as their own flat, with a little bit of shared living space. The wheels start to come off when Andrew’s boyfriend moves in and upsets the sibling harmony they have established. James Derain is a novelist, highly sensitive and initially clashes with Grace over her thesis. She is looking at the treatment of illegitimacy in literature and comparing it to the treatment of homosexuality. He takes it a little too personally, but then a personal tragedy comes along and everything spins completely out of control with potentially fatal consequences.

Not every Vine novel is a home run, but they are always a good read, you know? Well, this latest is a crushing disappointment from start to finish. Only one third of the novel is actually about the Eatons. The other two thirds are an unpublished novel Grace finds while researching her thesis. Dealing in a thinly veiled fictional account of the author’s family, it covers gays and illegitimate children, but it’s not interesting and the lead character of Maud is increasingly less likeable and infinitely more crazy with each page turn. And it’s TWO THIRDS of the book. As for the Eaton’s third, well, I didn’t believe one single word of it. Not one. The characters are ridiculous, especially James Derain. The arc that drives the Eaton’s apart is dumb, the arc that pulls them back together again is so patently unrealistic, I was actually shouting at the book when it was all kicking off. An unexpected and total failure from Vine. And what’s really sad is this could well be her last novel, as Rendell is pushing 90 years old.

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 6, Book 7: Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson

17286032Now this is a bit more like it. My Booker Longlist Forced March continues, but I had high hopes for this book before I picked it up. And they were, for the most part, met and met well. A novel of families who never talk to each other, even though three generations of one family are all squished into one tiny flat in London. Laura was married to Peter until he left her and she was forced to move in with three of his ancient relatives. Laura’s daughter, Marina, is sixteen years old and decided she would rather go to boarding school in Dorset. Presumably, this was to get away from the stifling influence of the elderly relatives and her unstable mother, but now she’s there, she thinks she might have made a terrible mistake…..

Between them, Laura and Marina have to be two of the most insecure and emotionally unstable characters I’ve read in a REALLY long time. Laura is mostly an unspeakably awful woman. Her estranged husband re-appears after vanishing for a fair chunk of time and tells her he may be dying of cancer. Laura handles this by sleeping with him again while telling nobody (not even his ancient relatives) that he has rematerialised. Juggling this turn of events with having an affair with her boss means that hopeless hateful self-involved Laura doesn’t notice her poor daughter all but self-destructing.

Marina is only sixteen, so I totally forgave her awkward indecision, her constant paranoia, her self loathing, all of it. It’s so beautifully, painfully written and well, we’ve all been there haven’t we? We’ve all thought we were dating the wrong boy while mooning hopelessly over the school heartthrob who doesn’t know we exist. We’ve all thought we chose the wrong subjects to study. And we’ve all wanted our family to vanish off the face off the earth and just stop embarrassing us, for the love of all that’s holy. So I defy anyone to read Marina’s story and not, at some point, see a little bit of their sixteen year old self in there somewhere.

That’s not to say Almost English is a dull misery fest. It’s often very funny. Marina’s boyfriend’s father, TV historian Alexander Viney, tries to discern Marina’s heritage, commenting that “you look like you should be ululating at Mafia funerals”, which was just one of the many moments I laughed out loud. And Mendelson knows whereof she speaks when it comes to the Eastern European relatives of Marina, since her maternal grandparents were, in her words, “Hungarian-speaking-Czech, Ruthenian for about 10 minutes, Carpathian mountain-y, impossible to describe”. Consequently, their heavily accented English dialogue and fantastically no-nonsense outlook treads a VERY fine line between affectionate ribbing and outright caricature (erring, just, on the affectionate side).

This is a hugely enjoyable read, and one that is often frustrating for the right reasons. So many times, I found myself wanting to yell at stupid selfish Laura, and Marina has some genuinely shocking moments of self loathing, which made my jaw drop. But then, right at the end, it got a little bit frustrating for the wrong reasons. A drawn out mystery with Viney and his connection to Marina’s grandparents, when it’s revealed, left me with an overwhelming sense of “that’s it?”. The end is a little abrupt as well, but maybe I didn’t want it to be over before someone punched Laura in her massively annoying face. Easily the most enjoyable of the Longlist books so far.