Cannonball 7, Book 3: Dying Light by Stuart MacBride

12735048Year of Crime, Book 3

This is the 2nd book in the DS Logan McRae series. The first one I read prior to being a Cannonball Reader, but to summarise, it’s a grim, bleak and cold book set in Aberdeen and dealing with the gruesome murder of children. Fun times. The rest of the series ended up as a Kindle Daily Deal and so here we are. The second book opens with McRae disgraced by a botched operation which ended with a policeman on life support. Assigned to the “Screw Up Squad”, McRae has to work his way back out.

The cases which McRae sees as his opportunity to return back to his former glory start with the murder of prostitutes and later a serial arson case. Also thrown in is a missing persons case which of course ends up being not all that it seems. Or more than it seems…..

MacBride really doesn’t shy away from unpleasant scenes. If you’re tender of heart and stomach, he is not the writer for you. A journalist, poor Colin Miller, finds himself on the wrong end of some truly gruesome torture that made even my cast iron stomach lurch. And they’re all the more difficult to read because the characters are so well drawn and relatable and poor Colin seems like such a nice chap. Some characters aren’t quite so finely tuned and the broad caricature of McRae’s inept boss is a little hard to swallow.

The tying up of all the plot strands is also very well done. But unless I missed it, there is one arson murder which didn’t fit with the end explanation and the book seems to just stop rather than properly end. It’ll be interesting to see if that is picked back up in the next book or not. Certainly, the gruff and likeable McRae is an interesting enough guy to keep me reading, so watch this space.

Cannonball Read 7, Book 2: Agatha Raisin & The Deadly Dance by M.C. Beaton

9781849011488Year of Crime Book 2

So, here we are. 2015 will be the year I finally burn through the rest of the Agatha Raisin books, which have been sitting on my Kindle for a year. The self-imposed Year of Crime (Reading) should sort that right out. And following the entertaining but hugely miscast TV adaptation of the first book, my interest in all things Raisin has been very much renewed.

So, after several years of having her retirement disrupted by dead bodies popping up and then solving the murder, Agatha has finally decided to come out of retirement and open her own private detective agency. And even more refreshing, Agatha’s new neighbour is a retired lady, not some silver fox for her to coo over and fall in love with. And when Agatha hires her as her secretary, all hell eventually breaks loose.

See, the dance of the title, and the central murder story, are FAR less interesting than the sub plot involving Secretary Emma and her increasingly psycho fixations and mental behaviour. Which isn’t to say the central story is bad, it isn’t. In fact, it’s probably one of the more satisfying ones Beaton has come up with in a long while. It is just overshadowed by Mental Emma.

The decision to give Raisin her own agency has given the series a new lease of life and come as a welcome change. It was the best thing Beaton could have done. It’s just a shame it’s taken fifteen books to get there, when really it could have been done in five. If you’re intrigued enough to start reading Raisin, but the thought of the series being SO long makes you break out in hives, then start here. You’ll pick it all up just fine.

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 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 26: I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

14781675This book seems to be everywhere at the moment. It has been prominently displayed in bookstores since its hardback publication last year and the paperback just came out, causing a fresh wave of publicity. There are posters everywhere I turn, all of them emblazoned with pull quotes from glowing reviews about how exciting, pulse racing, daring, smart and thrilling it is. You’ll see there’s a sticker on the cover there that denotes it is “the only thriller you need to read this year”. Having now finished it, I can only scratch my head and quote Tori Amos to ask “baby, what have you been smoking?”

The back cover does, I’ll admit, hook you in. “A young woman murdered in a run-down Manhattan hotel. A father publicly beheaded in the blistering sun of Saudi Arabia. A man’s eyes stolen from his living body as he leaves a secret Syrian research laboratory. Smouldering remains on a mountainside in the Hindu Kush. A plot to commit an appalling crime against humanity. One thread binds them all, one man to take the journey. Pilgrim.” But Hayes, an ex-screenwriter making his debut as a novelist, puts his foot wrong from the very beginning. Some of the plot points he asks to swallow are served up in indigestible chunks. I could not ever believe an ex-agent from a top secret agency only ever known as The Division would write a book detailing forensic criminal investigation and how you would commit a perfect murder, let alone that anyone would ever allow it to be published, for starters. But that book was used to plan the hotel murder which opens the book, and it’s the reason our Pilgrim narrator is there and that the whole book kicks off at all. So, whatever.

Another issue I had with the book is how much Hayes loves a back story. After a couple of chapters in the hotel dealing with the murder, he then delves into the backstory of Pilgrim, his NYPD buddy who also read the book and consults him from time to time and into the history of the man plotting to commit the appalling crime, only known as Saracen. We don’t return to the story and start to gather any kind of momentum for 150 pages. And those 150 pages could easily have been 30. And even better, there’s five “missing years” in Saracen’s backstory, one that otherwise has a forensic level of mind-numbing detail. Those years are missing purely because if they weren’t, something that takes Pilgrim A REALLY LONG TIME to figure out would have been immediately obvious.

Once Saracen’s plot becomes known to Pilgrim (spoiler alert: it’s smallpox. Saracen managed to steal the vaccine, using someone else’s eyes, and then synthesise the virus in his garage, having taught himself how from the internet. I shit you not.) the race to find Saracen takes him to Turkey, where we have a shitload more backstory. Parachuted in under the cover story of investigating the death of an American billionaire, Pilgrim actually has to investigate that and the Saracen plot as well, to maintain cover. While delving into the death, desperation forces his hand and there’s a plot point involving fireworks and giant mirrors that even Dan Brown would have raised an eyebrow at and said “bitch, please”. It also doesn’t stack up with someone who repeatedly says “had I been paying more attention at the time, I would have noticed…” or something along those lines. I got to the point where every time he said it, it caused an eye roll and an exclamation of “you’re supposed to be the best secret agent alive!”

Repetition is another of Hayes’s problems. When endlessly discussing the smallpox scenario, I lost count of how many times I read the words “crash through the vaccine”. The writing generally isn’t anywhere near as good as it thinks it is. There are flashbacks which last over several chapters and are purely there to introduce one character and one tiny plot point. And those flashbacks are clumsily constructed, to say the least. Hayes also talks down to his audience, pausing to explain what a tagine is, which just made me yell “I KNOW WHAT A FUCKING TAGINE IS”. Having patronised us, he then talks about craigslist as if it’s actually a list belonging to a guy named Craig and worst of all, doesn’t know what a zombie is. When detailing how Saracen will unleash the smallpox he notes that after exposure, the exposed can then “accurately be described as zombies – one of the walking dead.” Anyone who’s ever seen a zombie film will be happy to tell you that zombies are actually undead and unless the smallpox has killed you and then you’ve come back to life with a desire to eat brains, you’re not a zombie.

So there we are. A fast paced thriller that is neither fast paced nor especially thrilling. Ambitiously constructed, sure, but Hayes’s reach far exceeds his grasp and what could have been an absolute slam dunk is instead by turns frustrating, dull and laughable.

 

Cannonball Read 6, Book 21: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

17612888Marisha Pessl arrived in a blaze of glory seven or eight years ago. Her debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, was a critically lauded runaway bestseller. I read it and loved every page of it. Then, she did a Donna Tartt and vanished for aeons. I was about to give up on another novel being published when last year along came her follow up, Night Film. Unlike Tartt, the follow up wasn’t as critically reviled as The Little Friend, but it didn’t attract the universal acclaim its predecessor had. But then, lightning doesn’t strike twice, does it?

Veering far from her debut, this novel centres on Scott McGrath. An investigative journalist, Scott narrates the tale, telling us how in his relentless pursuit of the notoriously reclusive film director Stanislas Cordova, he nuked his own career and turned himself into a journalistic pariah. Now divorced and seriously down on his luck, he is drawn back into the web of Cordova when his 26 year old daughter Ashley is found dead in an apparent suicide. Eager to prove she was in fact murdered, McGrath begins to look into Ashley’s last days on earth, aided and (not always) abetted by two waifs and strays he picks up in the course of his investigation.

Pessl goes all out with the telling of this story. There are recreations of websites, police reports and magazine articles peppered throughout McGrath’s narrative, the attention to detail of which is all highly impressive. And you can’t accuse her of trying to detract from the story, since Pessl can really tell a story, and the history of the Cordova family is undeniably one heck of a story. A Kubrick inspired creation, to be sure, Cordova’s films are banned for their disturbing imagery and violence, his fans hold secret screenings and have a message board set up on the “dark web”, devoted to analysing every frame of them. Rumours and myths about Cordova abound, and McGrath has to try and find the reality in amongst all the crazy if he’s going to discover just what drove Ashley to end her life. Or if someone else ended it for her.

Inevitably, he can’t find that out with pushing himself ever further down the rabbit hole and allowing his life to spin almost entirely out of his own control. As he uncovers evidence of voodoo, witchcraft, black magic, secret sex clubs and underground networks, his obsession threatens to consume him entirely. It is a riveting story, immaculately paced, deep and more layered than you would expect. The supporting cast take a little bit of disbelief suspension, it’s fair to say, but Pessl makes them endearing enough that I forgave their outlandishness. I could have done without the excessive use of italics Pessl uses to make her point as well, but I was gripped from page one and by the time I got to the end I felt like I hadn’t breathed for about 100 pages.

Whether you find the ending a giant cop out or a bravura decision is of course entirely dependent on just how much you believe of everything you read leading up to it. For me, the unravelling of Ashley’s mystery was most definitely the latter. The coda Pessl tacks on though? I wasn’t entirely sure I bought it. All in all, a bloody good read and a worthy successor to Special Topics in Calamity Physics. 

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 10: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

17906835In which Popcultureboy is left floored by and in awe of Catton’s supreme mastery and skill as a writer and storyteller, but is ultimately forced to conclude he found the novel easier to admire than to love. 

So here we are at the pinnacle of the Booker challenge for 2013, with the winning book. There were some firsts with this book lifting the Booker, as it was the longest ever book to do so with the highest page count (Catton is 28, and the book runs to 834 pages, as was heavily documented at the time). I have a bit of soft spot for Victorian pastiche novels, so I was really looking forward to reading this from the moment the longlist was announced. I confess, one of the reasons I took so long to get around to it is the unseemly duration of it.

Catton has divided the novel into twelve sections, each one half the length of its predecessor, to mirror the twelve phases of the waning moon. The character count is even higher. The opening section sees Walter Moody stumble upon a gathering of twelve disparate men, who have gathered to discuss a strange pattern of events that has unfolded in the previous two weeks. A fortune in smelted gold has been uncovered in the cottage of a dead hermit, a prostitute has tried to commit suicide and a prospector has vanished, seemingly without a trace. The gathered dozen seem to think the events are somehow connected and they each tell their story to Moody, to see if he can piece it all together. But of course, Moody also holds a piece of the puzzle, unbeknownst to all of them.

There is absolutely no denying that Catton really knows what she’s doing. The research for this novel has clearly been seriously in depth. The language is rich and evocative, spot on for the genre she’s trying to evoke. And of course, she’s not afraid to take her time in telling the story. If you enjoy a mystery story, then this is a glorious one, intricately layered, utterly engrossing and one that doesn’t talk down to the reader. There’s also a certain charm to the old fashioned prose, with its blanked out expletives and the like.

So there is a lot to recommend this novel, but it’s not a book to undertake lightly. It’s a proper beast of a book, that’s for sure. And for as much as I loved it, I could never quite stop a part of my brain from really doing cartwheels over the style of it. So it’s very much not a case of “style over substance” because believe me, there is a LOT of substance here. It’s an odd criticism to make, that a book is too well written, too immaculately styled, but that’s what I’m trying to get at. It was all so spot on, that every now and then, I’d be pulled out of the story by the sheer brilliance of the text.

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 84: The Small Hand by Susan Hill

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Since it’s October and traditionally the month we all read scary stuff, I thought I’d give The Small Hand a whirl. After all, it’s subtitled A Ghost Story and comes from the pen of the woman who gave us The Woman In Black, whose reputation most definitely precedes it.

Like all good scary stories, it’s simple and straightforward with a premise that will make you clutch at pearls. One evening, Adam Snow gets lost on a drive home from a business meeting. He finds himself outside a derelict house, The White House and while he is standing and looking at it, he feels a small, icy cold, ghostly hand take his own. Of course, there’s nothing there. Seriously, just reading that synopsis almost had me running screaming from the room. But the book itself doesn’t quite live up to its initial promise.

The main problem is that as it’s such a simple story, it can’t really be an overly lengthy one. This feels like a long short story that her editor said “Susan, why don’t you try and pad it out a bit and publish it as a short novel?” Most of the padding revolves around Snow’s job as a private dealer in rare and antique books, none of it is particularly interesting, nor is it relevant to the story. So the creeping horror leeches out of the pages every so often. Maybe Hill was thinking readers would be unnerved enough to be on edge that the little hand could re-emerge at any point. I just kept thinking “I don’t care about First Folios, JUST GET ON WITH IT” and that is not quite the same thing.

The other problem is that all the revelations that come tumbling out in the final pages aren’t particularly surprising or frightening. It’s something you can see coming from pretty early on, and it’s relayed to the reader in a somewhat hackneyed fashion to boot. This is a definite case of an excellent idea being hamstrung by its execution.