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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cannonball Read 5, Book 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 71: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

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The premise of this novel is batshit insane brilliance. A serial killer discovers a way to travel through time. That right there is already enough to make me read it. That he finds his victims at a young age because they shine (to him, because he’s clearly unhinged), and then revisits them as adults to brutally slay them is the icing on the gruesome cake.  However, I feel the need to quote Ten Things I Hate About You here. I know you can be overwhelmed and I know you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever be just whelmed?

So Harper darts across decades, strewing female intestines in his wake. Kirby Mazrachi, his intended victim from the early 90’s, refuses to die. Haunted by her horrific brush with death (who wouldn’t be?), Kirby can’t stop looking for him. And that is pretty much it, for the book. How the time travel part of it works is never really explained, but to distract us from this and some seriously flat characterisation, Beukes jumbles the linear narrative, chapter by chapter. This drives me up the wall when Tarantino does it, so I was hardly going to be all “oh look! It’s out of sequence! THAT IS AMAZING”, was I?

There’s something that, for me, just didn’t quite work. I don’t know if it was the structure, the time travel gambit, or the fact that every character (bar one) was varying degrees of unbelievable, unsympathetic or just plain annoying, but my patience began to run thin long before the end of this book. I suppose it didn’t help that the most horrendously annoying character is Kirby. When you find yourself actively wanting your main protagonist to take a knife to the face, then really, it’s game over.

So there we are. Some of the back story on some of the victims is interesting, but several of the murders cause the suspension of disbelief to snap clean in half. I really wanted to love this book, it sounded so gruesomely, brilliantly unusual. But when I was finished I just thought “meh”. Shame.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 44: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

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The hype machine would have you believe that this debut novel is “luminous”, “haunting” and “unforgettable”. Having recently been burned by Tigers In Red Weather, I approached with caution on that score. But the hype machine was right. Hot damn this was an absolute stunner of a book.

Narrated by 11 year old Julia, Miracles tells the story of what happened when the world started slowing down. Periods of light and dark lengthen, no longer being synonymous with night and day. When adherence to the 24 hour clock is enforced, society begins to fracture along the lines of those who want to live on “real time” and those sticking to “clock time”. Gravity becomes heavier, tides lower and higher than before. The slower the earth turns, the more the earth suffers. Crops fail, magnetic fields weaken, radiation in the atmosphere increases, people start to suffer from what is referred to as The Syndrome.

Two things set this book apart. The first is how simple an idea that is and how well Walker evokes it. The second thing is how it’s not really the main focus of the book. Julia is 11 years old, she goes to school, she has crushes on boys, falls out with her best friend, frets over being socially awkward, has parents who fight, all the things 11 year olds have to deal with. It just so happens she’s dealing with it all while the physical world marches ever closer to a total meltdown.

Technically, the Julia narrating the book is in her mid 20’s, looking back on her 11th year as it was the first year of The Slowing. Whichever way you look at it, Walker captures it all pretty much perfectly. There’s a LOT of foreshadowing in the book and somehow all of that works too. When talking about the colour of the car her mother is driving, Julia notes that “the police report would later describe it as blue”. Very easy to overdo that kind of conceit, I always think. It works here so well though. And when, towards the end, Julia tells us that “sometimes the saddest stories can be told in the fewest words”, well, she is not messing around, you guys. Glorious stuff.

 

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.