Shaman’s Cannonball Read #CBR5 review #26: The Ocean at the End of the Lake by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lake was the last book I read to complete my half Cannonball Read, and I couldn’t have picked a better book. But boy, is it ever a hard book to write a review of.

Let’s get these two facts out of the way first: I don’t usually enjoy Gaiman’s work (heathen!). And: I loved this book. Was it a literary masterpiece? Was its plot original, more developed, deeper, more fascinating than all the other books I read these past few months? It’s not important. Not right now, when I’m writing this review just a few minutes after I finished the book. What matters is this feeling.

Our narrator is a middle-aged man, heading back to his childhood home after a funeral without knowing why. While there, memories long forgotten start coming back to him. Difficult memories. Yet, beautiful in their own way. The lonely, friendless seven-year old version of our narrator goes through terrible loss, and he deals with it with some help from the neighbours down the lane, the Hempstocks: Old lady Hempstock (the grandmother), Ginnie (the mother) and Lettie (the eleven-year old daughter).

I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot, because it is a short book and revealing more than the above would be spoiling the whole story. And it is frustrating, because I need to talk and think more about this book. Gaiman tackles some pretty serious issues, and he does it through the innocent eyes of a child, not a precocious child but a believable child, a frightened, vulnerable child. I found it refreshing to have a smart child that’s not older than his years at the centre of a story. These serious issues could break anyone, let alone a little boy, but if you’re a lonely boy with an over-active imagination you just might find a way to cope, and our narrator does.

The writing was beautiful and reminded me of a couple of my favourite authors at times, Stephen King (ca The Body/ Stand by me) and Terry Pratchett. Gaiman’s descriptions of the environment were so vivid in detail, as honest as a childhood memory, and I nodded my head in recognition, remembering similar adventures I had embarked on as a child. Magic was at the core of the story. Magic in the descriptions, magic in childhood, magic in the way a desperate child thinks he or she can change the world if only he or she can wish it hard enough.

This book had so much heart, so much sorrow and sweetness. It is a book I will be revisiting and thinking about often.

Shaman’s Cannonball Read #CBR5 review #25: The Dinner by Herman Koch

Disjointed. Unlikeable characters. Badly written.

So, Shaman, tell us what you really think about The Dinner by Herman Koch!

Two brothers and their wives meet up at a fancy restaurant to discuss a very important matter that has to do with their children. The narrator, one of the brothers, recounts the events that led up to this evening. These events are presented in a detached way, without emotion. Explanations are given, yet nobody is held accountable, let alone takes responsibility willingly. Still, every single person around that table should be stepping up to the plate.

The book is divided into sections named after the course the two couples are currently eating. This I found an annoying gimmick, especially because the dishes – otherwise completely irrelevant to the story – are presented in detail (something that has made me skip whole paragraphs when reading Game of Thrones). Maybe this was done on purpose, to irritate the reader and bring him or her closer to the state of mind of Paul, our narrator. By all appearances in a constant state of irritation and with a dangerously short fuse, he makes for a character that’s hard to empathise with. His beliefs are at such odds with mine that I almost shuddered with distaste every time he talked about them. I suppose that, if there is one thing Koch succeeds in is to prove that, if you’re not careful, you become the monster you detest.

Writing-wise I found the language too simplistic, although that might have depended on the translation. It was difficult at times to understand when the events described were taking place, as the story jumped from ”now” to ”two hours ago” to ”some months ago” to ”many years ago” in a disjointed, confusing manner. Some of the narrator’s recollections seem to do little to add to the story except further irritate the reader.

The Dinner was a quick read and it did make me think, so it wasn’t a complete waste of my time. But I enjoyed watching Carnage, a film with a similar premise, much more than this.

Shaman’s Cannonball Read #CBR5 review #24: Señor Peregrino by Cecilia Samartin

A colleague lent me this book. It’s important to write that, because it’s not the kind of book I would have otherwise chosen to read. But, for me, the Cannonball Read has been an opportunity to try new genres. Broaden my literary horizons, so to speak.

Señor Peregrino is the story of Jamilet, a young Mexican woman carrying a secret. She was born with a birthmark over almost half her body, from her neck down to her knees. Jamilet is convinced that American doctors can perform miracles and remove the birthmark, so she takes herself over the border illegally and makes it to Los Angeles. There, she moves in with her aunt and soon enough she finds a job at a mental hospital, taking care of an older man (the titular Señor Peregrino) who refuses to leave his room. After a while, he starts telling her his story.

It’s a common plot device. The archetypal old man tells a story so deep that it makes his captive audience go through a personal transformation. I kept trying to remember what film or what book it reminded me of. There’s probably loads of them out there. As I turned the pages, I waited for some transformation to happen, something to explain what message this book was trying to convey, some pearls of wisdom. Unfortunately, unless I completely missed the point, this aha-moment never came.

Jamilet is an interesting character, at least to begin with. The burden she carries should be an excellent tool in the hands of the writer, her plight a chance for personal development and perhaps for rising above all fixation with appearances. Instead, we’re led onto a different path, that of Señor Peregrino, and his fixation with beauty, with just a dash of desperate love. I found myself confused. I felt like there was supposed to be a meaning with the telling of his story, but the book read more like two separate stories that were only connected by a tentative professional relationship between Jamilet and Señor Peregrino. The word ”miracle” appears often, so perhaps we’re meant to think that a miracle has occurred by the end of the novel, yet it is an underwhelming miracle, the personal transformation almost non-existent.

Señor Peregrino was not a bad book. It just left me wishing it had packed more of a punch.

Shaman’s Cannonball Read #CBR5 review #23: The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

Rarely does a book manage to fill me with apprehension after just one paragraph. But The Slap did it. After just one paragraph I was prepared to hate this book. I usually hate books that only have despicable characters in them.

Set in Melbourne, the story revolves around a group of people related to each other by blood, friendship, marriage. While these people are together at a barbecue, one of them slaps a three-year old child across the face to protect his own son from getting hit by the child. The group is then divided between those who think that the child deserved it and those who believe that no one should ever hit a child and that the family should press charges.

From the description above, you would think that the genre of this book is legal drama, or perhaps a murder mystery, but what it really is is a character study that has mostly nothing to do with the titular slap. Divided into chapters where each chapter follows a different character, it reveals their secrets and dark desires. It is unrelenting in its portrayal of these people’s lack in basic morality, and it is an ugly world it paints. There are no good people to offer redemption here, no one to shed a light in this bleak suburban existence, just bad and less bad people. People that are obsessed by how they look, how their lives look, how their own needs will be satisfied. Except maybe one.

It is that person, right at the end of the story, who made me change my perception of the book. This person would probably be judged as ”bad” by some (hopefully a few), but in my eyes he never did anything inexcusable. This made me wonder if some of the characters I found horrible, narcissistic, self-absorbed would get a pass by other readers, just like the slap was deemed horrible by some and ok by others. And, perhaps, that’s exactly the point Tsiolkas is trying to make: that we all play by our own set of rules, and as long as we don’t break any rules or are too outspoken about the ones that we do break, our own version of immorality goes largely unnoticed by the world around us. But morality is so bound by cultural standards that it becomes a very relevant question, especially in this day and age, in our multicultural Western societies. At several points in the book, for example, the adults complain of young people not showing respect for their elders. This complaint is, in itself, laughable, because, by all accounts, the adults in this story haven’t done much to deserve this respect – they just expect it.

An easy read, The Slap kept me interested throughout, its depiction of some deeply flawed people like a bad car accident that just forces you to rubberneck. Thankfully, my fear that I would hate this book was unfounded. I didn’t love the book either. The lack of redeeming features in the characters felt unrealistic, and that so many rotten of them would find each other to spend time and procreate with only amplified that feeling. But it was definitely a thought-provoking book that I would recommend to my less-sensitive friends.

Shaman’s Cannonball Read #CBR5 review #22: Shift by Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey’s Wool was one of the best books I read last year. Original, clever, well-written, I’ve recommended it to lots of people. Naturally, I was excited to find out that there was going to be a sequel.

Shift mainly takes place before the events described in Wool. The story of Wool, for those of you who haven’t read it (obviously, SPOILERS ahead) revolves mainly around Juliette, a young woman living, together with thousands of others, in an underground silo. The world above is toxic and anyone who is unlucky enough to get kicked out of the silo dies within a few minutes. In Wool, we don’t find out exactly why things are the way they are. Shift tries to do that. Through the main character of Donald, we get to look back at the world before silos, and how it became a toxic wasteland.

Just like Wool, Shift was released in parts before it was published as a book, and just as in Wool, I found the first half to drag on a bit – maybe because of their episodic nature. The issue I had with Wool, namely that…

SPOILERS!

 

Characters are introduced and fleshed out only to be killed off, turning out that they weren’t important to the main story after all

/SPOILERS

bothered me a bit with this book too. But, in the end, the biggest issue I had with this book was that our main character seemed to reach important conclusions about the secrets that were hidden from him (and from us), yet these conclusions were never fully revealed to us. Was I not paying attention? Do I lack the capacity to follow the same logical steps as he did? I kept thinking that the big revelation was just around the corner, a revelation of such enormous importance (you want the truth? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!) that it kept me turning the pages. But the revelation never came. Not in a way that I was able to understand, anyway. In the end, I felt a bit cheated and the hints that there was a great mystery felt like nothing more than a way for the author to produce a thicker book.

That said, I still enjoyed reading this book. I love the world of the silos, the idea that whole societies live underground, unaware of each other. I want to find out more about these societies, their psychology, their religion, their politics. I will be reading the follow-up, Dust, but my expectations may be a little lower this time.

Shaman’s Cannonball Read #CBR5 review #21: Löparäventyret – på småvägar genom Europa by Rune Larsson and Susanne Johansson

(This is a book originally written and published in Swedish. To the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t been translated yet. The title means: “The running adventure – on small roads through Europe”)

In April 2011, ultrarunning legend Rune Larsson and marathon runner Susanne Johansson set off from Portugal on a journey that would take them across Europe and all the way home to Sweden. They travelled on foot, mostly running, pushing a baby pram loaded with essentials. During their 75-day adventure, they crossed 8 countries and over 3500 km.

I love stories like this. I have several books on my shelves written by people who’d covered great distances on foot and the things they saw. I find such stories incredibly inspiring. I, too, want to embark on such adventures. Imagine the things I’d get to experience.

Despite the fact that I’ve always loved Larsson’s articles in the Swedish edition of Runner’s World, I felt that this book was lacking in some areas. I enjoyed the first half of the book a lot more than the second, picturing how it must have been to travel through Spain and France, to meet all sorts of people, swim in the rivers and camp under the stars. But then the book runs (pun not intended) out of steam. All the exciting incidents get reduced to just another page in what reads like a diary. Neither Larsson or Johansson are, of course, writers by trade. They are athletes. So perhaps I shouldn’t have expected more than this day-to-day account of kilometres run and how much accommodation cost. It’s just that….on the few occasions when I’ve run 40 kilometres or more, I’ve always had a story to tell. In this format, without a story to make each day unique, the numbers fall flat and become meaningless to an outsider, their importance diminished. I suppose I expected more from what I am sure was an amazing adventure.

This is a book for runners, written by runners. It’s not a bad book, per se; I just don’t think it does the actual journey justice.

Shaman’s Cannonball Read #CBR5 review #20: Into the Woods by Tana French

Detective Rob Ryan is relatively new to Dublin’s Murder Squad. He and his partner Cassie Maddox have only had easy cases to deal with so far. But then, one day, a case falls into their lap that will affect them both profoundly. 12-year old Katy has been found dead, left in an archaeological dig in the middle of the woods bordering an estate. The woods where Rob Ryan’s two best friends mysteriously disappeared with hardly a trace when he was 12. Are the two events connected? And how will Rob Ryan cope with the resurfacing of the old case?

Into the woods is Tana French’s début novel. Yet, that’s hard to notice; she exhibits a confidence in her writing usually found in more weathered authors. Her language is at times almost poetic, filled with metaphors and then sharply contrasted by the grim events she describes. Her characters are believable, flawed (wretched, even) but likeable. There’s never a dull moment in the book. It never sags or misses a step, and it certainly doesn’t feel like it’s 600 pages long.

The whole experience was like being in a nightmare, like walking through the fog on a starless night, the only reprieve being the occasional good-natured taunts between Ryan and Maddox – but even those seemed ominous at times. Although I wanted to find out whodunnit, I also didn’t want the book to end. As dark and devoid of life its landscape was, I didn’t want to leave it, yet. Especially since it left me with unanswered questions.

I would recommend this book to anyone who loves a good detective story and who isn’t afraid of the dark.