Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Cannonbridge by Jonathan Barnes

The Basics:
Cannonbridge by Jonathan Barnes
Sci-fi/Fantasy, Historical
Published February 10, 2015
Source: Received via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Amazon Kobo Goodreads

Why I picked up this book:

Cannonbridge hits so many of my happy places - it's about books, specifically from the 19th century, and really, it's about discovering that a famous author from the period may never have actually existed....


Something has gone wrong with history in this gripping novel about a lie planted among the greatest works of English fiction.

Flamboyant, charismatic Matthew Cannonbridge was touched by genius, the most influential creative mind of the 19th century, a prolific novelist, accomplished playwright, the poet of his generation. The only problem is, he should never have existed and beleaguered, provincial, recently-divorced 21st Century don Toby Judd is the only person to realise something has gone wrong with history. 

All the world was Cannonbridge's and he possessed, seemingly, the ability to be everywhere at once. Cannonbridge was there that night by Lake Geneva when conversation between Byron, Shelley and Mary Godwin turned to stories of horror and the supernatural. He was sole ally, confidante and friend to the young Dickens as Charles laboured without respite in the blacking factory. He was the only man of standing and renown to regularly visit Oscar Wilde in prison. Tennyson's drinking companion, Kipling's best friend, Robert Louis Stevenson's counsellor and guide - Cannonbridge's extraordinary life and career spanned a century, earning him a richly-deserved place in the English canon. 

But as bibliophiles everywhere prepare to toast the bicentenary of the publication of Cannonbridge's most celebrated work, Judd's discovery will lead him on a breakneck chase across the English canon and countryside, to the realisation that the spectre of Matthew Cannonbridge, planted so seamlessly into the heart of the 19th Century, might not be so dead and buried after all...

My thoughts:

Inadvertently this week is starting out with a historical fiction theme! I like it!

Cannonbridge has the atmosphere of a modern action-mystery combined with Lovecraft. I thought this was the book's greatest strength - it has this really ominous, impending-doom atmosphere that absolutely made me think of Lovecraft. Many of the characters we meet - particularly in the historical context - become aware of a horrible truth that the reader is not let in on until the climax of the story. Instead, the reader - or at least *I* had a sense that something horrific was right around the corner through the entire book.

The book shifts back and forth from the present day to the nineteenth century. In the present, we follow Toby Judd, an academic whose wife has just left him for a leading scholar of Cannonbridge. Toby soon has an epiphany - Cannonbridge is an elaborate hoax! When he shares his observation with the world, he's forced to go on the run, egged on by other conspiracy theorists and threatened by a very lethal, very mysterious unknown aggressor. I found these sections quite interesting as this is when the story, it felt to me, is really unfolding. 

In the sections from the nineteenth century, we're witnessing moments in time when Cannonbridge surfaced - always in relation to other well-known authors. I thought these were kind of neat at first, but the novelty quickly worn off. While a few of these scenes are integral to developing the tension of the story, and to providing the reader with clues about the truth, I thought that many of these scenes were ultimately unnecessary. They tended to slow the pace of the story down, and I felt that they taunted me by emphasizing all of these characters who knew the secret, while I did not. Frustrating!

There's a really clever idea here, and as the reveal does happen, it becomes clear why Cannonbridge is written the way it is. Unfortunately, there was too much build for me, too much pressure on that clever reveal. I was letdown - yes, it does really wrap things up nicely, but the pacing of the book was so often so very slow, and if I'd been slightly less committed to finishing the book? I don't know that my faith in the story really coming together would have sustained me through to the end. Cannonbridge would have worked better for me as a short story or novella, requiring less commitment to get to that clever reveal.

Bottom line:

Cannonbridge is a modern day action-mystery that delves into the historical, and while it hit so many of my sweet spots - history and academia with an emphasis on literature and authors - I just did not get hooked. The atmosphere is great - very Lovecraftian, I thought - but ultimately it took too long for the big reveal to make clear why everything was written the way it was. I would have preferred this story in a shorter length, I think!

3 stars
For fans of historical fiction, conspiracies, Lovecraft

But don't just take my word for it! I grabbed a few links to other blog reviews of Cannonbridge:

Beauty in Ruins

The Book That

Book Frivolity

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