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Book Review: ‘The Last One’ by Alexandra Oliva

You know that feeling when you walk into a room and feel that you might just have missed something? Well, Zoo hasn’t just missed something; in a way she’s missed pretty much everything. The world has changed catastrophically, and she’s been focused on other things.

Having met the man of her dreams and set off on a life together with him, Zoo finds that she’s not yet quite satisfied. She yearns for a little taste of her old life. And so, before they start a family together, she feels the need for one last challenge.

‘The Last One’ begins by focusing on Zoo’s participation in the reality show ‘In The Dark’. As such, we learn about how twelve contestants are battling through an unnamed wilderness on a survival challenge that will test them more than they’ve ever been tested before. It’s a real mix of people too; some who possess the kind of skills that will be vital for their survival but mixed in with others who have clearly just been picked for their entertainment value. So, a bit like Love Island meets SAS Who Dares Wins, but with more clothes and less clashes.

As the action unfolds though, it’s clear that all is not well with the world. People are dying and it has no connection with the action on screen. The only snag for Zoo is that she has no idea what’s going on in the wider world. Such is her focus on the competition and all of the drama that it brings that she is blissfully unaware of the apocalyptic goings on in the wider world. So, while Zoo moves closer and closer to her survival goals, a deadly virus is taking hold of the population and wiping them out in huge swathes. Thousands are dying and Zoo has no idea. And while she fights to win the show and get back to the love of her life, we don’t even know if he’s managed to survive.

‘The Last One’ is action packed and full of twists and turns. We enter into reading about a reality game show – the kind of thing we’ll all have watched time and time again – and waiting for the inevitable conflict, before being slowly drawn into a pandemic, that until recent years was completely alien to us. So, what might well have once seemed far-fetched quickly becomes eerily familiar and is all the more exciting and readable as a result.

I enjoyed reading for a few different reasons. Firstly, I love an apocalyptic scenario. I don’t care how ridiculous it might seem; give me the fact that the world might be ending and I’m hooked! And Zoo’s confusion about the reality of her situation makes this particular end of the world all the more intriguing.

I enjoyed the mix of characters in ‘The Last One’ too and it was easy to visualise them, particularly the contestants on the show. And while I guess it’s not that difficult to write such characters given the amount of reality TV out there to ‘enjoy’, they were well written, all the same.

The twist in the plot also made ‘The Last One’ stand out from the crowd. This could have easily become some kind of ‘Hunger Ganes, lite but the story within the story lifts it away from such a fate, in my opinion. And you can see exactly why Zoo wouldn’t take the hints that keep getting dropped about the fate of the continent. Such is her paranoia about what the show’s editors are putting in front of her that she suspects everything is a trap, so even when a desperate virus survivor tries to join up with her, she is determined to ditch him in order to get to the finish line.

‘The Last One’ is an excellent read, chock full of the adventure and excitement of Zoo’s quest to survive the whole game show experience, while retaining the ever present under current of tension brought by a mystery virus. Nothing too high brow, but a gripping tale all the same, so if you want a bit of a page turner, this could be the one to pick up.

I give ‘The Last One’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Book Review: ‘Satin Island’ by Tom McCarthy

As an avid, lifelong reader I pretty much always have to finish a book when I’ve started it. Love it or loathe it, I really have to get to the end, even if it feels like I might die of boredom in the process. I consider it a bit of a super power to have the good sense to just give up on a book that you’re clearly not enjoying. But sadly, it’s one of many super powers that I simply don’t have and it’s a real rarity if I put a book down in order to give up on it. Hence the slog to get through what was actually a relatively short book.

Satin Island is by no means a terrible book. In fact, it was shortlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize and so, if you believe in awards, then that’s a decent yardstick of the quality here. Satin Island just wasn’t for me.

The story revolves around anthropologist U (or was it C or K, I genuinely don’t remember. Whatever it is, he hasn’t got a proper name) and the quest that he seems to have found himself on. He’s employed by a company to research stuff…this, that and maybe the other…I was never really entirely sure what he was doing to be fair and the crux of the tale seems to be the findings of his investigation.

The problem – both with the narrative and for me, the book itself – is that U doesn’t seem to ever really do anything that resembles work or the work that we’re led to believe that he should be doing. He’s researching stuff, but it never really seems to have anything to do with what it is he’s actually meant to be working on. Mind you, even the project here is vague. So, while you’re reading about what U’s up to, you’re also wondering why on earth he’s doing it. And for me this meant that the narrative never really took shape and I realised about halfway through the book that I had no idea what was going on.

U investigates the death of parachutists. U starts seeing a girl. U Googles stuff about Staten Island. U reads up on South Pacific cults. U spends lots of time looking into lots of different things producing very little in the way of results. In essence, U spends his days doing the equivalent of you or I disappearing down various YouTube or Facebook holes and while he gets paid to do it, this really added nothing at all to the book. In fact, with each little bit of research or thinking that U did, I would get optimistic that finally we were getting somewhere, only for U to find he’d headed down another dead end and me to find I still didn’t know what was going on.

For me, Satin Island is one to put down to experience. I don’t feel that I can give it a bad review though. Rather, I feel like the book was possibly just a little bit cleverer than me. So yes, nothing seems to have happened, but maybe there’s a hidden meaning and I’m just missing the point. It wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve missed something in a book or a film. Whatever, it was though, I finished it!

Now, in terms of recommendations…well I’ll leave it to you. By all means read it and feel free to let me know what I was missing.

I give Satin Island,

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Book Review: Big Game by Dan Smith

How do we measure manliness? What is it that we do that tells the world, ‘yep, he’s a man now’? Different cultures would give different replies and different definitions. Some would say it comes with a certain age, others a certain responsibility. For 13-year-old Oskari, it’s about something very different indeed.

Oskari lives in a rural hunting community in Finland where tradition is king. And today, tradition dictates that in order to be declared a man, he must venture out into the forest and kill a wild animal. When he returns back to the ominously named Place of Skulls with his quarry, then he will be a man. What a way to celebrate your 13th birthday!

From the very start of this novel you get the feeling that this manhood business could be a bit of an uphill struggle for Oskari. He seems like a nice kid (which in itself could be viewed as a bit of a barrier to becoming a man) but the more we read, the more we discover that the odds here are thoroughly stacked against him.

Firstly, Oskari’s dad is pretty much the village hero, having killed a bear when it was his turn to enter manhood. I mean, a bear! How do you follow that? As a man who jumped firmly skyward when a tiny mouse ran over his foot a couple of weeks ago, I think I’d be taking a net and looking for the odd stickleback or butterfly and just accepting that the village didn’t really see me as much of a man! But Oskari – who early on declares himself the best hunter in the village – is determined to live up to his dad’s legacy.

However, when we join him on an ultimately fruitless solo hunt at the start of the novel, it becomes clear that he’s going to struggle. With a deer in his sights and conditions almost perfect, his shooting is so weak that the arrow simply bounces off its prey. Later, he is sniggered at by the other boys at the start of the hunt and then, when he receives the ceremonial bow, he finds that it’s so big that he can’t even fire it properly. Maybe this manhood thing is going to take a little while longer.

Tradition is tradition though and Oskari and his father are determined that he’ll have his day. So, after a faltering start and with little confidence left, he heads out for a night in the forest.

‘Big Game’ tells the tale of Oskari’s night in the forest and his quest to be viewed as a man by his peers and the elders of the village. Starting off at the tradtional meeting place, The Place of Skulls, Oskari ventures off into the trees determined to prove himself. However, he could never have predicted what lies ahead.

Oskaris’ coming of age is dramatic to say the least. And while it’s certainly far-fetched, the story makes for an exciting read as he stumbles over a manhunt and then battles to bring something home that will not only prove that he’s a man, but arguably save the Western world in a quite remarkable twist.

However remarkable and maybe even a bit silly the action is, Dan Smith has written an excellent book. After all, if we can’t drift away into something or somewhere beyond imagination with books and films, then what’s the point? So it would be churlish to quibble about the details here. Better to simply suspend your disbelief, pick up the book and read on.

The action here is fast and fairly extreme as Oskari is charged with not only proving that he’s a man, but saving his rather unusual hunting trophy from the grasp of a group of highly trained, professional killers. But Oskari has the local advantage. This is his territory, his hunting ground, he has decades worth of historical knowledge; better still though, this is his day! Nothing is going to be allowed to get in the way of Oskari becoming a man!

‘Big Game’ is a book that is full of action and packed with twists. Whether you’re of the age that it’s aimed for – tweens and teens – or a fully fledged, should-know-better-than-to-read-this-kind-of-thing adult (which in some people’s opinions I will be) this is a real page turner and in fact, more than anything, it’s just good fun.

I would absolutely recommend ‘Big Game’ to you. Yes, it’s pretty improbable. Yes, some of the characters are almost cartoonish and yes, there’s very little chance of anything like this ever actually happening. But it’s undoubtedly well written, well researched and in Oskari, has the kind of character that you can’t fail to root for!

I give ‘Big Game’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Book Review: ‘I Saw a Man’ by Owen Sheers.

In my job as a teacher there are times when, at a parents’ evening, there is very little to say. I will jokingly tell the parents of a particularly wonderful child that this could be a very short appointment. There are no targets, there are no complaints…their child is a pleasure to teach. Then I try to string this our over at least a few minutes, so that I can truly feel like I’ve done my job for the night and that, for the parents, there was a point in coming out. And it’s a bit like that parents’ evening appointment with this novel. I literally can’t think of a bad word to say about it, but just telling you it was great would make for a terrible review.

I fell in love with ‘I Saw a Man’ from the very first page and my work as an English teacher was immediately at the forefront of my mind as I found myself thinking about how I could use some of the description from the first couple of pages in a lesson. Sometimes, it’s hard to switch off from the job! However, as a reader I found myself lost on the fringes of Hampstead Heath – somewhere I’ve only ever heard scurrilous rumours about – within a couple of pages of Sheers’ prose. In short, I was immediately hooked and then desperate to share this writing with not only friends and colleagues, but my students too.

The story here revolves around Michael, a writer and widower who moves into the neighbourhood in order to make a fresh start. On the surface, it’s all going fairly well. Life has an element of normality and he’s struck up a friendship with a young, professional family – Josh and Samantha Nelson and their children- who live in the house next to his apartment block. However, grief is never far away and it feels like any ‘moving forward’ will be done in glacial inches, rather than at any real pace. He follows a humdrum daily routine, sees his friends often but his writing seems to have stagnated. Michael is existing, but little else.

The narrative here jumps in and out of the present day to the back stories of the three main protagonists, at will. And in actual fact, the primary part of the action unfolds in what feels a little like real time as we inch forward through Michael’s call to his neighbours’ house. No one is home, but something is not quite right and Michael feels that he needs to investigate. He shouldn’t be there. He knows this as well as we do and yet he keeps on creeping through the house, all the while leaving the reader more than a little on edge. He senses that something is wrong and we know that it is, yet when the devastating event that will change all of their lives occurs none of us would have guessed what it was that would actually happen that day.

What happens to Michael is shocking. But it’s what he does next and the dilemma that it leaves him with that produces such a superb thriller. He can’t move on, but he can’t fall any further backwards either. Michael finds himself in a self inflicted purgatory and yet he’s actually done nothing wrong at all. As a reader I found myself constantly changing the advice that I’d give him, the actions that I’d take if I had found myself in his situation. And yet, I never thought I had a solution.

Michael’s story contains elements that we hope we’ll never face ourselves. Not necessarily in the specifics of what happens, but in the kind of dilemmas that you might face while knowing all along that there isn’t really a right decision to be made. And then, just when you suspect that there might be a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel, the old adage of trouble coming in threes is proved right and there’s another terrible twist in the tale.

‘I Saw a Man’ is brilliantly written. The suspense will seep into your thinking and keep you wonderfully hooked; worried for Michael, willing Samantha to find the strength to move on and feeling conflicted by whichever angle you take on Josh. Sheers’ writing is sumptuous and beautiful and there were plenty of times during reading where I just felt compelled to call out to Michael, be it to offer advice or just out of complete frustration. Maybe that’s a sign that I might have got a bit carried away, or maybe it’s just a sign of brilliantly written characters. I prefer to consider it the latter.

Mr. Sheers, we could have made this a very short appointment. Your novel was a pleasure to read.

I give ‘I Saw a Man’

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Book Review: ‘Come Again’ by Robert Webb.

I’ve always been a sucker for a good cover. Be it when choosing a book or, particularly when I was a lot younger, picking up vinyl in a record shop, I was always attracted by an interesting image or simply something colourful that caught my eye. And while this hasn’t always worked out – boy, I’ve bought some absolute turkeys in my time just because they were a bit shiny – it’s often been a decent indication of a potentially brilliant buy. But it wasn’t just the colour or the image that grabbed my attention with ‘Come Again’; the author was of obvious interest too.

If you’re unfamiliar with the name, Robert Webb is best known as a comic actor who was one half of Mitchell and Webb, the pairing responsible for hit shows like ‘Peep Show’ and ‘That Mitchell and Webb Look’. When I picked up ‘Come Again’, I was also fully aware of Webb’s memoir ‘How Not to be A Boy’ and so I was almost duty bound to buy it in the end!

‘Come Again’ tells the tale of Kate Marsden, who’s job in her own words is ‘to re-write history’; she cleans up the internet profiles of prominent people and high profile business types. And now she’s discovered something about a major client that is so morally abhorrent, she simply can’t cover it up. What to do with the information creates a major dilemma. But this isn’t Kate’s biggest problem, by a long, long way.

A year ago, Kate’s husband, Luke died. They’d been together since Fresher’s Week at university; 28 years in all. Unsurprisingly then, and despite the best efforts of friends and family, Kate has not been coping. Time isn’t healing and she’s resorted to drink, which has led her to the point she’s now faced with. Suicide. But not before one last enormous act of vengeance.

‘Come Again’ is a fantastic read. As a story, it’s multi-layered. We have the question of whether Kate will live, alongside whether she’ll do the right, but highly dangerous thing and expose the moral shortcomings a shady billionaire and her boss, Charles. There’s the sub text of the relationship with her mother as well as that with her old university friends, all of whom have spent the year since Luke’s death reaching out to her in an attempt to get her to start living her life again. And then, when you thought there wasn’t room for another layer, there’s the twist in the tale. Now that will really put the cat among the pigeons…or in this case, the middle aged woman among the Freshers.

I’d hugely recommend ‘Come Again’. It’s brilliantly written with a fantastic storyline and believable, but complex characters. Certainly, if you went to university, this book will transport you right back there. But besides that, alongside the subject of grief being tackled with a wonderfully light touch, there’s a wicked sense of humour here too, as you’d expect I suppose from a comic mind like Webb’s. Kate herself is a character whos full of surprises and towards the latter stages of the novel she even becomes a bit of an action hero, so there really is something for everyone in ‘Come Again’. There’s even a happy ending, although even that has quiet a bit of a twist to it and will not be what you were expecting at the halfway point of the novel.

If you like a laugh, a bit of nostalgia, action or romance, ‘Come Again’ is well worth picking up. And it’s got a lovely shiny cover too! What’s not to like?

I’d give ‘Come Again’ by Robert Webb

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Book Review: ‘There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom’ by Louis Sachar

For the first few chapters of reading this book I really didn’t like Bradley Chalkers, which felt a bit mean given that he’s a primary school child. But, as a teacher, it felt like everything he did was calculated to disrupt and irritate and that Bradley didn’t want to do anything he was told to do. I’ve known a lot of Bradley Chalkers in my time in the classroom!

Then, the more I read, the more I started to understand him. The more I understood him, the more I felt sorry for him and wanted him to have more to his days than picking on girls, threatening to spit on his classmates and telling lies. But even Bradley’s lies and fantasies are endearing. Away from school he has an army of friends in the form of many of his toys and his conversations with this gang made me fall for him all the more!

I first heard about ‘There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom’ from Twitter. I think it was a recommendation from a comedian that I follow and the gist of his tweet was that everyone should read the book in order to enjoy the kindness inside. So, I bought the book. Actually, that’s a lie worthy of Bradley Chalkers himself. What happened was that I put the book on an Amazon Wishlist and my wife bought it for me! And what a choice it turned out to be!

Louis Sachar is undoubtedly more famous for his YA novel ‘Holes’ which is itself a wonderful read. I must admit, even though I’ve read a few of his other books I’d never even heard of this one. And while Twitter can be a real snake pit at times, it’s recommendations like this one that make me glad I ever logged on. ‘There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom’ is a kids’ book but it’s very much accessible to all. Whether you’re of elementary school age or left education a very long time ago it doesn’t matter; everyone should read ‘There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom’. Literally everyone.

The story follows the fortunes of Bradley Chalkers, an elementary school problem child. Bradley is a loner; at first glance mean, angry and disruptive and it seems like everyone has given up on him. Until he’s given an appointment with the new school councillor, Clara who immediately takes to him, helping to change his life for the better. But this isn’t a simple and formulaic happy ending kind of book. There’s plenty of resistance and self sabotage from Bradley along the way and this makes for a comical, yet often sad read.

This is essentially a good news story though. Despite his protestations and his resistance to change and the help of people around him, Bradley begins to make friends and live what we’d happily term a normal life. But the journey from problem child to golden child is never going to be easy. There are traps and trip hazards along the way and just when you think he’s finally cracked it, Bradley always seems to fall or fail.

‘There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom is a beautifully written book. Sachar’s characters, particularly Bradley, are wonderful and very easy to imagine. I always like a book where I feel that I can consistently ‘hear’ the characters whenever I pick it up, and this book has that quality in abundance. It’s a lovely, engaging story that will have you smiling, laughing and wincing in equal measure. So what are you waiting for? Get yourself a copy – or just put it on your Wishlist and wait – and fall just a little bit in love with Bradley and his life.

With a great big smile on my face and the realisation that this won’t make a jot of difference to sales of the book, I’d give ‘There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom’…

Rating: 5 out of 5.