Book Review: ‘The Honest Truth’ by Dan Gemeinhart

It might be argued that there’s no more honest truth than the fact that you’re going to die. I mean, I’d like to hope that – inspired by the theme tune to ‘Fame’ – I’m going to live forever, but you can’t escape the honest truth though, can you?

Mark is a young boy who’s facing up to a whole lifetime’s worth of problems, only they’ve appeared in the shape of just the one big problem. And with that problem comes his honest truth. It’s looking pretty much certain that he’s going to die. I mean, that’s a big old problem when you’ve not even made it to high school age . And Mark’s facing this problem…by running away to climb a mountain.

Mark has had cancer for most of his life. He’s battled to stay alive, battled to fight off the cancer and just be a normal child. But however many times he fights it off, it keeps coming back to have another go at him, as is the way with this horrible disease. In running away, he now hopes to just die and end all of the heartache for not just himself, but his parents and his best friend Jess. While he’s at it, he hopes to climb a mountain like his grandfather asked him to just before he himself died. In short, Mark is a boy who has simply had enough of the hand that life has dealt him.

The subject matter of ‘The Honest Truth’ isn’t what you’d call particularly nice. The death of a child, even a child with a terrible illness, is never pleasant. As a parent, having one of my children in hospital for any length of time and for anything at all, is a real nightmare. But Dan Gemeinhart writes about Mark’s situation with a wonderful balance of optimism, humour and of course a tinge of sadness. It all makes for a compelling story and right up until a few pages from the end, you’re never quite sure how things are going to work out for Mark.

‘The Honest Truth’ is probably what we should be referring to as a YA novel. But, even at my age, I still love reading novels from this genre. I have a bit of an excuse, given that I’m a high school English teacher. But regardless of what it is and where we squeeze it in, ‘The Honest Truth’ is an excellent story and at not much over 200 pages, a really quick one to get through too!

The story is intriguing as Mark runs away with the intention of dieing on the mountain, while dodging a missing person’s investigation that has been publicised on every format of media you can think of. As a reader I felt like any second now, he’d be found. I mean you’d imagine people would be on higher alert than usual keeping their eyes out for a little runaway, stricken with cancer. But, with the help of his dog Beau – the kind of amazing, loyal canine companion we’d all dream of having – he seems to stay at least one step ahead of it all, despite becoming increasingly sick and increasingly slow in his ‘escape’ to the mountain.

In all, ‘The Honest Truth’ is a just fantastic read and I was gripped from start to finish, torn between wanting Mark to get his final wish and wanting him to get caught and taken home to his parents and best friend, Jess. Whichever way it ended, it almost wouldn’t have mattered and surely that’s the sign of a truly wonderful story.

I’d give ‘The Honest Truth’

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Book Review: ‘Why Running Matters’ by Ian Mortimer.

For many of us running really matters. It’s been a lifelong interest for me and something I’ve done with varied levels of success, interest and effort since I was very young indeed. As it stands, I think I’m going through what some might call a slightly evangelical phase with my own running and probably boring most of the people I know in singing its praises. So a book on why we run was a very exciting prospect!

Ian Mortimer isn’t a runner, in that it’s not his profession. In fact, where running’s concerned he’s not unlike myself; middle aged, enthusiastic competitive and probably a bit more injury prone that we’d both like. However, while I’m a humble English teacher Mortimer is a historian and the writer of the best selling Time Traveller’s Guides series.

On approaching his 50th birthday, Mortimer made a series of vows or challenges to himself. In amongst them were taking part in 45 Parkruns and 5 half marathons across the year, producing an album of his own music, seeing a Shakespeare play and organising three concerts by world renowned musicians. In amongst it all, he’d write this book. Phew!

So the book itself is one hell of an achievement. Finding time to write it in amongst all that running and other activity is quite something. By coincidence, I am too approaching my 50th birthday and while Mortimer’s challenges prompted similar thoughts of a series of challenges or ambitions, I was glad I’d picked it up in August when it was far too late to attempt as much as Mortimer did!

The book chronicles Mortimer and his running companions’ performances at the Park Runs and the half marathons, while also attempting to contemplate exactly why it is we run. Because clearly, like the title tells us, running matters, but it’s what it actually means to people that is explored here.

A source of irritation throughout the book was that Mortimer is a really decent runner! Mean spirited I know, but reading about his times and placings in various Park Runs left me feeling quite jealous and more than a little bit irked! But I suppose this is part of what the book is about; we run to be competitive. And the book delves into this in great detail because Mortimer seems incredibly competitive and so while his times were irritating – and accompanied with a smile from this reader too – it left me feeling quite a warmth towards the man himself. His determination was inspirational while remaining quite comforting. Every time he went out to run he was looking to improve on times and performance, which is very much my approach. Sadly, I’m not always successful here!

Reading of Mortimer’s running adventures all over the south west of England was really interesting. HIs descriptions of the various courses, weather conditions etc felt comfortingly familiar, even though I haven’t taken part in any of the races. But his thoughts and theories all held weight with me. And the atmosphere of all those Parkruns did too! Mortimer also wrote a lot about running with his sons and while occasionally the dose of schmaltz involved was a bit much, as someone who occasionally runs with his own son, I could empathise his his pride and enjoyment in doing so.

‘Why Running Matters’ is a really interesting and well-informed book. Mortimer knows his stuff. He’s an experienced runner who has thrown himself into races and challenges of varying levels over many a year. It was this that had me nodding along enthusiastically throughout my time reading. And although it would seem to have a bit of a niche target audience, I would argue that there’s something here for a lot more than just those of us who run. Mortimer’s year is undoubtedly inspiring and the discussions on the competitiveness, camaraderie and the at times almost meditative side of running would hold the interest of many a reader, whether they run or not.

If you’re a runner who wants to read about running, then – obviously – this is the book for you and you’ll certainly get a lot out of reading it. However, even as a non runner, if you’re someone looking for inspiration or even just a gentle push towards the door and searching out something to do with your time, you’ll enjoy ‘Why Running Matters’. And if you’re one of those people who watches runners from the comfort of your car as they pass and just wonders why, then the book will at least help explain what on Earth it is we’re thinking when we leave the house to pound the pavements squeezed into all that lycra!

I give ‘Why Running Matters’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Book Review: The Knot by Mark Watson.

If you’re from the UK, you might well know Mark Watson for his stand up comedy or even his fairly frequent appearances on panel shows. A distinctive looking fella and very funny indeed. What you might not have any knowledge of are his novels. If this is true, I think it’s fair to say that you’ve been missing out.

The Knot is the second of Watson’s books that I’ve read and it’s reminded me that I need to get my hands on the rest.

The front cover of The Knot tells readers that Dominic Kitchen is hiding a secret and that it’s one that he has carried all of his life. So you immediately know that there’s something not quite right and that this secret must be something pretty serious. So, in a way, we’re hooked from the off. And believe me, when you find out the secret, it really is the kind of thing that would stop any one of us living a normal life.

The novel is set mainly in the latter decades of the 20th century and Dominic is the youngest of three siblings, brought up in a middle class family in London. Dominic’s older brother, the somewhat domineering Max, graduates from Oxford and goes on to become a successful sports agent while his sister Victoria marries a famous cricketer. Meanwhile, Dominic seems to simply tootle along, never really sure of what he wants to do with his life. He stumbles upon a talent for photography and together with crazy Irishman Daley, makes a living from that. But nothing ever seems simple for Dominic. We find him approaching middle age, but are frequently taken on flashbacks to his earlier formative years. And with this technique, his terrible secret is drip fed to us. I had an inkling of it early on but found myself regularly thinking, ‘no, it can’t be that’. Until it was…

The secret is the cause of the knot, a feeling that plagues almost everything that Dominic does and even though he seems to be managing to live a happy enough life, it is always there in the background, eating away at him. Can he ever really be happy? Will he be able to make his marriage to Lauren and career as a wedding photographer work? And even if he does, will the dreaded secret do the seemingly inevitable and come back to ruin everything? After all, some things just can’t stay hidden.

The Knot really is a good read. The storyline is certainly original and there are moments of jaw-dropping drama as well plenty of the kind of comic moments you’d expect from a writer who doubles up as a stand up comedian. Dominic is a character that I think a lot of us would be able to relate to – not sure of where he wants life to lead, unable to move on in the way that he might really want to because of a lack of confidence and an enormous mistake and just not really coping as an adult. The secret that blights Dominic’s life is really quite shocking and even though it becomes a little more acceptable later on in the story, neither Dominic or ourselves as readers can ever really recover from it. But you will find yourself on Dominic’s side, despite the nature of his mistake.

I’d absolutely recommend The Knot. If you enjoy a good story, well written characters – some you’ll love, others you’ll hate – and life changing dilemmas that you can get your teeth into, then it’s a novel that’s worth picking up.

I’d give The Knot…

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Book Review: ‘Gone Fishing – Life, Death and The Thrill of The Catch.’

Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse have been entertaining the nation for the best part of 30 years. With classic comedy credits like ‘Vic Reeve’s Big Night Out’, ‘Shooting Stars’, ‘The Fast Show’ and ‘Harry Enfield and Chums’ to name but a few, it’s safe to say that the pair are national treasures. Both are people that I admire hugely.

So when they paired up to make a show about fishing, the subject matter…well, it didn’t matter. I was onboard immediately. The result was another cult classic in BBC2’s ‘Gone Fishing’ and the book is borne out of the show.

‘Gone Fishing’ is a great read and as you’d expect from its writers, it’s full of laugh out loud moments. But it’s much more than just a good laugh. The book details the pair’s friendship in a genuinely touching way, while also discussing health, happiness and of course, the art of fishing.

By the far the best parts of the book for me were the sections where Bob and Paul discuss their friendship of over 30 years. For those of you that don’t know, both of them have suffered from heart disease in recent years and both underwent open heart surgery as a result. And when Bob felt he couldn’t go on, it was Paul that reached out, offering to take him fishing. And not long after a TV show was born!

It was the heart health angle that really piqued my interest in the show. Having gone through heart surgery myself a few years back, felt I could empathise a little bit. And so, when this aspect of both mens’ lives was discussed in the book I found myself more than a little choked up.

The book makes quite an emotive start. First we’re introduced to both men, their history with heart problems and then their friendship. The realisation that both could have died felt like quite a revelation for me as a major fan. And the passage when Bob actually discusses the very real thoughts that he had that he was facing up to his own imminent death, makes for a powerful read. It certainly felt like a side of one of my heroes that I’d never witnessed in such detail before. It was discussed on the show, but it felt like the book gave the subject a slightly greater depth.

The book ploughs on; a mixture of humorous anecdotes, explanations of aspects of the show, the locations for the fishing and the episodes as well as some real insight from Paul Whitehouse on how to actually fish. And while this might sound a bit dull to some, I’d say don’t knock it until you try it. Certainly both men have quite an infectious enthusiasm for their hobby and while it didn’t make me want to return to fishing – a hobby I dabbled with as a lad – it did shed light on why grown men stand on riverbanks in all weathers for untold hours on end.

As we move further through the book Paul guides us through some quite encyclopedic knowledge of various species of fish, as well as the more ecological side of the sport. This felt like hard going at times, but it certainly never made me want to put ‘Gone Fishing’ down. By the end, Bob has thrown in some of his favourite recipes for cooking on the riverbank, spattered with his trademark wit and wisdom and in truth, you’ve got all of the knowledge you need to get out there and fish. It’s just a question of working out whether you can handle the early morning starts before getting out and buying the kit.

‘Gone Fishing’ is an optimistic read. Joyous and life-affirming at times, educational at others. If you’re a fan of Bob, Paul, the show or just fishing, it’s well worth a read.

I give ‘Gone Fishing’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Book Review: Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks

Imagine if you will. it. You’re just about as multi-talented as they come. You once turned into a child at the fun fair, before turning back into an adult with the help of your best mate. Another time, you ran across America, just because you could (and this was after your time in Vietnam and your exploits as a shrimp based entrepreneur). You’ve been a daredevil cowboy, a much-loved television presenter and America’s favourite pilot. Everybody loves you. I mean you even made friends on a desert island once… with a football. You are Tom Hanks.

And then just when we thought there might be a limit to your talents, you went a wrote a collection of short stories.

As a reader, short stories generally aren’t my kind of thing. So a collection of them doesn’t normally work for me. I like the full development of characters and an actual narrative that I feel a novel always brings. But ‘Uncommon Type’ intrigued me when I spotted it on the shelves of my local supermarket. I liked the look of it, but I have to be honest and say that it was Hanks’s name that drew me in and led to me taking the book off the shelves. Yes, I’m that shallow!

Uncommon Type is a collection of seventeen stories, all set in the USA and as the quote on the front of the book says, ‘All American life is here‘. Several of the tales revolve around the same four friends and their various adventures, but then we also have a Word War II veteran facing up to life after active combat, an actor who suddenly and unexpectedly finds ridiculous levels of fame and also the thoughts of a child facing up to his parents’ divorce and the strange ways in which can sometimes move on. So although we’re largely faced with tales of small town America, there’s a great variation in the stories. And one last twist; all of the stories are connected by the presence of a typewriter (hence the title), which while it doesn’t sound a particularly clever or attractive selling point, is carried out brilliantly.

I have to admit, I was hooked from the first page of ‘Uncommon Type’. It turns out that as well as being lauded as an actor and just an all-round nice guy, Hanks can spin a yarn too. He writes beautifully and although there were one or two of the stories that did nothing for me, I couldn’t put the book down for the majority of my time reading it.

As a reader, you’re immersed in the worlds that Hanks places you in, such is his gift for description. Whether it’s small town America or the other side of the moon, Hanks’s prose transports you there convincingly and makes for an excellent read.

As you’d expect from the award winning Hollywood superstar actor, Tom Hanks can write a character! From Anna, an ex-triathlete with a penchant for telling her boyfriend, “Atta baby” through Virgil and Bud, army veterans, both the epitomy of masculinity and typical of their generation and on to American immigrant and stowaway Assan; all are believable and thoroughly engaging. Hanks has created real people that the reader can’t help but care about and ask questions of. And if you’re like me, all the while that you’re in the worlds he creates, watching the characters go about their lives, it’s all being narrated by the man himself! For all seventeen stories Hanks was my reading voice, which, let me tell you, is relaxing to say the least.

I loved ‘Uncommon Type’. It’s subtle eye for detail, charming characters and sense of humour made it a brilliant, engaging read. Although there are one or two perhaps below par tales here, all in all there’s something for everyone. A definite winner that I’d certainly recommend you read.

I give ‘Uncommon Type’ by Tom Hanks

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Book Review – Fever by Deon Meyer.

Like most of us, this time last year I’d never heard of Coronavirus or Covid-19. Regardless, it was there and had been around for a while. However, even as news broke left, right and centre and day by day the situation worsened, most of would have never have imagined how bad things would get and how much our world would change. So imagine a situation where it seems like the very same virus wipes out 90% of the world’s population.

This is the premise of ‘Fever’ by Deon Meyer. Even as a lover of almost anything dystopian, the facts here would have seemed a little far-fetched without the reality of the present-day global pandemic. And while Coronavirus has had nowhere near such a devastating impact, the severity of the damage done to the world of ‘Fever’ made it all the more readable for me.

The novel is set in South Africa and while the rest of the world is rarely referenced, the reader is aware that the entire planet has changed almost beyond recognition. The South Africa inhabited by our protagonists, Willem and Nico Storm is merely a microcosm of what’s going on elsewhere. And there’s a lot going on. ‘The Fever’ has wiped out the majority of human life and those that are left are now battling for survival. Everything that they need to stay alive is either sparse in quantity or heavily in demand and the competition to stay alive is strong. This really is survival of the fittest.

But, in amongst the chaos, Willem Storm has a dream. Having lost everything to the fever, he now wants to create a community that will welcome anyone and be fair to everyone. Willem Storm wants to restore order while at the same time offering hope, even if it is on a relatively small scale.

In my opinion this is dystopian fiction at its best and at its most relevant. The book is around 5 years old so while there was an awareness of coronavirus, Meyer couldn’t have predicted just how quickly it would take hold and just how relevant his novel would eventually be. I must admit though, that for the first few sittings of reading the novel I was fascinated by the coincidence, even though I knew that coronavirus had been a ‘thing’ for a while. So reading the novel when I did, in the midst of our latest lockdown, gave it a definite edge. As the infection rate and the death toll spiked again and again, I couldn’t help but think, ‘what if?’

The novel is written from the point of view of the 13-year-old Nico Storm, looking back on the events of his childhood and the early post-Fever years. South Africa is in a state of emergency and no one is safe as rival gangs roam the country, robbing, killing and trading as they try to stay alive. Think ‘The Road’ but with a better climate. The wildlife poses a problem too and packs of wild dogs are a constant threat. So we have a landscape and society that is very much a cross between something out of Mad Max and The Walking Dead, but with no zombies and more Negans and Whisperers. And in amongst it all, his father Willem, sees a dream of a new society.

The dream becomes reality, but despite the spirit of evolution and the fading of the fever, this was never going to be simple and there’s little chance of a happy ending. The population of Amanzi – Willem’s vision for the future – grows, but so do the problems. And as with any good dystopia – and there’s a paradox if ever there was one – just when you think you’ve overcome the problem, another one appears. And another, and another. ‘Fever’ is very much edge of the seat stuff.

‘Fever’ is a novel of hope. Everything is a struggle, but with that, even the smallest of successes is a victory for the good guys. Within its 500+ pages there are plenty of moments where the reader has to suspend their disbelief, but this isn’t War and Peace; this is the world minus 90% of its population and a book full of drama and edge of the seat thrills. I must admit I didn’t enormously enjoy the twist and ‘big reveal’ of the ending, but it certainly didn’t spoil the read for me either.

If you’re a fan of anything dystopian then you’ll enjoy ‘Fever’. Meyer creates a surprisingly believable world while managing to fill a long story with enough problems to keep you well and truly interested and perched on the edge of your seat. It’s possible that there are too many characters to really focus on, but then again, with the protagonists creating a new world and aiming to accept all who arrive at their gates, we were never going to be able to just stick to the two points of view. And frankly, if you don’t get confused while the world is falling apart around your ears, then is it even falling apart at all?

‘Fever’ plunges us right into the situation that we’ve been living through for the last year…but replaces government sanctioned exercise, closure of shops, face masks, hand sanitiser and social distancing with the fact that it all got a lot worse and nearly everyone died. What more could you want to get your teeth into?

I’d give ‘Fever’ by Deon Meyer

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Book Review: Anti Social by Nick Pettigrew

I thought I knew what an Anti-Social Behaviour Officer was before I read this book. I had them pegged as being akin to a Community Support Officer in the police and so I imagined this would be the book version of shows like ‘999 What’s Your Emergency?’ The odd fight, neighbours who play their music too loud and a lot of time wasters. And then I read the book.

Nick Pettigrew fell into a career as an Anti-Social Behaviour Officer in the way that many of us have fallen into a career. He came out of university with the kind of degree that doesn’t have an obvious next step (bloody English!) and before he knew it, was taking a job that he didn’t know a great deal about. Lots of us have done it. I did it. Over two decades after leaving university I’m still in a job that I once told my wife I’d “probably give a couple of years”. Fortunately, I love what I do, so although I can’t help but wonder what might have been if I’d have had an actual plan, there are no regrets. But then, my job doesn’t involve regularly dealing with problems ranging from noise nuisance to crack addicts.

‘Anti-Social’ is Pettigrew’s memoir of his time in what sounds like a tremendously testing and frequently unrewarding job as an Anti-Social Behaviour Officer in a local authority in London. A job he fell into and then gave his all to for over a decade before finding that he could no longer cope with the conditions in which he worked every day. And these weren’t what some of us might call ‘testing’ conditions, like having to sit on an uncomfortable chair or huffing and puffing about the fact that the stationary order was taking a bit long in arriving. No, Pettigrew worked with and represented some of the most vulnerable members of society in one of the busiest cities in the world.

So while some days were dominated by what Pettigrew might call routine investigations, inspecting flats and collecting evidence of noise nuisance, many others were spent trying to help the neighbours of drug dealers or battling to save the tenancies of incredibly vulnerable people with appalling mental health problems. Put simply, Pettigrew often gave every ounce of his energy and time helping those that wouldn’t admit they needed help or those who simply couldn’t help themselves. In fact, his diary tells us that his working days were often spent in vain, trying to help people who were a dangerous combination of both.

‘Anti-Social’ is a book that should shock you. In fact, if you think you have problems with every day life, then this book might just provide the antidote. While I probably spend too long moaning about life’s smaller problems, some of the cases that Pettigrew documents here left me in tears. Some of the powerlessness and some of the blatant exploitation of society’s most vulnerable is truly haunting. And all the while Pettigrew struggled with his own mental health, as documented at the start of every monthly chapter when he indicates to the reader his own current medication, accompanied by his newly changed and usually deeply ironic password.

The book is brilliantly written. Obviously the real life nature of it lends itself beautifully to an ever more engaging narrative, but what makes ‘Anti-Social’ stand out is its dark sense of humour. Often, the same tale is likely to have you tearing your hair out and close to tears while at the same time laughing at the way it’s told. There’s a certain dark irony in a lot of the problems that are discussed that makes the book both addictive and alarming in equal measure. And while ‘Anti-Social’ will introduce you to a dark side of society that you were perhaps unaware of, it will also expose human stupidity at its most hilarious with a deadpan tone that will help you to smile or laugh your way through the horror that is often unfolding on its pages.

If you enjoyed ‘This is Going to Hurt’ by Adam Kay then ‘Anti-Social’ is a logical next step. Similarly funny, maddeningly frustrating, but also fantastically engaging. The kind of book where what you’re being told makes you want to put it down, yet not put it down at all.

In what some all too often refer to as dark, desperate times, ‘Anti-Social’ should be a wake-up call to all of us. Yes, a series of lockdowns caused by a ham-fisted reaction to a global pandemic has made the last year or so undoubtedly tough. But if you’ve still got a job, can get out for a walk every so often, can afford to just sit and watch television for any length of time or you just still have your health in some semblance of working order, then you probably don’t know you’re born. Reading ‘Anti-Social’ might just help you stop feeling so sorry for yourself. Thank Christ for people like Pettigrew!

I’d give ‘Anti-Social’ by Nick Pettigrew

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Book Review: Midnight Sun by Jo Nesbo

They say that everybody makes mistakes. I only have to think of a few haircuts from my twenties and several outfits from the 90s to realise that it’s likely to be a fact. Come on, we’ve all done it. From one night stands to long term relationships and choosing Betamax over VHS, we’ve all made mistakes. And while the consequences range in levels of seriousness, it’s rare that our life is put in serious danger.

In ‘Midnight Sun’, Jo Nesbos’ hapless hitman, Jon has made a big mistake. In fact, to paraphrase Julia Roberts’ Vivian in Pretty Woman, it’s not just a big mistake, it’s “Big. Huge.” But unlike Vivian, he won’t get to go shopping. You se, Jon has double crossed Oslo’s biggest gangster, The Fisherman. When his trigger finger didn’t want to work, Jon agreed a deal with a small time criminal in debt to the Fisherman and like most hastily arranged plans, it didn’t work out. Like I said, big mistake. Big. Huge.

‘Midnight Sun’ is set in the remote, icy wastelands of Finnmark in the north of Norway. The title refers to the fact that for certain months of the year, the entire place has continuous daylight, 24 hours a day. This is the most northerly part of mainland Europe; perfect if you’re thinking of running away, have a high boredom threshold and don’t mind the cold. Surely even a man with the reputation of the Fisherman can’t find you here? Although, let’s face it, that continuous daylight thing isn’t exactly going to help.

Midnight Sun is something a bit different for Nesbo. No multiple gratuitous murders, not so much of the ultra violence that we might find in some of his other novels, no particularly complex criminals and not even a hint of his infamous hero, Harry Hole. Sure it’s pretty heavy on the underworld and the seedy side of Scandinavian culture, but it’s a lot more of a simple tale than we’re used to. A cut and dried thrill of the chase kind of novel with a man on the run and the ever present threat of the bad guy hunting him down. And despite the fact that Jon runs to the middle of nowhere, you’re always aware of the fact that he can run…but he can’t hide.

There are the usual quirky characters as well as a girl for our hero to fall in love with. Both seemingly staples of Nesbo’s writing. Because the novel is set in the Finnmark region we find a clutch of Sami people – the indigenous people of the area – although the main character does seem a bit of a caricature, despite my lack of knowledge of the Sami. We also find Lea, a beautiful, mysterious and, it would seem, decidely off limits woman, being as she is, married to the local gangster. So not only does our hero Jon appear to have someone hunting him down, he also has to switch off his feelings for the woman that he inevitably falls for.

It’s sub-plots like this that always make Nesbo’s writing a little more interesting. While reading you’re always waiting for an explosion of action or violence, for a character to make the wrong decision or to be somehow outwitted. And it’s this type of thing that makes Midnight Sun such a good read. The main character is flawed – a hitman who can’t bring himself to ‘hit’ and who has messed with the wrong people. His back story reveals a motivation for the path that he took and so, as a reader, we can live with his mistakes. It seems inevitable that he will pay the price for his mistakes, but Jon is human enough for us to be on his side, despite his flaws and you’ll find yourself willing him to live, despite the inexorable nature of his fate.

Midnight Sun has everything you want in a thriller while retaining something a little bit different. There aren’t bodies everywhere, but there’s just enough jeopardy to keep you on the edge of your reading seat. And when violence does rear its head, it’s shocking, yet believable; Nesbo doing what Nesbo does best. The setting isn’t somewhere that the vast majority of us will be familiar with, but Nesbo captures the area’s stark beauty brilliantly and during my reading, I could easily envisage the town and the wilderness where Jon sets up camp. The ever-present sun lends the whole place an eerie quality that simply adds to the danger that our hero finds himself. He’s a sitting duck, resigned to his fate. But can he escape a fate that he seems perfectly willing to accept?

I give Midnight Sun…

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Book Review – The Soundtrack to My Life by Dermot O’ Leary

Dermot O’Leary, for those who don’t know, is the presenter of The X-Factor in the UK. He also hosts a radio show on BBC Radio 2 and appears almost ubiquitously on TV as a presenter, talking head or just as the face or voice of various adverts. In short, you could be forgiven for getting a little irritated by him!

As the presenter of The X-Factor he is quite a divisive character. Not in the same way as say, Simon Cowell, but divisive all the same. There are probably thousands of people who just don’t like him because of his association with the behemoth that is that particular franchise. Whether that’s fair, I don’t know and I daresay, Dermot O’Leary doesn’t particularly care.

For the record, I like Dermot. But then again, we go way back. I remember Dermot as the fresh-faced presenter of a programme called T4 years ago, which for many of us represented perfect hangover TV. As such, I feel like I’ve followed his career a little bit ever since. Personally, I find him funny and quite an engaging presenter and while I might not like watching The X-Factor, I would gladly watch him on other shows or tune in to his radio show simply because he seems like the kind of bloke I’d be friends with (You know, if massive TV fame hadn’t got in the way!).

And this is sort of where the book comes in. It’s part autobiography and part discussion of music. Dermot whisks us through his forty odd years on the planet via the medium of music, linking various anecdotes to many of his favourite songs and artists. So it’s an autobiography with a ‘twist’, which Dermot himself explains in the book. And it’s an understandable twist given his experiences within the world of music, from being a regular gig-goer in his teens and onwards to presenting shows such as T4 and The X-Factor and then his long standing time as host of various radio shows from XFM to BBC Radio 2.

If you’re a music fan, ‘The Soundtrack to My Life’ will most likely prove to be an interesting read. Dermot knows his stuff and certainly has a wide range of tastes and influences. He links infleuential artists, bands and songs alongside key moments and anecdotes from his life to pretty good effect. And if you’re insisting on attaching that X-Factor stigma to him and expecting that his list will simply be chock-full of One Direction and Little Mix, then you may well get a number of pleasant surprises. Sadly though, there’s no mention of Same Difference or Jedward…

Amongst the choices you’ll find some of music’s big hitters – from Springsteen and The Rolling Stones to Amy Winehouse and Beyonce as you’d reasonably expect from a man who’s spent quite a while mixing with some of music’s big hitters. But it’s not at all predictable. In among the star names are other less well know acts like Brendan Shine (a nod to O’Leary’s Irish heritage), Terry Wogan and Beth Orton. Add in tracks by Guns n’ Roses, Wham, Ian Brown and The Killers and we’re being served up a varied musical banquet here.

The soundtrack got all the more special for me when reading about tracks from the bands Elbow and Athlete. For starters O’Leary picks a very early Elbow track – ‘Newborn’ – which just so happens to be one of my favourite ever songs. It’s the band at their most melancholy and vulnerable and in a funny way, it was a nice surprise to find it nestling alongside The Macarena in a book by the bloke who presents one of the most popular shows on British television. It was nice to read mention of Athlete as not only are they a band that I like but one of their tracks – not the one chosen in the book – is a song that I’ll forever associate with the birth of my daughter and the frequent trips to hospital that I would take in those early days of her life.

Overall, the book works. O’Leary’s life story is, to a point, a familiar one. The suburban upbringing, the ordinary school days and the hard work that follows in order to make something of yourself. It just so happens that this ordinary boy went on to become probably one of the most recognisable faces on British television. The inclusion of the songs not only gives us a break from the usual ‘star’ autobiography format of a very dry, unremarkable account of someone’s life, with maybe a few quoteworthy opinions thrown in to grab the odd headline and sell a few more books, but it serves to give us a little more insight into the life of someone who many of us can say we’ve kind of grown up with. Others might find it interesting in terms of how it might change their their X-Factor based opinions.

It’d be easy to criticise people like O’Leary just because of The X-Factor, but as he points out himself, if you’re offered a huge gig in the field that you work in, you’d be silly to turn it down. O’Leary dreamed of working in TV from leaving school, so when the biggest show on the box comes calling, you’d be a mug to turn it down. And while this might reject things like principles, I daresay that showbusiness doesn’t always have time for such things. So while we may frown at The X-Factor, it’d be strange to not accept the fact that a presenter might want to present it.

One small criticism of the book comes with the style of O’Leary’s writing, which did get a little irritating at times. He almost abuses parentheses and at times it was a little troublesome just to follow the narrative. And as a lover of parentheses and the odd tangent myself, I can see the irony in not enjoying reading through so much of it! But sometimes the tales take a few too many turns and it did become a little grating.

Overall though, ‘The Soundtrack of My Life’ is an enjoyable read. It’s an idea that’s been played with before, most notably in Nick Hornby’s ’31 Songs’, but O’Leary’s light hearted tone makes sure that it’s not particularly derivative. This isn’t a taxing read. You’re not going to experience any emotional trauma or find yourself fighting back the tears at the author’s pain. But if what you’re looking for is an autobiography with a bit of ‘quirk’ then this might well be for you. As a fan of music and radio, I enjoyed it and I think you would too.

I give Dermot O’Leary’s ‘Soundtrack To My Life’…

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Book Review: The Sunshine Cruise Company by John Niven.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about bank robbers – which admittedly, I don’t do too often – I think about shaven-headed, burly men with gruff cockney accents. Even the ones from the north of the country or even from another country entirely would have gruff cockney accents for me. And without exception, they’d be called something like Big Dave. Or Knuckles. I certainly don’t think of bank robbers as respectable ladies nearing pensionable age. But John Niven did and thank goodness for that.

As one nears sixty years of age, you’d hope to have life sorted. Sussed out. You’d hope that, as retirement beckons you forward, you’d be well prepared for what comes next and in actual fact, looking forward to taking things easy or even maybe taking on new challenges. Susan Frobisher and Julie Wickham fit into this category in many ways. Susan, in particular, is looking forward to the day when her husband retires from his job as an accountant; hangs up the calculator and the spreadsheet, so to speak. Her friend Julie just wants something different from scraping a living working in a care home.

In a way they both get their wishes granted. But this is far from a simple novel with a nice happy ending where two friends wander off into the sunset. No, Susan and Julie are forced to embark on a Thelma and Louise style adventure in order to get anywhere near the kind of ending that they want.

‘The Sunshine Cruise Company’ is an absolute romp of a tale as Susan and Julie (as well as Ethel, Jill and Vanessa) are forced to contemplate a life on the run from not one, but several police forces. And it’s hard not to want them to succeed. After all, it’s all Susan’s husband Barry’s fault. But for his ever-so-slightly different sexual adventures and a bit of taste for the high life, the girls wouldn’t have had to do any of this. So when you look at it like that, robbing a bank (while harming no one) is actually an acceptable course to take. Throw in the fact that some of the loot goes towards saving the life of a child, some of it helps out an old lady in a wheelchair and some of it sets up a young woman for an education that she otherwise wouldn’t have had a hope in Hell of getting, then you’ve got to ignore the amount of criminality here and hope they all make it to freedom.

This really is a brilliant novel. Centred around a group of characters who Niven has made both likeable and funny, it’s a story that works really well, despite its obvious far fetched nature. Far fetched or not, as a reader you’ll find yourself not really caring about that and just wanting them to succeed in their quest to avoid justice. There’s almost a Robin Hood type element to it, as we root for Susan, Julie and the gang while hoping that our Sheriff of Nottingham figure, a hapless detective called Boscombe, falls flat on his face, which he frequently does.

All human life is here. There’s Ethel, a wheelchair bound thrill seeker who is hell bent on living life to the full. Then we have the aforementioned Boscombe, the kind of man that we’ve probably all worked with and probably all did everything we could to avoid; a slob, a sexist, a man who looks down his nose at anything he doesn’t understand or agree with; in short someone who despite being on the side of good in all of this, you’ll laugh at more and more with every successive failure. And then of course there are Susan and Julie, the beautiful and vulnerable Vanessa and organised crime boss Tamalov who brings a tangible sense of menace.

‘The Sunshine Cruise Company’ has more twists than you can keep track of and many that you just won’t see coming. Just when you think that Susan and the gang are safe, they’re not and just when you think they’re finished, something happens to keep their adventure on track. And it’s like this until almost the final page, which means that you simply won’t want to put it down. I loved this book and after it sat in my ‘To Read’ pile for at least a couple of years, I was thrilled to bits when I finally picked it out and joined Susan, Julie, Ethel and even the loathsome Boscombe on the adventure of a lifetime.

I give ‘The Sunshine Cruise Company’

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.