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.

Book Review: ‘Marriage Material’ by Sathnam Sanghera

Every now and again, a newspaper or a magazine that I read will publish a list of some kind of essential reads. It might be an end of year poll or just something that links to a particular time of year, but for as long as I can remember I’ve cut these lists up and stashed the cuttings elsewhere as books that I will mean to get around to buying and reading. ‘Marriage Material’ was published in 2013 and was found on such a list and then, years later, recovered from whatever receptacle it had been stashed in. I finally got round to buying it last year! And I have to say, it’s the kind of book that makes me thankful for my hoarding!

‘Marriage Material’ is a novel that is predominantly about families. From the love and the tenderness through to the irritations, the regrets and the great big falling outs. But it’s about much more than that too. Set largely in the West Midlands from the 1970s and 80s right through to the present day, the novel has culture, prejudice and division at its heart and for those of us who grew up in these times – if not the precise location – it makes for a really interesting read as well as one that brings back times that were a lot darker in their attitudes to anything or anyone that was deemed ‘different’.

The book tells the tale of Arjan Banga and his family with the story being told via a dual narrative taking place some years apart, before the two sides come together in an interesting twist. I loved the narrative style here as it left me not only trying to follow the story but also trying to work out the connection between the two. I think I was a little slow on the uptake, if I’m being honest, as it wasn’t actually that hard to work out, but for the first third of the book I must confess that I didn’t make the connection!

The family are immigrants to UK, so as the story is set in the 1970s and 80s, the book covers the ugly racism prevalent in our country at this time. However, I’d say that Sanghera treats these issues with a light touch and is prepared to write with humour when tackling some of the notable instances of prejudice in the book, such as the geographical inaccuracy of most of the insults hurled his and his familys’ way. It certainly puts the ignorance of his abusers into perspective and Sanghera’s observations made me smile on more than one occasion.

As the two narratives collide the story picks up pace. When his father dies Arjan heads home and immediately feels family pressure to take over the business. But he desperately doesn’t want to slip into the kind of stereotyped life he’s worked so hard all his adult life to avoid. However, seeing his mother again leads to him worrying about her health as well as her ability to run things and he’s is forced into a couple of decisions that will have a huge impact upon his future. One of these decisions is to track down a long lost relative and her impact on all of their lives has mixed, but ultimately positive results.

Rather than returning to his far more cosmopolitan life in London, he opts to stay at home to help run the business, as well as looking after his elderly mother. However, with a fiancé patiently awaiting him back in London and old acquaintances vying for his time in the Midlands, his life just gets more and more complicated. Inevitably, Arjan messes things up!

Marriage Material is a great read. Arjan’s life veers from one catastrophe to the next and as a reader you can’t help feeling sympathy, even when it seems abundantly clear that he must know he’s making a terrible decision. There’s a real humour – often quite dark – to the book and though at times it seems seems like Arjan’s life is spiraling out of control, you can somehow still laugh at his predicament.

In the end it all works out for the family. But not without the kind of scene that wouldn’t look out of place in a Tarantino film near the end. But just when you think it might all end in the kind of tragedy that none of us saw coming, there’s a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. A happy ending of sorts and certainly not in the way that you might have predicted when you first picked up the book!

A funny, engaging and just all-round excellent read, I’ll give Marriage Material

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Poetry Blog: Library Visit

This is a poem that came into being while I was sitting with my Year 7 group during a library visit. We have a thriving library in the school that I work at and at Key Stage 3, English classes are booked in for regular visits in order to renew loans, browse or take out new books. It was on one such visit that I scribbled down the bones of a poem, putting it together as the finished thing later that day.

What prompted me to write was how amazingly fussy the students were. On top of this it felt like they hadn’t listened to anything they were told in what was obviously a carefully planned presentation. Their behaviour made me smile in part, but also brought out my sarcastic side, which to be fair is never far from the surface anyway.

Library Visit

If you are 11 or 12 it would seem to be impossible
not to fiddle with a plastic wallet when given one.
A temptation surely proven by science as unavoidable.
To crinkle, to flatten, to rustle and crackle,
might as well be written down as law,
with a sub-section of said law regarding the unavoidability
of crinkling, crackling and or flattening when the librarian 
is addressing the room.

The same rule seems to apply when it comes to sitting 
on an assigned chair,
especially if this process involves sitting next to 
a member of the opposite sex.
Those who will take on, for most, the very properties
of a magnet in just a few short years are for now,
strictly persona non grata 
and to park one's arse within a few inches is viewed as
an absolute, unspoken, unwritten non starter.

Silent browsing is now also beyond the wit of
the pre teen human. Instead this almost instantly provokes
inane chatter and a convergence around any available
window in order to gawp longingly at an outdoor PE lesson.
And so, the sanctity and stillness of the library
lies largely ignored, broken; the resistance of an enormous SILENCE sign
is futile and a thing of the past, long discarded and tossed unwanted 
into the depths of a stock room, a relic of a lifetime ago.

What is certainly not impossible is the ability 
to ask ridiculous questions.
Common sense flies out of the window,
somewhere on the corridor on the way here,
having the common sense to know that it will not be needed
in the next half hour.
Even organised, alphabetised shelves full of writer's names
will not reveal where to find the R of Rowling,
the D for Dahl,
and so ordered thinking gives way to questions that,
with a few seconds more thought, need never have been asked.


It’s funny how these library visits regularly pan out in exactly the same way. Our students are more than happy to revert to stereotypes when they’re left to their own devices at these times. So rather than scrutinising the shelves we’ll see groups of boys congregating by the windows in order to either gaze out of them or just stand there whispering.

The stereotypes continue as there are always boys loitering around the non fiction section grabbing books about cars so that they can sit back down and point at the glamour on the pages in front of them with their friends.

Similarly girls will wander around in groups, choosing books before sitting down and dutifully reading them. Because they’re good at doing what they’re asked to do.

It wasn’t a stressful library visit. In fact, if I could have predicted how it would go I’d have been pretty much 100% accurate. But it never fails to amaze me how classes don’t listen when they’re told where to sit, how boys seem almost allergic to sitting next to a girl or how even though someone is addressing them, some kids will fidget with something in their bag or pencil case. And so, I wrote the poem…

I hope you enjoyed what you read. If you work in education you might know exactly what I’m talking about or if you just remember such visits from school, it might have brought back some memories. I’d love to hear what you thought though, so feel free to drop me a line in the comments.

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: 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: 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.
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