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 – 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: The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald.

When Sara leaves Sweden in search of a new adventure she’s in entirely virgin territory. Sara is 28 years old and has never left her homeland. But she’s not heading for the bright lights of New York or L.A.. Nor is she off to Europe to explore London, Paris or Barcelona. No, Sara is heading for Broken Wheel, Iowa.

Sara has been exchanging letters with fellow book enthusiast, Amy Harris, for quite some time. It seems that they’re kindred spirits and when Sara takes up Amy’s offer of a visit to Broken Wheel it seems that she’s about to start an entirely new chapter in her life. And yes, I really did use that particular book pun. But Sara’s long distance friendship is about to take a rather unpredictable twist. And so, the story begins.

Broken Wheel, Iowa seems to be the archetypal one horse town. It consists of four streets, a handful of residents and a row of shops, a diner and a bar, not all of which are in use. But despite this, Broken Wheel will undoubtedly change Sara’s life. She is welcomed by all, given a chaperone, handed some friends and is refused payment every time she attempts to hand over any cash. Sounds like the ingredients for a great holiday, right? But Sara quickly grows frustrated in this routine. And when she senses that the town is not only down on its luck, but is missing a few much needed elements, she decides to take things a step further and making a far more permanent mark on the town.

‘The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend’ is a quirky book that is sure to make you smile. Originally written in Swedish and later translated, the novel gets off to a slightly dark and mysterious start, but it isn’t long before said residents – and our heroine, Sara – begin to pique your interest. And here the feelgood factor starts. But that’s not all. The novel is also shrouded in mystery throughout and you’re left with various questions that need an answer all the way through. Each time we meet a new character we’re left at least a little bit intrigued. There’s Sara’s pen pal Amy, well sort of, Grace who’s not actually called Grace (but comes from a family of not really Graces), moody Tom, Andy and his oh so handsome partner Carl who seem far too glamorous and cosmopolitan for Broken Wheel, as well as Caroline, George and the quiet and mysterious John. The characters are the best parts of Broken Wheel and ultimately what keep Sara in town.

However, for me, it was the amount of characters that created a slight problem with the book. I must admit that there were times in reading that I lost track of who everyone was and the way that the narrative can jump around from character to character left me a little puzzled at times. I suppose the counter weight to this was the fact that the action rarely moves from this town in the middle of nowhere and so you never quite lose track! But the interweaving of the towns folk’s narratives with Sara’s own was at times problematic, while also being one of several aspects of the writing that made ‘The Readers of Broken Wheel…’ so interesting. I must admit, that in terms of the outcome of the book, I wasn’t at all sure how things were going to end until almost the final page. And, I suppose that’s got to be a good thing.

‘The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend’ is anything but predictable! There are twists and turns aplenty and all set somewhat incongruously in this one horse town in middle America where nothing ever seems to happen, yet everything, it seems, is possible. Sara is the spark that ignites the flame and her arrival signals the start of many a mystery. Her interaction with the residents of Broken Wheel, and in turn their curiosity with her, make for an intriguing read. If you’re looking for a thriller with endless twists and turns, then this isn’t the book for you. Broken Wheel isn’t scary and there aren’t any monsters. However, if you want something a little different, where you’re on the side of the many small town figures that you’ll find within its pages, then ‘The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend’ comes, well…highly recommended.

I’d give ‘The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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