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.

Poetry Blog: What next?

About two years ago I started writing poetry. It was something that I’d experimented with before, but never really formally or with any kind of purpose. I must have written poems back in the stone age when I was at school, but would have no written record of such ramblings. And anyway, my school wasn’t the kind of place where a boy wrote poetry, unless he was ordered to by one of the psychotic teachers. Boys did sport, yelled a lot, swore and most likely spat on the ground like their life depended on it. Boys. Did. Not. Write.

Any poetry written in class would be hidden away from prying eyes and mocking tongues. Any hint of a notebook being carried around would provoke instant hatred and could only lead to years of cruel abuse from your peers (and probably even some of your friends).

As a younger adult, I’m sure I’d tried to write poems, but I’m pretty certain that when they existed, it would have been on scarps of paper and that these were long ago confined to the recycling plant.

I’ve never been a confident person. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that I’ve learnt to wear a convincing mask in order to hide what is actually a rather crippling lack of confidence. So, although I felt like I had something to say and that I could write, it was going to take a seismic shift to make me commit ideas to paper in the form of poetry.

It turns out that ‘thing’ was lockdown. I was locked down almost immediately once the decision was made. While colleagues stayed in school and battled to keep some sense of normality in people’s lives, I was told that I was vulnerable and had to stay at home. Couple that with a complete failure in terms of remote learning with my laptop and there were a huge amount of days waiting to be filled.

I’d started my blog by then and so was in the habit of writing. As can be the case with me, I wasn’t really in the habit of sleeping regular hours though. And one night, lying awake with words whirling round my head, I realised that I had the bones of a poem keeping me awake. So, I crept downstairs, opened a notebook and wrote a poem; one draft and what felt like no particular thought needed. I don’t know whether it reads like a one-draft-no-effort poem, but it was done! I thought I’d published that poem as part of the bog, but looking back, it doesn’t seem so.

From there I came up with the idea of a lockdown writers’ group – Lockdown Literature, you can read about it on the link below – where friends and colleagues could publish anything they’d written; whatever it took to stave off the boredom of being isolated like never before. Inspired by others, I was able to write a few more poems.

Lockdown Literature

Our Lockdown Literature group made me think about what to do with my poems. By now I was writing them regularly and so, once I’d decided that a) I had the confidence to share and b) I didn’t feel it was too much of a pretentious thing to do, I started to publish some of my poems as blogs, adding a little bit of explanation about the poem and about my thinking when writing it. They seemed to go down well and it gave me another blogging avenue to explore.

Now though, I want to develop things a bit. It’s lovely that people who read the blog like my poems, but I want to really test myself with it and I must admit that I’m unsure of how to move forward. I’ve considered things like poetry competitions, but from what I can see, a lot of them require entries to be unpublished and I don’t really know if my own blog counts in those terms. However, it’s stopped me entering anything so far. It’s certainly something that I need to look into and if anyone has any advice, I’d gladly listen.

Another route I’ve wondered about with my poems is to attempt to put together an anthology, but it’s an area that I know next to nothing about. I realise that I could self-publish, but without adequate promotion, even an anthology is not going to gain any interest. Is it the kind of thing I can send to publishers? If so, how do I group poems and how do I approach agents or publishers? Again, it’s something I really need some advice on, so if you’re reading this and you have any insight, I’d be really grateful for your help.

The third and final way of developing my poetry terrifies me. In actual fact, I’ve only considered it because a few people have suggested it. One kind soul even invited me along to actually take part. What am I talking about? Performance poetry! This is something that I can’t deny tempts me, but despite my advancing years and the fact that I talk at people for a living, the thought of standing on a stage – makeshift or otherwise – in a room full of people, reading out my poems, makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and my tummy feel a little bit poorly!

It’s not actually the thought of an audience that bothers me very much. No, it’s more the thought of exposing something as personal as my poetry to what would likely be an entirely new audience. Every day of every week brings an audience of harsh critics in the form of pupils in a classroom, so speaking in front of people is second nature. And not to play the tortured ‘artist’ here, but the idea of reading so many personal words (does that make sense?) and even considering myself any kind of poet, feels very much beyond me.

Still though, I find myself trying to pluck up the courage and find the time to attend such an evening, not as a performer, but as a punter just to try and see what it’s all about. Maybe once that step is taken, I could find the courage to put myself down for some kind of open mic slot. Even typing the words fills me full of dread though, so it would be one hell of a step to take!

So 2022 has to be the year that I trying and ramp up my poetry game. It reality feels like something that could develop and something that I believe in somewhere at the back of my mind! I just need to work out how.

As ever, feel free to leave a comment, especially if you have any suggestions that might help me!

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.

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: 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.

Blog Goals for March

I find running my blog incredibly fulfilling, yet extremely frustrating, all at the same time. I’m guessing I’m not alone in this. What started as an outlet for some kind of creativity and initially to explain how I was feeling at a difficult stage of my life, has more recently become a little more serious and I would really like my writing to have a bigger audience.

I started my blog after having heart surgery. Writing a blog was something I’d thought about for a while, but it took what felt like a near death experience to give me the kick up the backside that I needed to actually start writing. It wasn’t really a near death experience, but it was a heart problem that required being admitted to hospital, then followed up with actual surgery, so there were lots of times when I questioned whether I’d get through it.

Once I was well, I started a blog, using my first couple of posts to write about what had happened to me. I suppose it was cathartic, but it was also my way of letting people know that I was alright. They’re on the links below this paragraph if you fancy a read. But then once they were out of the way, I began to write about anything and everything!

When did I get so old?

Conquering my fears. What’s the worst that could happen*?

Over 100 blog posts later though and I feel like I’ve reached a bit of an impasse with it. The blog is definitely growing in popularity, but at the pace of a glacier. Am I being impatient? I’m not sure. It’s fair to say that I only started taking things even kind of seriously since this time last year, when the pandemic meant I had a lot of time on my hands with which to write. But it’s definitely been a frustrating time over the last six months or so, when apart from one brilliant month, growth has been slow. So I thought I’d start to set monthly goals, in order to organise myself a little better and perhaps get some useful advice in response.

March Goals and Targets

  1. I need to find better ways of publicising my blog. I use social media and tweet about my blog quite a bit, without it being all I ever do on there. I also post on the blogging RT/community sites in the hope that I’ll gain regular readers, but despite a small amount of growth, it doesn’t really seem to work. I feel terrible, even in a comment post, when I’m commenting on people’s blogs, because ultimately it feels a bit desperate. I might as well just be saying, ‘Look, I’ve commented on your blog, so have a look at mine’ and I don’t like feeling that way. If it’s a specific subject of blog, like a sport or an educational blog I might tweet certain more applicable sites for a RT and this can work too, but I feel like I’m just relying on other people’s popularity and good will in doing so. My blog views for a typical month average around 400-500, which feels OK, but isn’t rewarding in terms of the effort I put in. I don’t know if I’m expecting too much, but then again I’ve read ‘goal’ type posts like this from other people before, moaning that they’re only getting thousands of people visiting their site per month. Looking at your stats on WordPress and seeing that another day has brought in 14 readers becomes no fun whatsoever after a while! I genuinely feel like I post my fair share of good quality posts and I’d love it to reach a bigger audience, but must admit, I’m pretty clueless! It’s lovely reading positive comments from people, but then again, I’ve visited blogs posts that consist of an inspirational quote (so, 12 words, let’s say) that get a load of positive comments and that kind of thing makes me wonder where I’m going wrong. Alternatively, maybe what I’m posting is utter rubbish! Whatever it is, I need to find some kind of answer in March!
  2. Stop posting utter rubbish! Just kidding; I have at least some faith in what I write. But that said, I want to write at least one post in March that breaks some personal records for my blog. Why not think big, eh? Whether it’s views, or likes, or just the number of people who read it in Luxembourg, I’d like to post something that captures the interest in the next month. I’ve had some that – for my little blog – have done really well and it’s a brilliant feeling that I’d quite like to replicate.
  3. Come up with better titles for poems and blogs. I seem to have no imagination for this at all. In the past I’ve written blogs called ‘I have some questions about music’, ‘Whatever happened to the mix tape?’ and poems called ‘Teams Meeting’ (about a Teams meeting), ‘Heart’ (about my heart operation) and ‘Early Morning Run’ (I won’t ruin the surprise with that one). It seems I’m very literal when it comes to titles, so maybe some snappier titles might bring those readers in!
  4. Write more poems (with better titles, of course). It took me ages to pluck up the courage to write poems consistently and then to actually post them online. They always get a good reaction and I love the process of writing them. It’s been quite a confidence boost. They generally come in bursts and I can write two or three, pretty much straight out in one go, in one sitting, but it’s been a while since anything new came along. I had an idea this afternoon, opened my notebook to write something then got distracted. A couple of hours later I noticed the open page of my notebook! Luckily I remembered what I had wanted to write about. I must try and make time to write more poems though and it would be good to find a proper place to showcase them too, as those regular 44 people that read them could be improved upon!
  5. This one’s not a blogging goal; more a creative one. I’d like to post more videos on social media. I posted one of me reading my poem ‘An Ode to Joe Wicks’ and it went down really well (relatively speaking; we’re not talking millions of views and instant fame here). More to the point, I really enjoyed doing it. It does feel like a real ego trip though – here’s me reading my poem, so watch! I struggle finding a reason why people would want to watch! But then, videos I’ve done for friends always get a good reaction. And I know that makes me sound like the tone deaf X-Factor contestant who tells Simon Cowell all her family tell her she can sing, once he’s finished laughing. I created a character based on every bad teaching stereotype I could think of and let friends see ‘his’ first video. Their reaction told me it has legs, so I’d love to see where that could go. I have lots of video ideas, mainly involving me making myself look like a complete knobhead (I’m a natural)…I guess I just need to find a way to link them to my blog now!

So there we have it. My goals for March and the kind of post that I think I’ll make a regular early in the month kind of thing. If you have any advice or would like to let me know what you thought, then leave me a message in the comments. Thanks for reading (you now know you’re one of about 35 in a rather exclusive club!)

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.
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