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Reading this book in a post-pandemic 2022, I can see why it created such a buzz when it was released. The End of Men was written before Covid-19, and the story revolves around a global pandemic with a 90% mortality rate, which came to be known as The Plague. In this story, only men became ill or died with the virus, although women could be carriers. The book begins in 2025, with a Doctor first realising that there is a common link between a very small number of patients who are all mysteriously dying of an unknown cause, with the same symptoms. As the virus takes hold and spreads around the world, there is widespread panic – there were riots, protests, a race for a vaccine. People were told to stay home, shops were closed, public transport was grounded, and families were divided for fear of transmitting the disease. Of course in the real world this now all feels very familiar.

The book is written from the points of view of several characters, the vast majority of which are women. Some only occupy a couple of chapters, while others are main characters which drive the narrative. Despite the large amount of narrators, I did not find it difficult to keep track of who was who, and each character was clearly drawn and believable. There were also a few newspaper articles and blog posts which made up chapters of their own, again all of which added to the story.

As for whether I liked the book – put it this way, I started this book on a long haul flight; I had downloaded a couple of films to watch during the journey but I didn’t get to them, because I could NOT put this book down. I would have found it very uncomfortable reading in 2020, but felt able to tackle it now, and I found it utterly absorbing, with every page and every character drawing me in, whether I liked them or not. It actually made me cry on a number of occasions when people were discussing their sorrow and grief, either for the people they had lost or the lives that they had planned and now would never had. Not all of the characters were likable, and some of them did some pretty awful things, but these were people dealing with a situation they never could have envisioned.

I stayed up late one night (I was jet-lagged but that wasn’t going to stop me) to finish it, and when I had read the last page, I thought it was one of the best books I have read in recent years. If I could read all books with the urgency I read this one, I would triple my reading output!

Anyway, I highly recommend this book (although beware that it may be triggering to people who are suffering emotionally with the fallout from Covid-19), and will definitely be buying anything else that Christina Sweeney-Baird writes.

In this non-fiction book, powerlifter and journalist Poorna Bell discusses the barriers for women and minorities when it comes to getting into exercise. She uses her own story about how she got into powerlifting following the suicide of her husband, and talks about how gyms and personal trainers need to be more inclusive. She also incorporates societal barriers and diet culture, such as how particularly for women, exercise is generally viewed as a way of losing weight, and women are encouraged to do cardio while men are encouraged to lift heavy weights (I’m not actually sure that this last point is actually the case based on my own, admittedly very personal, experience).

There is an important message here – yes, gyms need to be more inclusive and welcoming for women (again in my experience most gyms are already), minorities, and people of all genders and sexualities. The issue is that it feels like every few pages there is the message to ‘make gyms more inclusive’ – but how this can be done is never really explored, and it ends up just feeling like a bit of a rant.

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the book – certain parts did resonate very strongly, especially the parts about diet culture, and I thought the parts about how Poorna Bell came to deal with her own grief surrounding her husband’s death were very poignant. However, I do feel that this was a book in bad need of an editor – each chapter was just a list of people from a certain category (maybe a certain age group, religion or sexuality) who described how they felt that exercise was not for them, and then a call for personal trainers and gyms to be better equipped to welcome people from every way of life. It ended up feeling repetitive, and I’m not entirely sure that this wouldn’t have been better as an article rather than a full length book.

I do also feel that while Poorna Bell speaks very highly of the two personal trainers she has herself had, and the gym that she belongs to, the book almost felt like an attack on gyms as a whole and personal trainers in general.

So overall – a great message gets lost in the repetitive style of writing. BUT I enjoyed the parts about Poorna’s own family and her love of powerlifting.

Hope Arden is a woman who everyone forgets – quite literally. Someone can meet her, have a conversation with her, sleep with her even, and when she goes away they have no recollection of her, so every time she meets someone it is the first time for them. This makes it hard for her to make friends, forge relationships or hold down a job, but it’s very useful tool for an international jewel thief, which is what Hope becomes. She then becomes embroiled in a plot to steal an app called Perfection. The app awards points to people for improving themselves or their lives, such as having the right cosmetic treatments, going to the right gym enough, or buying the right food; it tracks your every movement – and quite frankly sounds awful, and perilously close to where we are in real life.

There are some interesting ideas about what it means to be perfect, and what it means to be memorable, and there is no doubt that some of the writing is very beautiful and clever. However, this book did not really work for me – I did not like the stream of consciousness style of narrative (although I have previously written other books written in a similar way and enjoyed them) and I did not like the constant flying off at tangents.

I did think that for someone who is forgettable, Hope was a very fully fleshed out character who the reader got to know and essentially root for, even if she was not always likeable. But none of the other main players were ever really more than cardboard cutouts. I stayed up late to finish this book, which usually means one of two things; either I am loving a book and can’t put it down, or I want to get to the end of it, precisely so that I CAN put it down. This was a case of the latter. It’s not badly written, far from it, and I liked the two main threads – Hope’s forgettability and the Perfection app. But it never really worked and I didn’t feel any sort of connect. I do have another book by Claire North, and I will give it a go at some point.

The Colorado Kid is definitely not your typical Stephen King novel. For a start, it’s not scary, there’s no sci-fi or dystopian element, and there’s nothing supernatural here. It’s pulp fiction and an interesting crime noir.

It opens in 2005, when a young female newspaper intern on a small island in Maine is chatting to her two colleagues, who have lived on the island their whole lives, discussing the subject of local unsolved mysteries. They tell her the story of the man they nicknamed the Colorado Kid, a young man who was found dead on the beach one early morning in 1980. The story revolves not only around identifying the man and finding out how he died, but also what he was doing there in the first place.

Due to the fact that the story is being told 25 years after it happened, there is no sense of urgency or danger, it’s just an interesting story. Although it’s not typical Stephen King fare, you can feel his writing come through – mainly in the description of the small town characters with their quirks and idiosyncrasies, and of course the fact that, like so many of his stories it is set in Maine.

It’s short – coming in at 180 pages, but in reality not even that, as my copy had a long introduction from the publisher, so the story itself actually started around 30 pages in, and there are several full-page illustrations of events throughout the book.

It’s not classic crime and it’s not one of King’s best, but as his books always do, it pulled me in and held my interest throughout. I also really liked the typically pulpy cover picture! Recommended to Stephen King fans as well as those who might not always enjoy his books, but like crime fiction.

I first read this book when I was a teenager, and if I cast my mind back through the many years that have passed since, I’m fairly sure that at the time I thought it was a true story. It isn’t, but that doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of the reading.

The story is, on the face of it, fairly simple. In Victoria, Australia in 1900, the students and two teachers as the prestigious Appleyard School for young ladies are preparing to go for a Valentine’s Day picnic at the famous landmark Hanging Rock. During the picnic, four of the students go off for a walk and only one returns, in a state of hysteria, and unable to recall what has happened to the other three young women. Also missing is one of the teachers.

The book explores the ripple effect of the disappearance and how it changed the lives even of people who were initially only on the periphery of the story, and illustrates how one event can have far reaching consequences. The disappearance itself happens in the first quarter of the book and the rest of the book deals with the after-effects.

I did enjoy this book very much, both times that I read it. There was a surprising amount of humour, or at least acerbic wit, but the main atmosphere is somewhat ethereal and dreamlike. My favourite characters were the coachman Albert Crundall and Madamoiselle De Poitiers, the French teacher who genuinely cared about her students.

It’s a short read (just under 200 pages) but an enjoyable one, and I would recommend it. I’d also like to see Hanging Rock for myself!

This is the first novel I have ever read by French writer Michel Bussi, and it certainly drew me in quickly. It’s a thriller that definitely kept me guessing…

Martial and Liane Bellion are on holiday in the French island of Reunion when Liane goes missing after leaving the hotel pool to go up to their room. All evidence points to Martial having murdered her, and when he goes on the run, an island-wide manhunt is set up by the police in order to catch him. Beyond that it is difficult to say much without giving away spoilers, and this is a book that really deserves to be read spoiler-free.

On the whole I enjoyed it, as the writing was fast-paced and almost every chapter ended in a cliffhanger. The initial mystery was very intriguing and well put together. I also enjoyed reading about Reunion, a place which I admit I had never heard of prior to reading this, but I felt that the island almost became one of the characters in the story.

However, I did not feel that the main characters were particularly well fleshed out; I did like the police officer Christos and his girlfriend Imelda, but other than that the characterisation was thin. Not altogether a bad thing, as this is definitely a plot driven story, but I would have liked to have had someone to really root for.

Although I was absorbed in the story right until the end, I did feel that the ending itself was a bit of a let-down. This is probably because the story had started off and carried along at high-octane pace so the conclusion felt like an anti-climax; just my opinion and I suspect lots of readers will disagree with me.

One thing to note – some of the characters are told in third person and some are told from different characters’ points of view. This wasn’t a problem, and I generally enjoy multiple narrators but some readers may not like it.

Essentially this was a quick and enjoyable read, and I look forward to reading more by Michel Bussi.

Tim Jamieson is an ex-cop on his way to a new life in New York, when he decides to literally go in a different direction and ends up in the small South Carolina town of DuPray and finds himself a job as the local Night Knocker (if you’re wondering what that job is, so was I; I Googled it and all the results were Google searches by other readers of this book! It appears to be a job whereby someone just walks around the town and checks that everything is in order, businesses etc are all locked up and safe – a nightwatchman for the entire town effectively).

Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, child prodigy and telekinetic Luke Ellis is kidnapped in the middle of the night and taken to an isolated, secret building in Maine. He wakes up in a bedroom identical to his own at home – except that there is no escape from this institution. He and other remarkable children like him are prisoners here, and the evil director Mrs Sigsby and her sadistic staff are determined to wring every last bit of these children’s special powers for their own purposes. The children who enter the institute never get to leave it – but Luke is determined to escape.

The stage is set for a showdown of humungous proportion…

I generally make a point of reading at least one Stephen King book a year, at least for the last few years. I tend to prefer his later works, and always find myself totally drawn in. The Institute was no different – starting with Tim Jamieson’s story and then moving on to Luke and his fellow captives in the Institute. Inevitably the two stories collide later on in the book, for the thrilling ending.

However, as much as I enjoy Stephen King’s work – I always find that the first 75% of his books are better than the last 25% and I do think that was the case here too. That’s not to say the ending was disappointing – far from it – just that the journey is usually more exciting than the destination. I don’t see how he could have ended this story differently really, but what really drew me in was the all-too-scary vision of life in the institution.

I really liked Tim’s character and also the character of Sheriff John, albeit the latter was not in the story as much as I hoped. The main children in the institute all had their own distinct personalities as well, and it would be difficult not to like and root for Luke.

Overall, a thrilling book which I found hard to put down, and always looked forward to picking up again. Definitely recommended for Stephen King fans and people who like horror or dystopian/speculative fiction.

This fifth outing for private detective Cormoran Strike and his business partner Robin Ellacott sees them tackling their first cold case. Strike is visiting his uncle and sick aunt in Cornwall when he is approached by Anna Phipps, who hopes he can help her discover what happened to her mother, GP Margot Bamborough, who went missing just over 40 years earlier. Was she a victim of serial killer Dennis Creed who was in the midst of his killing spree at that time? Or was something else behind Margot’s disappearance?

As Strike and Robin go back over the lives of Margot’s colleagues, friends and family, they run into more and more problems, with red herrings, missing witnesses and unreliable memories. Meanwhile Strike is juggling trying to look after his aunt, dealing with unwanted contact from his half siblings and his erstwhile father, and his fragile and unbalanced ex-fiancee Charlotte still trying to remain in Strike’s life. Robin has her own problems, going through an unpleasant divorce from Matthew and dealing with unwanted attention from another quarter.

The agency is expanding for better or for worse – they have taken on a new subcontractor and an office secretary (the latter of which was a very enjoyable character to read about; I hope she features in future books).

Every time I read the latest Strike book I think it is the best yet, and this one is no exception. It’s huge – the paperback is nearly 1100 pages – but I enjoyed every minute of it. The twists and turns came fast and just when I thought the detectives might be getting somewhere, something would happen to make me think, “Oh, hang on….”

I do think Galbraith has a gift for characterisation, as I felt I really knew everyone in this book. The plotting must have been meticulous, and the ending was brilliant. I like the fact that the book shows the private lives of Strike and Robin, but never delves into the realms of soap opera; rather it adds to their motivations and nuances of character as we understand more about what drives them.

Ready for the next one please!

About 30 (!) years ago, my mum and I went to the cinema to see Dying Young, a film starring Julia Roberts, still a major star riding high on the success of Pretty Woman: and Campbell Scott, a beautiful young man on whom I developed an instant huge crush which endures to this day. Roberts played Hilary, a streetwise, tough-but-vulnerable city girl from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’, who takes a job as a nurse for Victor, a well-educated young man from a wealthy family, who has terminal leukaemia. Ordinarily their paths would never cross, but they inevitably fall in love and discover that they have plenty to teach each other. Yes, it’s Pretty Woman with the prostitution removed and a timebomb of an illness added. I rewatched the film a few years ago, and despite its obvious flaws, I still enjoyed it.

Anyway…this book by Marti Leimbach is the story which the film was based on, and this was my first time reading it. For anyone else who has seen the film, be aware that I am playing fast and loose with the words “based on.” The story was transplanted from rural Massachusetts in the book to San Francisco, and in the book Hilary is a persistent shoplifter, while Victor is cruel and unkind most of the time – in the film there is no sign of either of these traits.

In the book, which is told entirely from Hilary’s point of view, Hilary and Victor have already moved away to Hull, a small town where everyone knows each other, to get away from Victor’s father, who wants Victor to continue his treatment for leukaemia. Victor meanwhile has decided to give up all treatment and just enjoy what time he has left. He and Hilary fight a lot, and she has an affair with a local man named Gordon. As if this isn’t complicated enough, Gordon and Victor become friends. Hilary is torn between her love for these two very different men as well as being wracked with guilt, and all three of them have some big decisions to make about their respective futures.

Honestly I am not sure what to think about this book. It’s certainly an interesting situation, and it was an easy undemanding read, despite the subject matter. However, the main problem is that I didn’t feel that any of the characters were particularly well fleshed out so it was hard to get a read on them. I did feel more for Victor; he could be unkind, but it seemed fairly clear that it was an angry reaction to the hand that life had dealt him, although he lashed out (verbally) at Hilary – she being his only available target – which was unfair.

The story was fairly slow moving, which was fine, and almost felt like a series of vignettes strung together, rather than a continuous narrative. I don’t mind this style of writing, but it might not appeal to some readers.

I won’t give away the ending, suffice to say that I found it downbeat and somewhat unlikely. Overall I have mixed feelings and I’m unsure whether or not I would read anything else by this author. However, I applaud her for not taking the easy route with this situation and for writing characters, who ordinarily readers would want to side with, but who in this case are not always easy to like.

Bill Bryson apparently wanted to write a book about baseball legend Babe Ruth, who had a phenomenal year in 1927, but then discovered so many other things that happened in America during the summer(ish) time of that year. Consequently, while the book does focus a lot on Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees, it also talks about aviation, specifically Charles Lindbergh’s legendary transatlantic flight; the deeply unpleasant Henry Ford; the trial and execution of the possibly innocent Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti; the reticent president Calvin Coolidge; the beginning of the Mount Rushmore carvings; the events that led up to the Great Depression of 1929; boxing great Jack Dempsey; and the rising popularity of talking pictures, and the beginnings of popular television.

I enjoyed the book a lot – Bryson tells the story of the summer, which he extends for the purposes of the book until October, month by month. This means that he might talk on one subject and then switch to another, but in the next section, he circles back to the first subject again. I don’t mind this, but some readers might prefer a less disjointed narrative. That said, Bryson is an engaging narrator, and I particularly enjoyed reading about the amazingly talented baseball player Babe Ruth, who fortunately was one of the bigger subjects covered in the book. I definitely feel like I learned a lot, and it was all presented in an interesting way…Bill Bryson would have been a great history teacher!

My one niggle is that the book is perhaps a bit too long. It’s 600 pages, plus a bibliography, and I would suggest that a fifth or so could have been trimmed. But overall it was an enjoyable read, and I will look forward to reading more by Bill Bryson.