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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.

This book takes place in Ireland from 1910-1925. Kitty Deverill is the Anglo-Irish youngest child of Bertie and Maud Deverill, and lives in the grand but cursed Deverill Castle. The daughter of the Deverill’s cook, Bridie is Kitty’s best friend despite the differences in their social statuses, and Kitty’s vivacious cousin Celia completes their social circle. The story encompasses the drive for Irish independence, which Kitty is a staunch advocate for, as well as complications in love when two of the girls have feelings for the same man (trying to keep this spoiler free). Pretty much ignored by her father and very much despised by her mother, Kitty is at least close to her grandmother Adeline. As she grows into an intelligent and fiercely independent young woman, the political and romantic situations manifest themselves in shocking and dangerous ways.

Kitty, Celia and Bridie find themselves inhabiting different parts of the world as their lives take them on unexpected journeys, but their hearts will always belong in Ireland and at Castle Deverill.

For anyone who isn’t aware, it’s worth knowing that this book is the first in a trilogy, so if you want a story with a definitive ending you won’t find it here. Personally speaking I’m not sure I enjoyed it enough to read the next book, although I would like to know what happens. I swung this way and that during the book – I really enjoyed some parts of it but other parts moved too slowly and didn’t hold my interest. The sweeping romance did not really capture my attention as I did not warm to either of the two people involved. The other problem was that none of the three main female characters were memorable enough for me to want to root for them. They were all either incredibly naive or very selfish – one of them in particular did a particularly horrible thing, which added little to the story and could easily have been left out.

The writing is fine if sometimes a little overly-sentimental, and although it was enough to hold my interest, it was never one of those books that you can’t wait to pick up. Then again this is not normally a genre I would go for, so I shouldn’t be surprised. Overall I would have to say that while I didn’t hate it, I certainly wouldn’t be in a rush to read anything else by this author.

This book tells the heartbreaking and horrific story of the British prisoners of war who were forced to build the Burmese Railway during World War II. When Reg Twigg joined the army at the outbreak of the war, he expected to be sent to fight the Germans in Europe, but ended up in Singapore when it fell to the Japanese.

The conditions that these mainly British, Australian and Dutch soldiers endured were beyond imagining, and they died in the thousands – either murdered by the sadistic guards, or were so starved that their bodies couldn’t survive. Dysentry and Cholera were rife in the prison camps and it became commonplace for the soldiers to find themselves burying their former comrades.

That Reg survived is partly due to luck, and partly due to his own resourcefulness. He harvested illicit pumpkins from the kitchen rubbish (a risk that could have seen him punished by death if he had been caught) and trapped snakes and lizards to eat.

I don’t know if I could say that I enjoyed this book – given the subject matter, it’s not exactly a pleasant read. But it’s fascinating and gripping in the same way that a horror film can be – except that this was real life for so many.

I learned a lot about the famous bridge over the River Kwai (for example, it wasn’t over the Rover Kwai at all!) and a LOT about the Burmese Railway which Reg and his fellow prisoners were forced to build. It was an absorbing insight into a dreadful time. I do recommend this book, but be prepared for some upsetting scenes.

WWII is nearing an end and Venice is still occupied. Cenzo, a fisherman from nearby Pellestrina is stunned when he is out in his boat one night and sees a young girl floating in the water. He initially thinks she is dead, but in fact the young Venetian girl, Guilia, is far from dead – she is on the run from the Nazis who have killed her family.

He decides to try and protect her, which leads both of them into dangerous adventures, where they are never quite sure who can be trusted, and their lives are always on the line.

Compared to the last book I read by Martin Cruz Smith, the more famous Gorky Park, this was a lot lighter in tone, despite the subject matter. It’s very much plot rather than character driven, with most of the characters not being particularly fleshed out. That said, I did like the world-weary Cenzo very much – drawn into all kinds of situations when he would really rather just be fishing, he had a wry sense of humour and I definitely wanted a happy ending for him.

This is no-frills storytelling – the tale is told scene by scene, with no wasted words, and for some that might not be enjoyable. I liked it; I didn’t get immersed in it, but I enjoyed it overall and I thought the ending was just right.

Mass (2021)

I genuinely think this might be one of the most heartbreaking films I have ever seen. Certainly it’s one of the very best acted, with a truly outstanding cast.

Some years after the worst kind of tragedy affects their lives, two couples meet up to discuss events, try and understand each other’s pain and finally be able to move forward. I knew what the tragedy was before I watched the film, but I think it would have been even more hard hitting if I hadn’t, so I’m not going to reveal that here, but the details do unfold through the film.

So, except for the very beginning and very end of the film, it’s just the four characters in one room, in real time. And each character is so vividly drawn that it’s impossible not to feel for each and every one of them. Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd and Reed Birney all deserve to win every acting award going for this one. Isaacs (one of my very favourite actors; always brilliant and never more so than he is here) starts out as a polite and co-operative, wanting to be civil, whereas his wife Gail (Plimpton – incredible) doesn’t even really want to be there at the beginning of the meeting. Linda (Dowd) and Richard (Birney) are, respectively, eager to make amends and try and understand the other couple, and slightly repressed, worried about what might unfold.

Each character runs the whole gamut of emotions, and goodness I ran through them too. An hour and a half conversation between four characters might not sound like the sort of thing that everyone would enjoy but I was figuratively on the edge of my seat, and could not peel my eyes away from the screen. I also recommend keeping tissues handy for this film, as I was in tears several times throughout.

Since I watched this film a few days ago I have not been able to stop thinking about it. It’s the second film I have watched so far this year, and right now I cannot imagine that there will be a more emotional and hard hitting one. Kudos to each and every actor involved, to the writers and everybody else who worked on this. All I can say is please watch.

I’m not really into violent films or action movies, although I do like some thrillers and I would class this more of a thriller than action. Definitely violent! I would probably have not bothered watching if it were not for the fact that Viggo Mortensen was in it – there are a few actors I will break out of my normal genres for, and he is one.

Mortensen is Tom Stall, a mild mannered cafe owner in small town America, happily married to Edie (Maria Bello) and with two children. One night two armed thugs come into the cafe with the intention of robbing the place and killing the staff and other customers. Tom single handedly fends them off and kills them, which leads to him being hailed a local hero and featuring in the press. Unfortunately, the following day two strange and intimidating men turn up at the cafe calling him Joey, and clearly think that he is someone else, and that they have a score to settle with him. For a while, we don’t know whether this is a case of mistaken identity or whether they are correct. We find out the truth but I won’t reveal it here in case of spoilers. Unfortunately this leads to further problems for Tom and his family and it is up to him to keep them all safe.

This a David Cronenberg film, so highly stylised and with explicit scenes of sex and violence – worth noting if this kind of scene disturbs you. I did enjoy it, and thought Mortensen and Bello were both excellent, with Ed Harris as one of the mystery men who turn up at his cafe after his heroics make Tom famous, both charismatic and menacing.

Overall, an enjoyable way to spend a few hours although you might want to have something a little light hearted to watch afterwards as a palate cleanser!

Very much a ‘What If?’ kind of story – actually it’s three stories.

In 1958, two Cambridge students, Eva and Jim, meet when Eva’s bicycle has a puncture. There are three different versions of this meeting, which then spin out into three different versions of the rest of their lives. The versions are told in alternating chapters, often covering the same events.

First the good – I liked Laura Barnett’s writing, and she definitely made her characters believable. I liked Eva considerably more than I liked Jim in all three versions of their story (actually, I felt she was probably too good for him and preferred each of the other men in her life – or lives – to Jim). I also liked the fact that all of the stories in their own rights felt realistic, with each having moments of happiness and hurt. The characters made good and bad decisions each time. Also the surrounding characters – their friends and of course family members – were the same throughout each version, but obviously reacting to different situations each time.

The bad – It was simply too confusing a format to properly enjoy. Not only does each chapter change to one of the other timelines, but also several years pass between chapters, so new characters are introduced without warning and I was always having remind myself who was married to who, and who the other members of their families were. I wondered at first if it was just me experiencing this problem, but having read other reviews, I saw that lots of readers felt the same way. I wish I had thought of just reading version one straight through, then going back to the beginning and doing the same with version two, then version three. Having things jumbled up meant that certain events had less impact, because no longer were they happening than you were in a different story.

I DO like ‘what if’ stories – Taylor Jenkins Reid did it very effectively in Maybe In Another Life, and I think the concept of The Versions of Us is terrific. And any of these three stories on their own would have been a good read. So despite my misgivings I would certainly try another book by this author, and would say taht even though this one didn’t quite work for me, there will no doubt be lots of people who will love it.

Although marketed as a novel, this is really eight short stories most of which have two narrators, and all of which are linked by a writing desk. It spans decades and countries and is essentially about the secrets we hold within us, even from those closest to us, and how we often don’t know people half as much as we think we do.

Honestly, I wanted to like this so much, but I felt that I just did not end up getting it. A couple of the stores sort of held my interest, but I was bored by most of them and found them self-absorbed. It’s a shame because Nicole Krauss is obviously very capable of eloquent writing, but this felt repetitive – I get the point, there’s no need to keep repeating it – and most of the narrators had the same voice, with little to distinguish them as characters.

I need to get past the idea that once I start a book I have to finish it. Sometimes it’s okay to leave a book unread if you are not enjoying it, and I sort of wish I had with this one. I did enjoy the feeling of relief once I got to the end of it though.

In Los Angeles in the late 1960s, brothers Billy and Graham Dunne form a rock band called The Six. At the same time, teenager Daisy Jones is discovering her identity, crashing clubs on the Sunset Strip, discovering drink and drugs, and sleeping with rock stars. She eventually becomes a singer and ends up joining The Six. The band went on to huge success and sell-out tours, until mid 1979, when they split up abruptly and without warning. Finally in this book the reasons behind their shock split are revealed.

This was the first book I read in 2022, and I think the third book I had read by this author (although the other two were audiobooks). I breezed through this one very quickly and if it wasn’t for things like eating and sleeping, I probably could have read it in one sitting!

Daisy Jones & The Six are a fictional band, but there were certainly bands like them around in the late 60s and 1970s. This book is written as a sort of interview with different band members and people around them, so the events described are sometimes told very differently by some characters, because of course memory is not always reliable and people always bring their own biases to the table. It’s a style of writing that not everybody will love, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I really liked seeing the development of the band, spotting things that were happening before the characters themselves were always aware, and watching tensions arise and relationships – good and bad – forming.

Daisy was definitely what you would call a hot mess. WAY too into the alcohol and drugs, and I feared for her. The rest of the band were very relatable and believable with their own distinct personalities. My favourite character was Camila, who was not actually in the band at all but is a very important character throughout. I didn’t always agree with her choices, but she is very much a friend that someone would want to have by their side.

Anyway, a fascinating story that moves apace to keep you interested together with characters that you can really invest in even if you don’t always like them make this a great read. Perfect for kicking off this year of reading.