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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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