In The Book Corner
with Jim Ryan
Do you have a book that you’d like to recommend I read? Or do you disagree with any of my reviews? Or found an author you really like? Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Since I did my last book review, I’ve been dragged back to work from furlough, and haven’t actually read a book. I’ve started and abandoned a couple, but not actually finished one. Not to worry I thought, I have until the end of the month to find a good one and write up a review. You can imagine my shock when the very demanding (and slightly terrifying) Editor of the Galmington and Comeytrowe News told me that the deadline had changed as they’re going back to a printed version following lockdown (but hooray for some sort of normality returning).
So, instead of doing a book review, I thought I would do a review on one of my favourite authors instead – Dean Koontz. I have previously reviewed one of Mr. Koontz’s works, which I’m sure the Head of Online Operations at G&CN would be able to direct you to in the archive section if you ask him, or one of his team, nicely.
I first came across Dean Koontz when I was an unwashed teenager, collecting piles of plates and half-drunk cups of tea in the pit that I used to call my bedroom. Koontz’s genre of writing falls well and truly into the science-fiction realm – not the little green mankind – but he cleverly uses everyday type characters in his plots, so that (for me at least) you can almost half believe his tales might be true.
He has written a couple of series of books (based on the same characters), as well as countless standalone novels. I won’t be able to review all of my preferred ones here, so Google for synopses, but my favourite standalones include: Phantoms, Lightening, Fear Nothing, Dragon tears, Sole Survivor, Relentless and Dark Rivers of the Heart; and favourite series include the Odd Thomas collection, and the Jane Hawk set.
I think what draws me most to his work is the believability of his characters, almost from the first page they have soul, personality and relatability, and as a reader this is one of the key elements that I look for in a good read. I should point out that by his own admission, and confirmed by me, he has also written a couple of novels that are best left collecting dust at the bookshop. Thankfully, these are in the minority (I can only think of one actually) but do check out online reviews first to help you spot these. You’ll also spot some similarities between his books (most of the characters have a pet dog, and at least one character in the books drives a certain type of Ford Car; and there’s usually some sort of conspiracy plot being undertaken by rogue government agents). Personally, I like this, as it is like a thread that connects his writing together.
So, if you like stories that have a sci-fi twist, or enjoy reading about secret weapons that governments have hidden from the general populace, or even just something unusual to escape everyday life, I would encourage you to give his work a go (or maybe suggest to a smelly teenager of your own). In the meantime, I’ll make sure I read a book from cover to cover by the next issue.
My partner recently bought me a book subscription, so every month I get four books, 2 sachets of hot chocolate (umm, where’s the wine?) and a small packet of biscuits. After brushing the biscuit crumbs that my partner left behind from off the pile of books, the first book I read was awful, complete tosh. So after pouring myself a large glass of red, I decided to give the second book a try. This was an improvement on the first one, more depth to the characters (who were smoke jumpers – bush fire fighters who are parachuted in behind the fire to aid in its extinguishment – if extinguishment is the right word for a full on bush fire?). But the plot was a little predictable, X falls in love with Y, but Y has issues and doesn’t want to get involved – blah, blah – with the odd fire thrown in for good measure. Readable, but not electrifying (similar to my reviews perhaps?).
However, book number three was much better (although I had lost count of what number glass of red wine I was on by that point, so if you read it and don’t enjoy it, blame the wine).
The story is based around the Hurst family – mum, dad, two daughters and a son. Nothing special you might think? Well, how about if the mother is an emotional control freak from the depths of the ninth circle of Dante’s Hell; the father is a secret alcoholic who’s possibly having an affair; the teenage son has been convinced by his mother that he has Asperger’s and Epilepsy (he doesn’t) and should be home-schooled; daughter one has run away after becoming pregnant, and daughter number two has just been sectioned for allegedly attacking her brother with a kitchen knife (I bet lockdown would be a barrel of laughs in their house).
Written from the perspective of two of the children, the story gives an insight into their thoughts and emotions as they battle with everyday life, trying to work out their place in the world, as well as how best to deal/circumnavigate their mother. The son, Will takes the side (or has been manipulated to) of his mother, whilst the daughter, Violet, recognises the matriarch for what she is – completely crackers with the emotional support range of a flattened teaspoon.
The plot twists and turns, showing you the glimpse of an insight here, a partial truth there, and imagined perceptions scattered liberally. Ok, it’s not going to be the best book you ever read, and the subject matter isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but I found it to be tense (in places), dark (all of it) and creatively written. It’s £9 on Amazon, and I’m not sure I’d pay that much for it, but if you can find a copy from somewhere a bit cheaper, why not give it a go.
To ease me through lockdown and to while away the boredom of not being at work I have been returning to authors whose works I enjoyed reading when I was in my ‘youth’. And yes, Jeffrey Archer is one of those authors. Whilst all my friends at college were reading Terry Pratchett, Helen Fielding and Michael Crichton, I was reading the likes of Archer, Patricia Cornwell, Dean Koontz and Thomas Harris. So when looking for a new read, I thought why not return to an old favourite (having probably not read any of his works for 15 odd years), and I was certainly not let down by this book.
A Prisoner of Birth is centred around East-End Londoner, Danny and the struggle he faces to try and prove his innocence when faced with a charge of murder – for which he is given a sentence of 22 years – after being set up. In prison he befriends two fellow prisoners, who as well as help him climatize to life in jail, assist in his educational development (Danny can’t read or write). One of the prisoners (Nick) is an army officer, who is serving a sentence because he was responsible for the actions of one of his men, in which an unlawful killing took place. Danny strives to be more like Nick, in the belief that his innocence is more likely to be believed (at his appeal) if he is more of a gentleman, looks presentable, talks properly, and can read and write.
Meanwhile, the four individuals who set him up are happily carrying on with their successful lives (one of the four is a famous actor and another a law partner earmarked to become the youngest QC), oblivious to Danny’s intention to prove himself innocent – or to seek revenge. After Danny loses his appeal, he thinks all is lost, until an opportunity presents itself, and so starts his determined fight to enact his own form of justice.
If you’ve read any Archer yourself, you’ll know from the likes of ‘Cain and Able’ and ‘The Prodigal Daughter’ that his stories are epic and the books can be used as doorstops, and the same can be said of A Prisoner of Birth. And I mean that in a good way, it’s like settling down to watch your favourite box set (all five seasons) with a box of chocolates.
Archer won international thriller of the year for this book in 2009, so even if you are not a fan of Archer (and his own prison antics), I would strongly recommend you give this a go. You may discover a gripping read, or worse case, you can use it to prop the kitchen door open.
As always, please feel free to let me know what you think of a book I’ve reviewed that you’ve gone on to read .
You may or may not remember from one of my reviews at the start of the year that I set myself the challenge of reading one book per week this year. Most months I have read either four or five a month, but after I was furloughed from work at the end of April (and in order to get out of helping to paint the kitchen), I read 11 and a half in May (I say ‘half’ as I only managed to get partway through one book before having to abandon it and return it to the bookshelf to collect dust). So I’ve had plenty of choice for which book to review this month, and I have chosen 55 by James Delargy, and this is the first book I have read by this author.
Set in modern-day Australia (but with flashbacks to the early 2000s), the story centres around a minor rural town and the resident police sergeant (Chandler Jenkins) and his team. Not much out of the ordinary happens on a day to day basis that causes too much excitement, so when an injured and frightened young man appears in the town, claiming to have escaped from the confines of a serial killer, the small police team are jump-started into action. The man’s story is heard and statemented, and he tells the police of how the killer boasted of previous kills and that he was going to be victim 55, and whilst he was escaping he saw a number of unmarked graves.
The man is put up in local lodgings whilst the police start their investigation into the allegations. They say that lightening doesn’t strike twice…but that proves false in this case, as a short while later a second young man appears, who fits the description of the killer (yay, job done! Time for doughnuts), however, he’s telling the exact same story as the first man, with the same precise details – but giving the description of the first man as the murderer (ah, maybe put the sugary treat back in the box). When sergeant Jenkins goes to re-interview the first chap, he discovers the guy’s done a runner. This, surprisingly, doesn’t go down well with his superiors, and a senior officer is dispatched from Perth to take control of the situation. This proves to be slightly awkward for Sergeant Jenkins, as the senior officer is non other than an old friend who he had a falling out with a number of years ago. Yeah, not a good day for Jenkins.
After a search, he’s apprehended and re-interviewed; but both men stick to their story, blaming the other. Who’s telling the truth; which of them is the killer? Are they both in on it together? Or have the both escaped from a third party? And why is the number 55 so important?
I won’t give away any more of the story, but what I will say is that I did enjoy the style of the author’s writing, and pace of the book kept me interested and engaged (I did worry that when I saw it was based in Australia in a small village that it might be a bit of a yawn-fest). The characters had life and were believable (even minor characters were penned with personalities that gave them a soul). Even though I did thoroughly enjoy this book, I will admit that there was one bit I was a bit ‘meh’ about, but I won’t share that with you.
As always, please feel free to let me know what you think of a book I’ve reviewed that you’ve gone on to read – and hello to Tracy and Patricia who were kind enough to email me recently. Stay safe and happy reading!
Since the start of the year, my aim has been to read a book week. Not easy to do with a full time job and a high-maintenance cat to look after. Still, I’m more or less on track at the moment, but it’s still early in the year yet. I’ve read a couple of good ones, a few mediocre ones, and one reeeeally rubbish one – which I was tempted to review, but I’m trying to complain less about things, so I’ve gone for one of the better ones.
Set in America, the story revolves around two teenage twin sisters, who get sent to a posh boarding school by moneybags grandma, following the death of their parents. The more outgoing of the sisters soon gets caught up with some of the more rebellious seniors at the school, whilst her sister prefers to concentrate on her academic studies. I’m sure you don’t need to be mystic Meg to predict that this causes them to fall out.
At the same time, two new teachers also join the school as a husband and wife team, sent in to sort out some behavioural issues that the school has been having recently. The man is a failed writer, who wrote a bestselling novel, only to be found out for plagiarising most of it (not sure that’s possible in today’s day and age, but go with it). As such, he’s got a point to prove when it comes to his teaching style. His wife has to juggle looking after their two small children, as well as her teaching responsibilities (helpfully the school has a crèche), as well as wonder why her husband creeps out during the middle of the night.
Interwoven between the chapters where the girls fall out over boys and “he said, she said” stuff, is a police investigation (set in present day, whereas the rest of the book is in the recent past) into the murder of one of the girls. As I’m approaching 40, rather than 14, I think if this was another teenage angst type of book, I would have not bothered reading it, but what intrigued me was the murder. Which sister was killed? Why? By whom? What was their motive? (The title of the book doesn’t help, as was it the quiet one that was killed, or the quiet one that was the murderer?!) I found myself quite gripped by the tale and enjoyed the easy flowing writing style adopted by the author.
3.9 stars out of 5 from me, and I of course won’t give away the ending. There is a small reveal in the epilogue that I did manage to half work out for myself, so if you read it, see if you can do better than me!
If you’re not keen on spiders, then this book may not be for you. That said, I’m not overly keen on them myself and survived reading it. The story is set several hundred years into the future where, inevitably, humankind has screwed up the plant and has descended into chaos. A research project has been set up to terraform a planet, send down some monkeys and a virus that will enhance their development (essentially speeding up the evolution process, so that one day a human race will once again thrive on the planet). At the same time (ish), several thousand humans are put into a deep sleep on an ark space ship and sent off into the galaxy, so that they can awaken at some point in the future and find a new home amongst the stars.
However, not everything goes according to plan… as instead of monkeys (and then humans) being the dominant species on the planet, due to a series of events, spiders (and ants to a degree) advance up the evolutionary scale instead.
The book is written over about a thousand years, from the perspective of the spaceship crew, who keep waking up to deal with some emergency (mechanical issues, in-fighting, mutiny etc) and then being put back into deep sleep again and the spiders (obviously not the same spiders, but generations of the same family) and how they evolve, think, communicate, battle the ants and look out to the stars at their god for answers (who happens to be a mad scientist in an orbiting spaceship).
I really haven’t done the plot justice in this limited space, but if you’re into sci-fi stuff, then this is a must read. The book has won a few awards and has rave reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. It’ll take you a while to adjust to reading from the spiders’ perspective, but you soon get into it and the book deals with big, thought provoking issues such as god, religion, love, trust and destiny. It’s a mammoth read (around 9 hours, rather than the normal 5 or 6 for an average size book), but it’s well worth it and really makes you ponder and contemplate what we take for granted as the ‘norm’.
I do like my history, especially anything connected to the Second World War. I think it comes from spending many a school holiday with my grandparents and listening to my grandfather tell me various facts and interesting tales (during the day he made rubber seals for Spitfires and by night was an ARP messenger). So when I read the synopsis for this book and learned that it was based on a true story, it was a no hesitation purchase, and boy was I not let down.
Set in Italy during WWII, the story focuses around that of teenager Pino Lella, and his family in Milan. Pino is like any teenager today, interested in music, food and girls; the only difference being that he has the addition of trying to avoid the Nazis as they take over Italy; and also has Allied bombing raids to contend with. When his family home is destroyed by bombs, he is sent by his parents to a church run mountain retreat. There, he is enlisted by the priest to help smuggle Jews over the mountains and across the border into Switzerland, running into a few scrapes along the way.
A few weeks before his 18 th birthday, he returns home to visit his parents. Afraid that when he turns 18 he’ll be conscripted into the army and be made to fight the Russians on the Eastern front, they persuade a reluctant Pino to enlist in the German army instead, so that he has a (limited) choice on how to serve. Circumstances allow Pino to become the driver of Hitler’s left hand man in Italy, General Hans Leyers. This is the start of Pino feeding information back to the resistance and onto the Allies (where munitions are being kept, timetables of important train deliveries etc).
I won’t give away the ending or any more of the plot, as it truly is fascinating. So much happens, it’s sometimes easy to forget that this is based on a real story and not a work of someone’s overactive imagination (in the introduction, the author details his long interviews with Pino and the cross referencing he does to check on the validity of the story).
A very captivating read; but as you can imagine with a true story set during this dark period of history, not always a happy one.
The prologue starts with a question: how things might have turned out differently if it weren’t for small, insignificant, events that occur every day that could happen to any of us. Losing a shoe, taking time to decide what to buy in a shop; missing a bus.
Two schoolboys finish playing a game of rugby and are walking home together, popping into a newsagents to get an after school treat. Due to this, one of the boys just misses his bus home so needs to wait a few minutes for the next one to come along, and the other boy continues his walk home. This second boy is woken by his parents in the middle of the night, as the police are at the door because his friend has gone missing; a can of fizzy drink on the pavement at the bus stop the only evidence his schoolmate was ever there.
After an extensive police investigation and a tearful television appeal by the parents the boy (Evan) is still not found. Months pass by, nearly tearing his parents apart. They have all but given up hope, when by chance Evan’s discovered in the boot of a car. Desperate for answers, he’s questioned by the police and his parents, but he refuses to say a word and retreats into his own world. Can his broken family help put Evan back together again? Will the police ever catch the criminals so the boy can truly feel safe? Then another child goes missing.
What I enjoyed about this book, is that it was different to other stories that touch on the same subject – a child going missing – where the plot is usually just concerned with finding that child and the police investigation. This book opened up into the lives of those affected and the aftershock of emotion following such a trauma (rather than the book just ending when the boy is found and everyone lives happily ever after), and we’re given insights into the thoughts and feelings of the child, the parents (and grandparents) and the police detective heading up the case.
As well as the different approach to this type of genre, one of the things that touched me the most was the beautiful relationship between the boy and his grandfather. All the characters are so alive and full of soul and believability. I wouldn’t say this is a psychological thriller, or even a gritty crime novel, it’s simply a very well penned story about what happens with the unthinkable occurs.
4.9 out of 5 stars for me, well worth a read – make sure you have a supply of tea and chocolate biscuits nearby, as you won’t want to put the book down.