The October Country by Ray Bradbury

A collection of short stories from the master story teller.

Without doubt Ray Bradbury is one of the greatest writers of all time. Fahrenheit 451 is a must read classic and one of the best dystopian future books ever written. Definitely up there with Orwell’s 1984.

The October Country is a collection of 19 short stories, all of them written in the 40’s and 50’s. Because of this, some of them feel a little dated. There is a definite Cannery Row vibe to the feel, which was written by John Steinbeck, looking back on the great depression era.

However, even a dated short story from Ray Bradbury is a great short story, and even if one story doesn’t grab you, there’s another one in a few more pages. With almost 20 stories I’m not going to even try to write about them all, but I will highlight three of the best.

The Crowd was made into a TV episode, possibly for The Twilight Zone, as I distinctly remember having watched it. A random man is in the wrong place at the wrong time and is involved in a bad road accident. A crowd appears almost out of nowhere. He survives, but then has the misfortune to witness another road accident. He is sure that the same people from his accident are in the crowd. He starts to look through old newspapers for photographs from other road accidents. Sure enough, there are a number of individuals in most of the crowds. Who are they and what do they want?

Imagine a corn field where every stalk of corn is a person, and someone has been tasked with cutting each stalk when their time has come. This is the basis for the chilling tale of The Scythe. A family are driving across America in search of a new life when they stumble upon an old farm. There is a dead body and a note that whoever finds the body is to take over the farm. The man does just that, and to begin with everything is ok.

The Man Upstairs is a strange old fellow. He works nights and sleeps all day, staying in a hostel with a dozen rooms. The woman who runs the place looks after her grandson, who is inquisitive, especially with the strange man upstairs. The grandson has been warned not to make any noise during the day, but as soon as his grandmother leaves the house, he shouts as loud as he can outside of the strange man’s bedroom. In the evening, the other guests remark upon the disappearances in the city. Is this related to the strange man? Is he a Vampire, or is he something far worse?

All I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of short stories, especially as more than half of them were nice and dark. Ray Bradbury was an incredibly talented writer across many different genres. Almost every score on Goodreads is a four or a five, with very few lower scores. I gave the book four stars, although I would have liked to have given five, but not every story hit the mark.

The Lives of Brian by Brian Johnson

I do like to read rock biographies, and Brian Johnson has been the lead singer of AC/DC for 40 years. I wasn’t too impressed with Francis Rossi, as he came across as a bit of a nob, but Rob Halford’s biography was an amazing read as was Bruce Dickinson’s.

If you’re looking for an expose on the life and times of the band AC/DC, then this isn’t the book for you. The book is mostly all about Brian’s life before joining the band, and the last few years when he lost his hearing and had to leave the band. The album Back in Black is heavily written about as it was a ground breaking album, very much make or break. If the album had flopped then AC/DC would probably have ceased. No pressure then.

What is surprising is how much Brian accomplished before joining the band, with tours and hit singles with his previous band Geordie. He was also a successful business owner repairing cars when AC/DC came calling. They also weren’t the first large band he auditioned for, although he declined to try out for Uriah Heep.

There is definitely scope for a second book looking at Brian’s time in AC/DC, but I found this to be an enjoyable read, although without too many warts. Whether that is because Brian doesn’t have any “warts” or skeletons in the closest, or because on the whole he’s a genuinely nice bloke. I think it might be the latter.

Anyway, a good read, but possibly only if you’re a rock fan.

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

I picked this up in Waterstones, partly as it looked interesting and partly because Stephen King recommended it. Not personally, obviously, although how cool would that be if he had.

The blurb on the back mentions that Galaxy ‘Alex’ Stern has been awarded a place at Yale. She will be monitoring Yale’s secret societies as they tamper with forbidden magic, raise the dead and sometimes prey on the living. However, a local girl has been murdered and everyone apart from Alex thinks that the case has been solved.

There is a lot going on in this book, and the first fifty pages can be confusing with eight different secret societies, all of whom specialize in different aspects of magic. There is also a very detailed map of Yale University at the start of the book, which I found myself never actually looking at. Slowly over the course of the book we find out about Alex’s past and that the reason she was drawn to Yale is because she can see ghosts.

I was a little unsure about the style of the book early on, worrying that it might be an adult version of Harry Potter meeting The Sixth Sense. However, once I’d pushed on through the first fifty pages, Stephen King was right, in that it was impossible to put down. The story cracks along at a good pace, with twists and turns aplenty, although a couple are telegraphed. My only quibble would be with the ease in which magical devices are appropriated, seemingly from nowhere. The secret societies have been a law unto themselves for too long, and they’ve never met anyone like Galaxy Stern.

I gave the book five stars, which was a little generous. However, a sequel has been written which I am very much looking forward to reading.

I’ve Reached the End

Finally, after eons, I have finished the complete Jack Reacher series of books.

No Plan B

Jack Reacher is in the middle of nowhere, minding his own business, when he spots a woman being thrown in front of a bus. He follows the killer and Reacher is almost put out of commission. The local police decide that it is a suicide, but Reacher follows the trail. He teams up with Hannah, who has also recently lost someone. On top of this there is 15 year old Jed, who might have found his real father. All roads lead to a prison in the town of Winson.

As with nearly all Jack Reacher books I gave this four stars. It isn’t the best Reacher book, but it probably is the best one co-written by Andrew Child. There are numerous twists and turns, and the ending was very unexpected. If you’ve never read a Jack Reacher book, this probably isn’t the one to start with, although with 27 full length books, where do you start?

No Middle Name

Probably one for the fans rather than the casual reader as this is a collection of Jack Reacher short stories. The book is set out chronologically, so the first story is set when Jack is only 12. The collection adds depth to Reacher character and fills in a few blacks from when he was in the army. The stories are short enough that I could read one and then put the book down to read something else. As I said though, probably one for the diehard fans only.

Undead Ultra by Camille Picott

What could be better than a series of books about running and zombies. Obviously, the zombies don’t do the running, unlike in the George Romero remake where they did. Everyone knows that zombies can’t run!

There are four books in the main series, with a short prequel with different characters, although the main character is still an ultra runner. The prequel is similar to the start of the main series, in that an ultra runner is out on a long training run when he comes across zombies. He only survives because he’s a runner. The he bumps into a father and son out hunting, who are not runners, but between them they make it back to safety.

The main series starts off with Kate and her best friend Frederico out on a long run, when all hell breaks loose. Zombies are attacking people. Can you believe it, real zombies. Kate’s only thought is trying to get to her son at college 200 miles away. The zombies are blind but have really good hearing, which means driving is out of the question. The roads are also littered with car crashes and zombies. The pair of them start running, and on their route they meet a deranged drug kingpin, who uses zombies for protection. They also meet a soldier who lost his whole platoon, as well as hundreds of zombies.

The second book is all about setting up camp with Kate’s son and his friends at their college. However, there are rogue soldiers and a group of bloodthirsty students, along with hundreds of zombies. There isn’t very much running in book 2.

Books 3 and 4 involve lots of running, and lots of zombies, as Kate and her son’s friends try to rescue a camp which has been taken over by the same drug kingpin that we met in book 1. We’re also introduced to Alpha zombies who can communicate and lead hundreds of regular zombies.

Overall I gave the books either three or four stars, although they are definitely a niche series. If you don’t like books about zombies or running, then you won’t like this series. If you like zombie books, but not running, you’ll probably like this addition to the genre. However, if you enjoy books about ultra running, but don’t like zombies, then this series isn’t for you, even though the ultra running descriptions are fairly accurate. I would hazard a guess that Camille Picott is an ultra runner, or is very good friends with people who are.

I’ve “Reached” the End

That’s it. I’ve read all of the Jack Reacher books, apart from the new one and the collection of short stories. Very easy to read and on the whole, highly enjoyable and not too predictable.

Past Tense (Book #23)

Reacher finds himself in the small town where his father was born. He’s not looking for trouble, but trouble finds him, from a couple of different sources. First up is the small-town bully followed by a motel out in the middle of nowhere. He tries to find the hamlet where his grandparents lived, but this unearths a whole can of worms, not least because he is trespassing.

A young couple break down and stay at the motel. The owners appear to be incredibly helpful, but all is not what it seems.

This book was one of the first Reacher books that I read, at the beginning of the year, and I’m struggling to remember what it was all about. I do now that if it hadn’t been very good, I wouldn’t have continued with the series.

Blue Moon (Book #24)

Reacher is on a bus, travelling who knows where. He spots an old man with a wad of cash. He spots a hoodlum also on the bus who has also noticed the old man’s wad of cash. The old man gets off the bus and is quickly followed by the thug. Reacher also follows and saves the old man from a mugging. There is a deeper story. The old man and his wife are up to their necks in debt to the local crime lord. However, there is a lot more going on in the town. There is another rival crime lord and Reacher manages to set them off against one another.

This was one of the more interesting Reacher books in that he enlists the help of a number of people, and he isn’t the main man, as it were. He comes across as an old man, one whose time is almost up. A man who might not survive to the end of the book.

This was supposed to be the last Reacher book that Lee Child was going to write, until his younger brother stepped in. The early books mention that Reacher was born in 1960, which means that he is definitely on the road towards the end.

The Sentinel (Book #25)

Reacher is minding his own business, drinking copious amounts of coffee in a local diner, when he spots a man walking into an ambush. Its four against one, and the victim has no idea what is about to happen. Reacher happens. The man he saves is the town’s IT manager, recently fired for incompetence, but has opted to stay in the town to clear his name. Obviously, this being a Jack Reacher book, there is a lot more going on in this town apart from dodgy computers.

This was the first book written by both of the Child brothers, and to be honest, the book doesn’t gel. Lee and Andrew, for want of a better phrase, don’t appear to be on the same page. There are some neat ideas. Reacher being a complete technophobe having to rely on the computer savvy accomplices. Also, Reacher feels younger than he was in Blue Moon.

Better Off Dead (Book #26)

A backwater town and an ex-army FBI agent working off the books, searching for her twin brother. Is this town the site of a terrorist bomb making facility? Who is the local crime boss? What the hell is going on?

There are some very mixed reviews for this book and a lot more negative ones. I felt that this was an improvement on The Sentinel, but the plot is fairly thin and one dimensional, without enough interesting characters. Many of the reviews are inclined to suggest that the working arrangement between the two brothers isn’t working, and that maybe the whole Reacher series might be better off dead.

In summary, 26 books in one series is a great deal of reading. There are a couple of duff books, but even the poor ones are still very readable. You never feel the need to re-read a few pages as the story never gets too complicated in any of the books. I hope that Lee and Andrew continue to write another Reacher book a year for many years to come.

Death’s End by Liu Cixin

Death’s End is the third book in the science fiction series, Remembrance of Earth’s Past by the Chinese writer Liu Cixin. My review of the first two books can be read here.

I’ll start by giving you a quick recap on the first two books. In the first book, Earth discovers that a race of aliens who inhabit a world with three suns are on their way to Earth to take it over, and that there is a secret organisation trying to help them with the invasion.

The second book is all about finding a way to stop the invasion, even though it will not occur for another two centuries. Near to the end of the book the dark forest theory is discovered, whereby any civilization will be destroyed simply for existing, just in case they possess the technology to destroy other civilizations first. Quite a bleak idea. However, at the end of the book the invaders decide to help Earth when they find out that we have the technology to highlight their home world to the rest of the universe, and therefore bring about its destruction.

The third book, Death’s End, mostly follows the life of Cheng Xin as she pops in and out of long-term hibernation. The start of the book looks at how to send someone to meet with the incoming aliens. In the end, only a frozen brain is sent, hoping that the aliens possess the technology to revive the brain.

Earth then loses its ability to fight off the incoming invaders, who have also discovered how to travel at light speed. They will arrive in four years and everyone on Earth has to relocate to Australia, leaving the rest of the planet for them. Earth manages to highlight the Earth to the universe, meaning that it will be destroyed by some other alien race at some point, maybe in 50- or 100-years’ time. The invaders opt to find another planet to conquer. Most of Earth then relocates to space cities hidden behind the gas giants of Jupiter and Neptune, with the aim that if our sun is destroyed, these cities will be safe in the shadow.

I don’t want to mention any further, as it would give away too much of the plot, but suffice it to say, it was good.

The three books are written in an unusual style, which might be due to the translation. The books are also quite long and do drag in places, however, all three books have some amazing ideas and at times completely blow you away. Each book mostly follows one character, and while they do appear in the other books, the story running through each book is larger, in that it is really about Earth’s survival. The books are full of complicated science, and the idea behind the dark forest is one I find to be very disturbing. I would like to think that we might meet some friendly aliens, and that the universe isn’t just millions of different worlds looking at ways to destroy everyone else first, even if it means mutual destruction.

The third book is the best one so far, and even though I only gave it four stars, the average score on Goodreads is 4.4, which is more accurate. A long but rewarding read, even if it is a little bleak.

The Craft of Writing

Recently I’ve been paying more attention to some of the finer details in books that I’ve been reading. I remember at school an English teacher asking the class why an author had written that the curtains were blue. Was it because the character was emotionally cold? Was it because the character was afraid? All I could think was that maybe the author had written about green curtains in a previous book and simply wanted to use a different colour, and that there wasn’t any other deeper meaning.


Most books are written in the third person. The reader will often know far more than the main protagonists. Characters can easily be killed off. George R R Martin, the Game of Thrones author, has a different character’s point of view for each chapter. There isn’t too much to add to this, except that Lee Child writes almost all of his Jack Reacher books in the third person, with a couple written from Reacher’s point of view. Most authors will generally keep the same the narrative style throughout a series.

In a first-person point of view, the reader won’t know what other characters are thinking, unless of course the first person can read minds, see Carrots by Colleen Helme. Some people like to read first person books because it means that the main character can’t be killed off. I have a surprise for you, this isn’t always the case. Spoiler alert, The Collector by John Fowles, first published in 1963 is all about a man who wins the pools (the equivalent of the lottery), kidnaps a woman hoping that she will fall in love with him. She doesn’t and he dies at the end, good.

A book I read many years ago was written entirely in the first person, except that the first half was one character, and the second half began with a different character killing off the first character. It wasn’t a very good book. Will Carver, a very dark writer, has one book with three main characters. Two of them are written in the third person and the other in the first person. However, one of the characters kills the first-person character, although the actual death is not written from their point of view. Very unexpected.

Some first-person books are written in the form of a diary, for example The Island by Richard Laymon. Other first-person books like to “speak” to the reader, breaking the fourth wall. One very good example of this is Mister B Gone by Clive Barker, which is all about a demon that has been trapped inside the pages of a book, the book that you are reading, with paragraphs along the lines of “I can see you, about to finish page 31”, which is a little scary. Of course, that wouldn’t work within the confines of an e-book, although that might be a good idea for a short story. Your Kindle has been possessed by a demon and starts off small by downloading 50 Shades of Grey or anything by Dan Brown, and then slowly becomes more and more evil.


An author who has the resources to devote writing as a full-time occupation has obvious time-based advantages. However, very few authors start out that way. Short stories often allow an author to develop, hone their craft, build confidence and earn a little money before spreading their wings full time.

John Dies at the End by James Wong was written while the author had a full-time job. It is a crazy book with too much going on and at times can be very difficult to follow, almost as if the author snatched a few moments whenever he could to write and then sometimes struggled with the flow. The books flips and changes, and the style is very different towards the end from how it was at the start.

Terry Pratchett, one of the greatest fantasy writers of the last forty years, started out writing part-time. He was a prolific writer who was scorned by critics at the start of his career and then praised by those very same critics many years later. However, the first two books in the Discworld series are in a very different style to those that follow. I would go even further and argue that the first truly perfect Discworld book would be the eighth book, Guards! Guards! where the characters Vimes and Carrot are introduced.

Similarly, Jack Reacher is almost a superhero in the first two books. After that, Lee Child starts to introduce flaws into his creation. Reacher isn’t a very good driver. He lacks the ability to hand out bad news in an empathic manner, and then he starts to make mistakes.

Stephen King often finishes a chapter with the phrase ‘and that was the last time he/she was seen alive’. The film Stranger than Fiction, Emma Thompson plays an author who uses the phrase ‘little did she know’ in every book.

Every writer develops their own style.

My Book

I’m definitely struggling with finding the time to sit down and write. I also don’t think that I’m good enough. Creating a flowing storyline with interesting characters might be beyond my capabilities. I also worry that I would fall into the splatterpunk genre trap of trying too hard to make the violence and horror as grotesque and shocking as possible, rather than working on the plot. Another possibility is that I don’t find the outline of the book in my head very exciting, and because of that I’m not inclined to spend time writing.

Sometimes I think that I would make a good editor. Not proof reading as there is always one more typo out there to be missed as all of my university coursework can attest. As an editor I could point out continuity errors. If a book begins with a cliff hanger, describing something that will occur later in the book, there can’t be anything written about events beyond that passage before that passage has been read. I’m not explaining that very well. If the first chapter describes a near death or possible death and it occurs in chapter 30 on day 100 in the timeline, nothing in the book before chapter 30 should describe events that occur after day 100.

I could imagine giving helpful hints and insights to authors when they’ve finished the first draft of a book. However, would anyone take advice from someone who hasn’t written a book and only their writing experience is a blog that averages 10 views a day. Both Stephen King and Paul Wilson have written books about the craft of writing. Between them they have published well over 100 novels going back over 40 years. I would take advice from them.

Should I take an online writing course? Should I find the time and simply sit at my computer until I have written 1,000 words? Terry Pratchett aimed to write 3,000 words every day. I would prefer to write 500 quality words rather than 5,000 average or completely forgettable words. Terry’s 3,000 words included co-writing Good Omens with Neil Gaiman, one of the funniest books ever written.

Should I stick with blogging and triathlons? That does have a certain appeal. My lovely wife started an online writing course a couple of years ago and the short pieces that she wrote were better than anything I have ever managed. Saying that, are the Jack Reacher books really that good, or do they have an interesting main character, a whole load of implausible events and very good marketing.

I think I will continue to think about writing a book.

Emil Zatopek by Richard Askwith

Who is Emil Zatopek? He was probably the greatest middle- and long-distance runner the world has ever seen. He broke numerous world records and won Olympic medals, including three golds at the 1952 Olympics held in Helsinki, he was the first man to run under 29 minutes for 10,000m and was unbeaten at that distance for many many years.

Emil was born 19th September 1922 in what was Czechoslovakia and he showed little inclination for running when he was young, until he realised that running could make his life easier in the Czech army, with time off for training and extra rations, if he was good enough to represent the army. He surpassed that qualification quite soon, and it wasn’t long before he was travelling around Europe representing his country.

What made Emil different was the incredibly intense training methods he used. While his contemporaries, for example, Chris Chattaway would run a hard session and then take a few days to recover. Emil would push himself as hard as possible, and then do the same the next day. His training set him apart from anyone else. However, he was friendly to everyone he met and would happily share his training methods with his rivals. A standard Emil session would be 40 x 400m with 200m recovery between each one. He might then repeat this later in the afternoon. His training diary indicated that 100 x 400m was uncommon.

At the 1952 Olympics it was thought that his golden days in the 5,000m was coming to an end, so it was suggested that he might enter the marathon as a backup plan, even though he had never run a marathon at that time. However, he won the 5,000m, then the 10,000m and followed it up with gold in the marathon. A triple that has never been repeated and it is doubtful if it ever will. His wife also won a gold medal at those Olympics in the javelin.

It is said that at the start line of the 1956 marathon, Emil stated to his fellow competitors;

Gentlemen, today we die a little

All of this and much more, including how the communist regime hid him away for 20 years, is excellently written in the book by Richard Askwith. If you’re a running fan I would suggest that it is a must, and even if you’re not, it is an incredible story.

Emil was full of brilliant quotes. My favourite is when it gets tough, go harder. I used that when I was running a recent 10km and when I was at parkrun yesterday.

In celebration of his life, on the next anniversary of his birth, I will attempt to run 40 x 400m at the local athletics track and try to run them as hard as possible, just as he would have done.

Reap3r by Eliot Peper

As we all know, I love a good dystopian future book. Reap3r by Eliot Piper was listed in a couple of articles about new authors or new dystopian futures books. I had a look on Kindle Unlimited and as I was available as part of my subscription, I thought that I would give it a go.

There are a number of main characters in this book. There is Geoff, a scientist who developed a vaccine for a virus which had killed 200 million people. There is Devon, an investigative journalist stroke podcaster who manages to interview some highly secretive people. There is Luki, a computer specialist who has created the world’s first quantum computer. These three people are all being paid and supported by a billionaire hedge fund investor. There is also his scary assistant and a government agent.

Warning spoilers.

I don’t like to give too much away when I review books, but I have to in this instance. Nothing happens in the book for the first two thirds. The characters interact and bimble about, but nothing happens. Two thirds of the way through all hell breaks loose when the three main characters realise that they might be in danger of being assassinated.

Reap3r is an App for assassins and the people who want assassinations to be carried out. With the help of the quantum computer, the App is hacked, and all of the assassins are directed to attack each other. RR Haywood would have written a whole book on that simple premise. Anyway, that is the only exciting section in the book. They all escape. The villains are caught, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Overall, a very disappointing book, considering how good the reviews are. I gave it three out of five, which I felt was a little generous. There is an interesting article at the end of the book by the author where he expands upon the writing of this book. He states that he was incredibly excited to finish the first draft, thinking that it was the best piece of writing he’d ever done. He gave the draft to a few close reviewers, who came back with queries and questions. The author went back to the drawing board and the re-write took him twice as long to write as the first draft. Don’t get me wrong, it is ten times better than anything I could ever write, but it was a little disappointing.