This is my first blog. As you can tell from the title I am a bookworm. If you ask my wife she’ll tell you I’m like a chain smoker, as one book is coming to an end I have to have another ready to read, she’s right, maybe I should have called this blog the book addict.
I couldn’t begin to catalogue the books I have read, so I’m not going to try. What I am going to do is introduce you, to me, by telling you what I was reading, or more like who I was reading, as I made my way from what I call Senior School, or as the kids today call it High School, up to today and hopefully well into the future.
My first conscious memory of reading a book for pleasure, and not because a teacher told me to, was in my first year at Senior School, it was one of the Hardy Boy series by Franklin W. Dixon. I don’t know how I found it or if somebody gave it me. It was a story written about 2 brothers and their friends solving mysteries in America. If you can imagine a cross between Scooby Doo and the Secret Seven then you can imagine what the books were like. To an 11 or 12 year old from a Birmingham Housing Estate this book opened my eyes to the world beyond school and the boredom of home.
Believe it or not I had an evening and Saturday job (at that age) and looked forward to school holidays, and maybe the occasional illicit day off, when I could catch a Bus into Birmingham and visit WH Smiths or Hudsons Bookshop.
It was on these visits that I started browsing the shelves and realised that there was quite a few books in the series, and so began a habit I still have today. I had to read the series but I had to read it in order. I can actually remember the sales assistant in Hudsons looking over the counter at me when I asked him if it was possible to order books. Looking at the list of these books now, at least 58, I don’t think I ever completed the set but I know I would have got all the ones available in the UK at the time.
My Dad was also a big reader and when I was about 13 I remember picking up one of his discarded paperbacks The Winged Escort by Douglass Reeman. I’m fairly sure it was the cover that attracted me, a painting of a Swordfish plane attacking a battleship, because it resembled the Commando Paperback booklet/comics I spent a lot of time reading.
My trips to Birmingham now resulted in me returning home with a Reeman Naval novel when I failed to find any Hardy Brothers books. I eventually read all of the Douglas Reeman books and think the ones I read before I left school had an influence on my choice of my first job.
The Hardy Boys and Douglas Reemans naval novels were not the only books I read when I was in school. When I wasn’t at school, working, or playing football with friends my nose was firmly in a book, with the radio on in the background. Unfortunately none of the books I read were on the reading list for my English exams, and those that were held no interest to me, so like the rest of my exams English Literature was a bit of a failure.
I didn’t like school so I left at the earliest opportunity and joined the Merchant Navy just before I was 16. After 13 weeks at the training college (no qualifications required) in Gravesend I had a week at home before joining my first ship. Over the next five years I travelled the world with Shell Tankers UK Ltd on ships of all sizes. What most people don’t realise about being on merchant ships is that the crews are small, often only 36 even on a Super Tanker. Each crew member has their own cabin and works 8 hours a day. I was a Deck Hand so my days were usually split into 4 hours on 8 hours off seven days a week, 6 months at a time. That’s a lot of down time. What most people don’t know is that there was an unwritten agreement that whenever you joined a new ship you took at least 5 or 6 new paperbacks with you, and that once you had read them you put them in the ships “library”, usually a cupboard in the mess room, where they were picked up and returned by others until they were too tatty to read.
It was on my first ship, a gas tanker that ran backwards and forwards between North Africa and Northern Europe, that I found my next set of novels. Again I was drawn to a painting of a Second World War scene on the cover. Looking on the inside of the cover I found that the author had written a series of books and one of them was semi-autobiographical. I read that one first, The Legion of the Damned introduced me to Sven Hassel and his band of German Soldiers and their exploits during the war. The ships library had copies of all of the books in the series and I remember lying in my cabin when I’d finished the last one thinking, “what am I going to do now”. The tankers had a great social life and I’d made some good friends, but when I finished the last book I missed the main characters as though they had been real people. Sad I know.
I drifted around the one off novels by people like Hammond Innes and Desmond Bagley. I remember Wilbur Smith and not being able to make up my mind weather I liked his work or not, but I read most of them anyway.
The next must read author I found was Robert Ludlum. The first book I read was The Matarese Circle, it was the first Cold War thriller that really got me hooked, and they stay my favourite genre today. I managed to read his back catalogue at sea and bought his new books as they were released. Has anybody ever read a better trilogy than the original three Bourne books, I haven’t. Unfortunately the latter ones by Eric VanLustbader just don’t measure up.
Somewhere along the line I discovered Len Deighton, via his novel Bomber. Although this was a storey based in the Second World War I enjoyed Deightons cold war books nearly as much as the Ludlum books.
One of the last Authors that I discovered whilst at sea was Nelson DeMille, via Cathedral, and By The Rivers Of Babylon, excellent books that introduced the subject of Terrorism into my readings. I still look forward to the publication of his books. He is not as prolific a writer as some, and I think he proves the rule that I sometimes adopt when looking at new authors. If they’ve only been published for 10 years, but they have 20 books in print, the stories can’t be that good. I’d rather see an author publishing a book every 18 months or so, it will always be worth waiting for. I know there are some exceptions to this rule, but I haven’t found many.
So I left the Merchant Navy at the age of 20 and went straight to the Recruit Training Centre of the West Midlands Fire Service to start what would be a 30 year career.
The first 12 years I was in the Brigade I was at one of the busiest, if not the busiest station in the UK. It was a busy time in my personal life as well as wife number 1 came and went, maybe the least said about that the better. But then my second wife came along, followed shortly after by my lovely Daughter. We are still happily married after 23 years, and people said it would never last, and our daughter is now 22. During those 12 years I always had a spare time job, there always seemed to be something that needed paying for, but I was never without a book.
Stephen King books came and went. He’s one of those Authors whose books are like marmite to me; I either love them or hate them. Sometimes I’ve been enjoying his books but have had to stop halfway through, not bored but needing to read something else. I always go back and finish them off if I’ve got that far, but there are a few that have been dumped after the first 100 pages. My Favourite King books? Needless Things, Pet Cemetery, and, It, I still hate clowns following that.
King wasn’t the first horror author I read. I remember reading James Herbert’s Rats, and thinking every creak of a floorboard was a rat heading my way. King and Herbert are the only 2 horror authors I’ve ever really read, when they’re good, they are good; but when they’re bad, they really are bad. I just don’t think I’m very good at suspending reality.
So amongst lots of other books in the mid-late 80’s I discovered one of my all-time favourite writers, Tom Clancy. Like millions of other people around the world I read The Hunt for Red October, and I was hooked on the Jack Ryan series but this time I was in from the start and had to wait patiently for each new book, not something I’m good at. Clancy’s books were the first ones I bought in Hardback as I couldn’t wait for the paperbacks to be published. As well as the Ryan books I enjoyed Red Storm Rising, a one off based on an escalating war which engulfs Europe and threatens to become a 3rd World War. I remember thinking, as I read it, this is uncomfortably close to becoming reality, it is still one of the best books I have ever read. People often said that Clancy got very close to the truth, and some accused him of having some kind of inside information from the US Government agencies. In 1995 he released Debt of Honor ( I know but that’s how he spelled it, he was American) in which a Japanese Terrorist flies a Boeing 747 into the Capital Building in Washington DC. Again I remembered thinking that was one hell of a way to committee a terrorist attack on the States. We all know what happened on 11th September 2001 I hope Clancy’s book didn’t give somebody the seed of an idea. Unfortunately I found all of Clancy’s spin off books, written in collaboration with others, the Ops Centre, and Net Force books to be disappointing and gave up on them after the 2nd of each series.
John Grisham is an excellent writer who introduced me to court room dramas. I found Grisham in the early 90’s. I had started to study and was taking Fire Service Exams and needed something to take my mind of the mind numbing lists which made up a lot of the study for those exams. Grisham transported me to the Southern States to a racially charged murder in A Time to Kill. I have read every one of his books. Sometimes I read that he’s accused of “the same old, same old”, but I disagree. There are 2 things you can be sure of with Grisham; a cracking story, and an unpredictable ending. It’s not always happy ever after with John Grisham.
In the mid 90’s I started moving through the ranks in the Fire Service until, in 2000, I worked my way in to my dream post. I spent the last 12 years of my career as a Fire Investigation Officer. Basically, along with 5 other specially trained Officers, we investigated the cause of all; large fires, fires in which people died or were seriously injured, and all major arson cases, in the West Midlands and latterly Staffordshire. As you can imagine the studying got serious at this point as I gained Forensic Qualifications to sit alongside my Fire Service ones, and in that post research and learning never stopped. I still found time for books but my choice of genre changed. Considering I now had knowledge of Forensics, and British Police and Court Room procedures I surprisingly started to read books set in these fields.
The first Author I found, who shared a Forensic background, was Patricia Cornwell. Reading the Scarpetta series in order I enjoyed the first six or seven books, when she wrote mainly about the life and investigations of Kay Scarpetta. These were excellent books, the Body Farm, is another book that ranks amongst my favourites; but as her niece Lucy became more of a James Bond Figure in her books they started to lose some credibility with me. Like I said, I have difficulty in suspending reality. I haven’t read the latest 3 she has written in the series. For me it’s a shame she moved too far away from reality but somebody must like them, she’s selling millions and good luck to her.
You will have noticed that most of the books I read appear to be by American Authors. I think it’s because more actually happens over there and you can actually imagine most of the stories because they are not far from actual occurrences.
Having said that in the early 2000s I sustained a back injury which tendered me bed ridden for three months before I had an operation to remove and fuse some discs. This was pre e-books and my wife was dispatched to buy my books, which I was getting through at a prestigious rate. I had loved the Morse TV series since it started, and in an attempt to make things easy for her I asked her to get me Colin Dexters omnibus editions of the Morse Books. These were not only brilliant but in my opinion should be read by High School students to show how society, the Police, the way crime is investigated, and life in general changed through the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. It was fascinating to read about a pre computerised, pre mobile phone, society. No DNA, blood only matched by type, police officers smoking at crime scenes, officers openly racist and sexist. As the books progressed through the years it was easy to see Morse struggling to come to terms with this new world whilst his Sergeant, Lewis, attempted to keep him on track and in bounds. If I hadn’t read them all, one after another, I might have missed some of the nuances of this. If you ever read this Mr Dexter thank you for getting me through quit a rough few months.
At the same time I was watching the TV news and was astonished to see that children and adults alike were queuing for nights awaiting the latest in a series of novels by somebody I’d never heard of, J.K. Rowling. Curiosity got the better of me and I asked my long suffering wife to go back to the book shop and pick up the first of the series, at that time I didn’t even know what it was called, and so the children’s book Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone was dropped on my bed with a look of “really” written all over my wife’s face. Well I was hooked straight away; my wife went and got me the others in paperback. The Goblet of Fire was purchased in hardback, as were the rest of the series as soon as they were released. Yes I was one of the adults standing outside my local Sainsbury’s to buy The Deathly Hallows on the day it was released.
I said earlier that I Had only read 2 horror authors, Herbert and King, that may not be true. Rowlings Harry Potter books got darker as the series progressed. In my opinion The Half Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows, are much darker and scarier than anything else I had read to that time. As a series of books, despite what the critics say, and in agreement with millions around the world, I think it’s one of, if not, the best.
I’ve not yet read the books she writes under the name Robert Galbrait. I don’t know why, maybe I’m a bit worried I’ll be disappointed.
Over the next few years I drifted through several authors Sam Eastland’s Inspector Pekkala books, set against the second world war (again) a Russian detective works on cases for Stalin. David Downings Station Books, A series of espionage books about an Anglo-American in Germany at the start of events which led up to World War 2.
Jayne Casey and Sharon Bolton, both write excellent crime drama novels strong and gritty with twists that take the plot down unexpected avenues.
My wife had been saying I should have an e-book reader for some time, but I was clinging to the fact that I liked books you could hold. I still think opening a brand new book is one of the best feelings; but Christmas 2011 she gave me a Kindle for Christmas. Ok I admit it I was wrong, I’m on my second one now and it goes everywhere with me.
What the Kindle, and the Amazon Store, have allowed me to do is find books and Authors I would never have found by browsing book shelves in any bookstore I happened to pass. One such writer is one of my current favourites. C.J.Box.
C.J.Box is an American author who has written a series of books about Wyoming Game Warden Joe Pickett. I read about Box somewhere online and found that all of his books are available for the Kindle. I downloaded Open Season and was instantly hooked. Box’s storylines, his descriptions of the countryside around him and the subplots of his family make for excellent reads. He has also written some stand-alone novels, in which some familiar characters turn up. If you have never read one of his books, get your hands on Open Season, I’m sure you’ll end up buying the lot.
In 2012 after exactly 30 in the Fire Service I hung up my kit for the last time and walked out of my last Fire Station. I now work lecturing on Fire Forensics around the UK, travel time equals reading time. I’ve also been lucky enough to have a couple of nice long haul holidays, I’m not a good flyer so plane time equals reading time, and we all know that there’s only one thing to do around the pool with a drink in your hand, read.
In Aruba last summer I read a one-off book that is one of the best I have ever read Antonio Garrido’s The Corpse Reader. The book is set in ancient China and is inspired by a real person who is considered one of the earliest people to use science to solve crimes. It is a magical book which is well worth a read.
This has been a very potted history of my reading, which is no way a list of everything I’ve ever read, far from it. I just wanted to let you know me by the books I can remember reading at certain times in my life.
Who am I reading now? Greg Isles. I saw Natchez Burning in Tescos about 2 months ago. The fly cover described a storey which spanned several generations in the Mississippi Town of Natchez. The way the book was described it appeared to be the first in a new trilogy. So I read it and loved it but in reading Isles’ back catalogue I have found that there has been 3 previous books set in the same town with the same characters so if I was you I would read The Quiet Game first.
Isles’ books are similar to John Grisham’s but with no filters, if they were films Grisham’s would be a “U” certificate, Iles would be an “X”. At times they can be a tough read, emotionally, and they certainly challenge the reader’s morality at times, but wow they are brilliant.
If you have enjoyed this first blog hopefully you’ll read the ones I write later.