Book Review: Playing the Enemy by John Carlin

In 1995 less than half a decade after it’s first democratic election and the end of apartheid South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup. The nation’s triumph at the tournament was viewed as an optimistic sign for the country and helped to heal the wounds on the nation’s people. This magnificent book details the story of South Africa leading up to the tournament, the challenges it faced and the driving force behind South Africa’s rebirth, Nelson Mandela.

Carlin’s writing is masterful and the research that has gone into it is evident in the wealth of back story and the interviews with numerous figures from all corners of the political landscape and the players involved in the historic tournament.

With obvious and unapologetic admiration Carlin discusses how Mandela emerged from prison a smart and savvy politician, a man who had used his time to understand what made the Afrikaners tick and who used this insight in a remarkable charm offensive that would win over life long enemies. Mandela is portrayed as being intelligent and shrewd, and Carlin acknowledges that he played the game of politics brilliantly, but it is hard to criticise a man who used politics to promote unity and peace. A man who could easily have sought vengeance and retribution but understood that understanding and unity were better for his people.
The book details the secret negotiations Mandela began in prison and his work upon release to lead the ANC to victory. But it also shows that he understood the need to involve all peoples in the new country he wanted to make.

And rugby forms a key part of this. Mandela understood what it meant to the Afrikaner population, how the years of boycott and isolation had hurt them and how to use the return of the Springboks to the international stage as a carrot to spur them to peaceful reconciliation. But he was not bound to how the green jersey was linked to the former violent regime in the eyes of the black population and the struggle it would be to win them over to cheer for a team they had long despised.

Carlin goes to great lengths to capture this, talking to both sides and capturing the rabid, near religious fanaticism of one side and the deep rooted loathing of the other.

The rugby itself takes up a small section of the book, with the politics, and more importantly people being the main focus. The interviews with Mandela, Desmond Tutu and others reveal the emotional tumult that led up to the tournament. It is the players who are most moving, athletes who had been indifferent or ignorant of politics coming to understand that they were key players in uniting their country. Mandela awoke in them an understanding and compassion, overturning the deep seated beliefs they had been raised in. That these players became true believers, who played for more than glory, more than pride is a moving story, and the response of a tense, conflicted nation is inspiring and heartwarming. 

Several times reading I was choked up, marvelling at the story and the strength of men like Mandela and Tutu who show none of the resentment one could easily understand in men who suffered under the apartheid system. It’s no wonder Hollywood took to this story (Invictus) as it marries the themes of redemption, forgiveness and triumph so well it could almost be too good to be true.

Of course, Carlin knows that South Africa didn’t become a peaceful, perfect Utopia, but this story shows that it emerged stronger and more united than any would have believed in the early 90s as it teetered on the brink of civil war.

Verdict: Sensationally written this is a moving, involving and inspiring work which shows how sport can be a unifying factor and the skill and success of one of modern history’s greatest figures, Nelson Mandela. A great read even for non rugby fans. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Film Review: Suicide Squad

Arriving on a wave of hyperactive marketing and talk of reshoots and extensive cuts comes the third film in DC’s Expanded Universe (DCEU) after Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, but this time the focus is on the villains. It’s basically a Dirty Dozen for the world of DC with a disparate group of criminals brought together by Viola Davis’ shady government agent Amanda Waller.

Many are inmates of a black site prison in Louisiana including the incredibly accurate hit man Deadshot aka Floyd Lawton (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) a psychiatrist turned psycho, lover and associate of the Joker (Jared Leto), both having been brought down by Batman (Ben Affleck).

Joining them is the beast like Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), pyrokinetic gang member El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and Slipknot (Adam Beach) known unimpressively as “the man who can climb anything”. Rounding off the team are Aussie thief Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) who is seen being apprehended by the Flash (Ezra Miller).

The team is under the command of Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) a decorated soldier who has fallen for June Moone (Cara Delevigne) an archaeologist who has been possessed by the malevolent Enchantress, who is kept in line as Waller owns her heart, her only vulnerability. To keep them every member has an explosive chip in their neck and Flag is backed up by samurai sword wielding vigilante Katana (Karen Fukuhara) and some anonymous Navy SEALs.

The Enchantress betrays Waller and unleashes her brother, a towering powerhouse with whom she lays waste to Midway City. The Squad are airlifted into the city in order to retrieve a VIP, but their individual weaknesses and inability to function threaten their effectiveness. Can Flag get the job done with his ragtag team? Can he trust them? Can they trust him and Waller?

I enjoyed this movie but it has plenty of flaws and is definitely a case of style over substance. The major weakness that having a team thrown together so quickly many are underdeveloped and here Katana, Killer Croc, Slipknot and Captain Boomerang are all slightly underwritten. My feeling was that several scenes must have hit the cutting room floor as the team go from disparate strangers to what El Diablo calls “a family” rather too quickly.

But there are moments that work. Kinnaman and Smith do a good job of capturing their characters differing views and distrust, with a slowly developing respect as the film progresses. They are both good actors and Kinnaman does enough to suggest that Flag isn’t the clean cut All-American hero he’d introduced as. He nails the character’s toughness while letting the cracks of vulnerability show.

Deadshot (Smith) and Flag (Kinnaman)

Will Smith is always reliable and likeable but his Deadshot feels like a missed opportunity, with too much heroism thrown in the mix which throws off his anti-hero status. As the biggest star Smith is the centre for the team in many ways and while he is a good anchor it unsettles the balance and he never fully convinces as the cold killer he thinks he is. There are a couple of moments where he is quite badass but it doesn’t quite come off for me. Also he takes the mask off far too early and far too long.
The only character who gets the same kind of background and focus is Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. The manic energy is oddly charming and quite fun, but the character is emblematic of the film’s inconsistent tone. There is a brief glimmer of vulnerability and moments where the cheery mask drops, but then the film reverts back to having her quipping and messing about. I have to admit my view was harder than MWF’s who found Robbie’s performance the major strength of the film and the best member of the team.

Before becoming Harley (Robbie) she was the Joker’s (Leto) psychiatrist

The worst part of the treatment of Harley is that the film botches the relationship between her and the Joker. In the cartoon and comics the Joker is extremely manipulative and cruel to Harley, the emotional clearly abusive and sadistic but the film bottles it softening these aspects and making the Joker seem to care for her in a way that undermines his psychopathic nature.
Leto’s Joker has limited screentime and it may be too early to judge but for me it doesn’t quite work, it feels like it’s trying too hard to be edgy and the actual jokes are thin on the ground. He might impress more in later Batman movies but here he disappointed me.

Of the rest of the Squad the only one with any development is El Diablo, who is introduced as a seemingly reformed character who no longer uses his powers. His tragic back story is a bit obvious, but Hernandez does a good job in making him human and at least he gets some kind of storyline, which is more than many of his teammates.

El Diablo (Hernandez) in his cell

On the whole the movie has more misses than hits, with inconsistencies in tone, underwritten characters and an annoying habit of quick pop music blasts over scenes. But the action sequences are fast and furious and the script delivers a few laughs along the way.
The plot is predictable in places, and as with BvS I got the feeling that DC are rushing the DCEU and a few of these characters could have done with being introduced elsewhere first before being thrown into the mix here. 

One of the aspects I liked most was Viola Davis as Waller. She gives a commanding performance as the hardened, calculating character with whom you don’t want to mess with and her moral ambiguity means her motives are never fully clear and it will be interesting how she works with the forthcoming Justice League, teased in a solid credits sting where she sits down with Affleck’s Bruce Wayne.

She makes a ruthless and cold antagonist for the anti-heroes, and Davis carries it off with a ruthless badassness which makes her utterly convincing as a no-nonsense woman used to getting her way no matter who opposes her.

The ruthless and badass Waller (Davis)

On the whole it’s a fun enough action movie, but there’s very little beneath the surface and it struggles from having to introduce so many characters so quickly but if there’s a Suicide Squad 2 I’ll probably go see it as there they can just get right to the action. And I so look forward to seeing more about the Joker’s history with Batman, even if Leto’s clown prince of crime is my least favourite incarnation of the character.
Verdict: Riddled with flaws and underwritten in places the film looks good but lacks depth. Davis, Smith, Robbie, Hernandez and Kinnaman do their best but many if the actors have little to sink their teeth into. A decent introduction but you hope further adventures are stronger. The DCEU seems to lack the patience of Marvel’s universe building process. 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Groom With a View #2: Breaking With Traditions

Pizza. Who doesn’t like pizza. The beauty of pizza is that you can choose your own toppings. Regardless of what you add or subtract it is still a pizza.

But imagine if people were annoyed or disappointed with what you picked on your pizza. Or told you that you should stick something on it despite you not liking it. 

That’s what wedding traditions are like. They are the extras you add to the base, and you can pick and choose which ones you have. And which you decide to leave out.

But that doesn’t mean people won’t complain about your choices, like a friend who turns up their nose at your decision to have olives. 

One tradition that MWF nixed early on is the bouquet toss. Which I definitely agree with.

It’s a tradition that seems old fashioned and a little sexist, a throwback to a time when getting married was viewed as a woman’s goal in life. The undignified scrapping to be next down the aisle just seems stupid.
And the male equivalent, throwing the garter just seems creepy and embarrassing for everyone. 

I get why traditions are a big deal, it’s a sense of culture and continuity, a connection to the past and the familiarity is comforting. And I even like some of them, which is why we’re keeping some for our wedding. However, I don’t think you should just blindly follow a routine because “that’s the way we’ve always done it”.

Change is good. And even better is doing what you want.

So, wear a red dress, have a best woman, forego the first dance or have a themed ceremony. 

It’s your wedding day, so you should do what makes you happy, not what you’re told to do because it’s the done thing.
Who knows? You might start a new tradition.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Groom With A View #1: Proposals and Rings

It’s just over a year since MWF and I got engaged, so I thought write a few entries about engagement and wedding planning from the groom’s perspective.

And we’ll start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, with the proposal and the ring.

I’d decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with MWF a long time before I actually popped the question. When proposing I came up with a few ideas as to how I wanted to do it.

I was going to keep it simple. 

I’m not a fan of the viral proposal trend. You know the kind of thing, a guy stages a flash mob or musical number or some elaborate stunt in order to pop the question. Maybe I’m just an old fashioned killjoy but it just seems to be taking away from what is supposed to be a personal, private moment. 

All the bells and whistles seems to be a bit “look at me” and I’m not a fan. It feels less like an important moment for you and more like some ham fisted attempt to grab your fifteen minutes or get a pat on the head for being so quirky.

And like all public proposals it feels a bit manipulative. It’s putting a lot of pressure on the person being asked. They’ll look like a callous heartbreaker if they say no, even if they have good reasons. And if they do stick to their guns and decline how awful would that be for the asker?

I kinda knew what the answer was going to be, marriage had been discussed in our talks about the future.

Despite this I still felt nervous. What if faced with the question she actually decided that actually a life with me isn’t that appealing? That in theory it sounded good but as it threatened to become reality it lost some of the appeal?  It was unlikely, but not impossible. And that small seed of doubt just wouldn’t go away.

I took MWF somewhere quiet and, once away from prying eyes and ears, got down on one knee, did my half prepared speech and asked.

What I said is private. I know what I said, and so does she, and that’s how it will stay.

This is despite people asking for all the details. Repeatedly.

I understand the enthusiasm comes from being happy for the couple, but it feels like prying. I spoke from the heart and for an audience of one, I don’t want anyone else hearing and judging what I said.

Luckily it served as an introduction to the constant questions that became part of engaged life.

The ones that put me most ill at ease were the queries about the ring. I had shown a photo to friends, just to make sure I hadn’t chosen something that MWF would hate, and thought this would suffice.

I was wrong.

Lots of people asked where I had got it, and more invasively, how much it had cost.

This seemed a bit vulgar and, frankly, like nobody’s business. Especially as it’s kind of a gift, and asking someone how much they spent on a present seems a bit rude.

I suspect wanting to know the price was some kind of weird competitive thing. So that people could compare it with their own rings or maybe to use it as some kind of measuring stick for my commitment or love.

This seems stupid. Why get into a “my ring cost more” game? Does it matter? The cost didn’t matter to MWF and shouldn’t to any prospective bride. Insisting on a certain ballpark figure or brand of jewellery seems to be more about wanting to show off how flash or minted you are.

That’s not what an engagement ring is supposed to show. It’s supposed to show a promise and commitment, and frankly you can do that with any ring you want, from a diamond encrusted Tiffany’s piece to a plastic ring from an amusement arcade (if it’s good enough for Sandy Cohen it’s good enough for me).

Needless to say I ignored the “three months wages” guideline. You’re about to start a life together and you’re going to blow a quarter of a year’s salary in one go? On something you can’t drive or sleep in?

These questions die down after a few weeks, but it still bothers me that people react like that. I felt like I was being judged and assessed for my choices and finances, that while most people complimented my choice, some thought I could have spent more.

It could really eat you up. Especially if you start buying into their BS. Luckily for me I don’t, but you feel bad for the guys out there who have a partner with expensive tastes. Or for ladies who are made to feel embarrassed or insecure about the ring, thus putting a dampener on a time when they should be feeling pretty good about life.

You’re not in competition with anyone, and spending your time comparing yourself with others will just drive you nuts. Just focus on you and remember that the important thing isn’t what’s on your finger but why it’s there.

So please, if someone you knows gets engaged just congratulate them and avoid giving them the third degree.

And if you do find yourself on the receiving end of these questions, remember you don’t have to tell people anything.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Book Review: The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom 

A short while ago a friend on Facebook posted a message about a sort of cultural exchange, making a chain where you sent your favourite book to a friend of a friend. I received a couple of books, including this one.

It’s probably not the kind of book I would have picked up myself but that’s the beauty of the whole idea as it meant I read a book I otherwise would have missed.
The plot concerns Eddie, an ageing maintenance worker at a seaside amusement park who is killed trying to save a little girl from an accident. Upon his death he finds himself in the afterlife where he meets five different people, all of whom have played some part in his life.

They help Eddie understand his life, and life in general and help him move onwards to find peace.

I really enjoyed this book which is written in an easy, flowing manner that makes it quite a quick read. Albom isn’t a showy writer but he is accomplished in knitting his idea together and creating an engaging, emotive book. Some of it is easy to see coming but it’s a well crafted novel about life, death and the way our stories are part of other people’s stories.

It’s sweet without lurching into saccharine overload and filled with warmth. Albom reflects on how people effect others and how we don’t always know the full story, regardless of how well we think we know someone. (My only real quibble is a section where a wrongdoing is explained away and the wrongdoer seemingly absolved, which didn’t ring true with me, the excuses not being enough to erase the deed).

It’s a clever, warm read and presents a rather reassuring view of the afterlife.

Verdict: A clever idea executed simply and effectively, Albom writes with an easy, compassionate tone which makes this a thoroughly nice experience. In the best way. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Book Review: The Qi Book of the Dead by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson

I love the television show Qi where Stephen Fry (soon to be replaced by Sandi Toksvig) quizzes comedians and others about random facts and quite interesting topics. It’s a trove of obscure tidbits of information and rather fun.

It’s also spun off a couple of books and this is among the best. The show’s producer Lloyd and head of research Mitchinson team up to write about various notable historical figures. It’s a motley crew of the great and good along with the not so good and the weird.

They group them by themes which include those with troubled childhoods, weird food habits and monkey ownership. This means that seemingly disparate figures are grouped but there are odd little connections and similarities.

The writing is easy, engaging and amusing filled with fascinating stories and facts about those included. While some figures are well known (Florence Nightingale, Lord Byron, Tesla, Catherine the Great) there are less familiar names as well (Daniel Lambert, Mill Cutpurse) each is handled fairly and with detail, and there are surprising things to learn about them all, arming you with a new host of random facts.

They’re not in depth biographies but it’s a fun, quick way to get an introduction to these historical figures or expand on your knowledge of others. It makes the facts come alive and it’s a shame that more histories aren’t delivered in the same easy manner .

Verdict: Quick and easy, with plenty of insight and info this is an entertaining look at a mixed bag of people from the past. Great for dipping in and out of and quite educational. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

The Old Man and the Horsea 

I was walking along when it appeared. Bursting out of nowhere, there it was before me. I was going to catch it, after all that is my real test.

A Horsea.

One throw and it was mine.
I resisted the urge to do a mini fist pump and walked on, the early evening still bright and warm as I dawdled through the park. On some level I could appreciate the lameness of it all. I’d taken a fairly long walk for no other reason but to catch imaginary monsters, but addiction does funny things to you.

And I am definitely addicted. Despite starting a week later than MWF I have almost caught up and racked up around 25km since downloading it. So at least I’m getting exercise out of it.

The intensity that I stared at my screen and my flicking gestures must have tipped them off and a pack of wild, chavvy youths appeared.

“You caught a Pikachu?” This delivered with the swaggering bravado of a teenage boy.
“Nope.” Not answering seems to irritate people, so I just kept walking.

“But you are playing Pokemon?” He asked.

“Yeah.” I said with a smile and slight shrug.

I walked on to hear one exclaim “that’s a grown man playing Pokemon” a fact adjudged to be “sad” by another and then there was some laughing.

A few years ago this would have mortified me, but now I felt nothing, a fact that I attribute to a few factors.

Firstly, I don’t actually care what a bunch of teenagers loitering in a park think. The second is that I have made peace with my uncool hobbies and childish enthusiasms. 

I like what I like, deal with it.

Is this what getting old is all about? Realising you’re not cool but realising that that’s okay? I hope so, because I wasted far too long worrying about what strangers thought of me.

I walked on, leaving them to laugh at the sad old guy, after all, there were more Pokemon to catch.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Book Review: King’s Ransom by Ed McBain

I decided it was time to return to the 87th Precinct and this proved to be another entertaining crime thriller.

It starts slow with some boardroom politics involving businessman Douglas King. Planning to pull off a big deal that will set him up for life there’s a bump in the road when King receives a call saying his son has been kidnapped. But his son returns and it transpires the kidnappers grabbed his playmate, the chauffeur’s son.

This brings the men of the 87th Precinct to investigate as the action switches between the Kings and their associates, the cops and the crooks. Will King pay the ransom for someone else’s kid? Can the cops work out who has the boy? And will the crooks stay together to pull off the job?

Like the rest of the series this benefits from McBain’s ability to write gripping, pulpy fare which is shot through with humour and a good sense of character. The shifting focus shows off his knack for creating characters that feel real and the action moves along at a decent pace.

It’s not the strongest in the series, but it’s a gripping thriller that I devoured in a matter of days, and McBain’s writing is clever and the wry humour works well.

Verdict: A solid, engaging thriller. McBain is a master of the genre and this one is entertaining. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Film Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

Like a lot of folks who love the original I was skeptical about a reboot of this series and the initial trailer didn’t inspire confidence, but unlike many folks online I decided to withhold judgement until I’d seen the movie. Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy have impressed me in other films and so I was up for giving them a chance. So today MWF (a massive McCarthy fan) and I, along with a friend, went to check this out.

And in all fairness they do a damn fine job here, as do the rest of the cast.

Sure, it won’t replace the original in my heart or develop the same cult following, but it’s a solid, entertaining and funny movie. From start to finish there’s a steady stream of gags and I chuckled throughout. 
It all kicks off with a ghostly encounter at a mansion which leads the owner to seek out Erin Gilbert (Wiig) a university professor who earlier in her career had co-written a book about ghosts she thought long forgotten. Worried that it’s reappearance online may jeopardise her chances at tenure she seeks out her former friend Abby Yates (McCarthy) who continues to focus on the paranormal.

Erin and Abby, along with Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), Abby’s new co-worker investigate and see the ghost. When all are fired from their respective jobs they decide to go into business to prove the existence of ghosts.


They hire Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), a dimwitted receptionist who Erin finds attractive and set about trying to find more ghosts, being sought out by transport worker Patty (Leslie Jones) who also witnessed a ghost and who joins the team.
Investigating they discover that someone is releasing ghosts and plans to open a portal to another dimension which will unleash an army of the spirits. With the Mayor’s office trying to keep things quiet the four ladies are New York’s only hope and must work out what’s going on and bust those ghosts.

The Ghostbusters in action

The plot is basic and straightforward, but this is fine as it provides some decent sequences and the relationship between Abby and Erin as they rebuild their lost friendship is well handled and serves as the heart of the story.
McCarthy and Wiig are both on fine form with Wiig playing the uptight Erin with fragile likeability and slowly unwinding the character as the film progresses. Even in her weaker films McCarthy has shown herself to be a great comedic presence on screen and she does well here, getting some great lines as the group’s unofficial leader.

McKinnon and Jones, who I knew less about are also very good and funny, and McKinnon’s Holtzmann who was one of the things I worried about in the trailers turns out to be a rather likeable oddball.

But stealing several scenes is Hemsworth as the useless, ditzy Kevin. While there have been some humourous moments in his previous films it’s still impressive how well he takes to comedy.

The effects are good and the first ghost is introduced in a genuinely creepy way, and the climactic sequences are well done and involving.
There are a few nods to the original and cameos from several of the original cast (Bill Murray, Dan Aykryd, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver and Annie Potts all appear). There is also a nice tribute to the late Harold Ramis. The film acknowledges it’s roots and inspiration, and also takes a few well aimed shots at the ridiculous online backlash this film has faced.

The doubts I had are vanquished by what is a very entertaining movie.

Verdict: The leads are fantastic and the jokes fast flowing. Plenty of laughs and while the plot is simple it keeps you involved. An entertaining blockbuster. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Book Review: I am the Secret Footballer by Anonymous 

Despite countless column inches in every paper what goes on behind closed doors at football clubs is still a mystery, largely surrounded in secrecy and rumour. Even more of a mystery is what the players really think.

Opening up about teammates, managers, the media and the fans would be a risky move, and that’s why the writer here is anonymous. Over several years he wrote for The Guardian and provided a look into the mind of a modern player.

The anonymity allows him to be gloriously candid, and while it’s all one man’s opinion it’s still well worth a read and an insight into the changing rooms of the Premier League.
In the book he discusses managers, other players, fans and the highs and lows of life as a professional footballer. Whoever he is the Secret Footballer is a gifted writer with warmth, humour and honesty running throughout.

It’s a solid read and a section about his own depression is especially well done and open. It’s nice to see mental health addressed in such an up front, unflinching way and offers reasons for why athletes may be so susceptible to depression and stress. It’s brave work and shows that while there has been some progress we still have a way to go with attitudes towards mental health.

If you’re a football fan it’s definitely worth checking out as it’s an unprecedented insight into the world of the modern professional and there are some entertaining stories of ego, debauchery and excess along the way.

Verdict: Well written and with engaging candour this is an entertaining glimpse behind the changing room door. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


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