Book Review: Lady, Lady I Did It! By Ed McBain 

This book was a bit of a pain to track down, for some reason while most of McBain’s 87th Precinct books are easy to find on Amazon, this one wasn’t and I had to find a second hand omnibus with it in. Thankfully, it was worth the effort.

While it’s shorter than a lot of the other adventures in the series this actually works in the story’s favour. The central crime is rather simple, a man walks into a bookshop and opens fire, killing four people. One of the victims turns out to be closely connected to one of the 87th Precinct’s detectives.

It’s this that drives much of the book, with the personal aspect colouring the approach towards the case and impacting on the characters in different ways. All of this is done with McBain’s usual skill of charcterisation and dialogue.

As they dig into the life and death of one of their own’s loved ones they find skeletons in the closet. Most interesting is the fact it leads them to an area where morality and the law don’t match up. It’s the first time I can remember that the men of the 87th question the laws they have to enforce.

Some of the covers

The book rattles along at a decent pace and while the crime at the heart isn’t the most nuanced, McBain writes cleverly, dropping in the clues along the way. The reader, or this reader at least, finds themself in the same position as the detectives, so intently focused on the personal connection that it’s not until the end that the other little signs all make sense.

A gripping and engaging read with more emotional clout than some of the other novels in the series. 

Verdict: Another sensational book in the series, with McBain writing a story that unfolds quickly but intelligently. Hooked me in from start to finish. 8/10. 

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Flying Penguin by Frank Melling

I picked this up on  a whim, intrigued by the idea of reading about a motorcycle journalist.

Melling turns out to be more than this, having been a teacher and the organiser of his own motorcycle event. This is the second half of his memoirs, starting at a low ebb when his first wife files foe divorce and he hits rock bottom. From there he rebuilds his life, going on to remarry.

Melling is an interesting bloke, having set up and ran magazines written by students and convicts, as well as some motorcycle related businesses. The problem is that these don’t really translate into many incidents and the book lacks memorable moments. A lot of it is just outlining how things were organized, and long sections about printing equipment and finances are rather tedious. 

It’s an easy, pleasant read but forgettable. Melling seems a decent enough bloke but his writing lacks edge and there are a few phrases he overuses. 

An alright read, but not one that sticks with you. 

Verdict: A capable writer and seemingly a nice bloke, Frank Melling’s life story is just a little too dull to make for a memorable read. 5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Failed Coward by Chris Philbrook 

Having really enjoyed the third part of the Adrian’s Undead Diary series I added this to my Kindle and couldn’t resist cracking on with the fourth instalment.

With new allies and fresh sources of supplies, life should be good for Adrian and his little group of survivors, zombies aside. However, the undead are acting strangely and there are a few new faces in town who he can’t trust yet.

Philbrook does a great job of building and developing his undead apocalypse more and more with every book. Having introduced a supernatural background in part three it lends events here a new dimension of creepiness and raises questions for the reader and our narrator. What has raised the dead and why?

We get glimpses of life elsewhere, a group of besieged soldiers in the UK, a flashback to two dimwitted stoners as the world went to hell. There’s also a crazed loner, who revels in the apocalypse, selfishly and callously surviving, his ranting becoming increasingly unhinged and adding a fresh tension when his house is mentioned as a potential target for Adrian and his scavenging friends.

With winter coming to an end, Adrian faces fresh challenges and with human survivors returning to the town must wrestle with whether his scavenging and looting is defensible. 

A cracking read with some unsettling touches and some dark, crude humour, this series continues to be a treat.

Verdict: Philbrook expands his universe and also finds new ways to keep the story fresh, creating an uneasy feeling and a gripping story. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Kindle Single Bumper Edition 2

Been working night shifts this week and my Kindle has been useful in passing the time. Particularly the Kindle Singles, quick short books which are usually easy to read and pass the time easily.

I kicked off with some fiction in Consuelo Saah Baehr’s Thinner Thighs in Thirty Years, a pretty decent read which details the life of a older woman going through divorce and trying to sort out her life. Written in the first person and in an almost stream of consciousness manner, this is filled with little bursts of insight and dark humour, but the short nature means there’s no real story and a hazy ending. I guess that reflects real life, but doesn’t make a satisfying read.

Following this I switched to nonfiction with Comic Con Strikes Again! by Douglas Wolk. As a geeky guy I’ve always wanted to attend Comic Con in San Diego but this book dampened my enthusiasm.

Wolk captures a chaotic, corporate event which seems like a lot of faff and mainly involving queues. Now, I’m British and comfortable in a queue, but it seems annoying. Part of me still wants to go, but not as much as I did before.

Wolk’s writing isn’t overly jaded, but there is a cynical edge as he describes the weekend’s events and the changing culture around the con. It’s an interesting insight and a nice shapshot of how it all works.

And last of all another nonfiction read in Crazy Stupid Money by Rachel Shukert. A deeply personal piece it details the stress the writer’s marriage falls under when her husband stops working and she becomes the breadwinner.

Exacerbated by her own anxiety ans issues with money, the situation quickly turns toxic with arguments leading to neighbours calling the police and the couple on the brink of divorce. Painfully honest Shukert doesn’t shift blame, owning up to her own mistakes and tresspasses. It’s a fascinating and emotional read, helped by her skilled, unshowy writing and openness. 

It also provides a few interesting points on privilege, gender roles and our society’s odd view of money, as something not to be discussed. 

Verdicts:

Thinner Thighs in Thirty Years- Well written and entertaining enough it feels too brief and fails to give the reader a proper ending. 6/10.

Comic Con Strikes Again!- Not the most cheerful of reads but an interesting look at how geek culture has changed and how big business is changing the fan experience. 7/10.

Crazy Stupid Money- Raw and honest this is an involving and well written book which sees the author shine an unflinching light on her own troubles. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO. 


Book Review: Twenty Tales from the War Zone by John Simpson

Like a lot of Brits, a lot of the major news stories of my life were delivered through my TV by John Simpson, the BBC’s foreign correspondent who always seemed to be in the most dangerous places. While he was often shown hunkering down as bullets and bombs flew, or engaged in a tense interview with a dictator, away from the news he seemed a affable, funny man. This book is a mix of both sides.

Each chapter is either based around a place or person, and it reads like a newer verse of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” dealing with the major stories of the last 40 years or so. The Troubles in Belfast, rebellion in Iran and Czechoslovakia, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, interviews with Gadaffi and Bin Laden and the fall of the Berlin Wall all appear.

They are quick accounts, but utterly fascinating all the same, with Simpson capturing the tension and peril, but also with little glimpses of wry humour and excitement. He enjoys the absurdity of sneaking into Afghanistan in a burqa or of meeting an old university friend at MI6 HQ. There’s an enthusiasm and focus on getting a story that runs throughout the book, and is obviously the driving force that made him go towards situations most would rather run from.

The tone shifts but the book flows well, and it works, capturing the scope of emotions he has experienced in his career. Simpson handles all of these well enough and his writing is involving.

This is a quick read, but it is a satisfying one. I will definitely check out the other books that Simpson has written.

Verdict: A good taster of Simpson’s stories and experiences as a reporter, the no frills writing is engaging and entertaining throughout. It’s an interesting glimpse of a life spent around historical momenta. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Dispatches from the Sofa by Frank Skinner

Frank Skinner is guaranteed a place in my heart because of “Three Lions” the anthemic song he wrote for the Euro ’96 championship. It’s one of those songs which is tied to my childhood and wrapped in emotions so tightly that even at 80 it’ll probably still stir the memory and feeling of being 11 and in love with football.

But even without this I think I’d be a Skinner fan. He’s just an incredibly funny and affable presence, I listened to his podcast for years and only my iPod dying stopped that. What I love about him is his ability to mix intelligence and silliness, his delight in cheesy puns and daft gags, and the fact that he can be crude but always with a slight wink to the audience.

This book, largely made up of his newspaper columns shows the same kind of mix. Taken from 2009-2011 the subjects are slightly dated, but the humour remains on point and Skinner is still on the mark about many things. Even when I disagreed with some of his ideas, they were still put forward well and with humour.

It’s a good book to dip in and out of and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope they do more collections as Skinner’s writing is well worth keeping going with.

Verdict: Witty throughout, Skinner has some good ideas and funny anecdotes and the columns make great reads for when you have five minutes to spare. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO. 


Book Review: Midnight by Chris Philbrook

Back to the zombies with the third instalment of Philbrook’s Adrian’s Undead Diary series. As with the others this is told largely in the diaries of Adrian, an ex soldier holed up at a private school as the dead rise.

The second book ended with Adrian discovering that he wasn’t alone and welcoming people into his home. There’s also a threat from another group of survivors. Over the course of this book this feud comes to a head and other survivors are encountered.

It’s a quality read with the story developing nicely and there being a few nice twists and turns along the way. Adrian is also a great character with fragility, humour and fear creeping into his foul mouthed diaries. The action is quite gripping and while the diary format robs some of the tension, it still works as Philbrook is smart to use gaps between entries and short, angry or upset entries to give the impression things have gone wrong and put the reader on edge.

Philbrook also has rounded Adrian out and ensures the reader is engaged and invested in what happens to him.

There are also inserted chapters that take place elsewhere, which gives us different perspectives and fills in the gaps that Adrian can’t. One of these explains the cause of the zombie apocalypse and this is done well, different from other zombies stories. It also gives Philbrook routes to follow and feels fresh. This increases the creepy factor and creates an unsettling vibe and leaves more questions unansweed.

Looking forward to going back to Adrian’s world soon.

Verdict: The series goes from strength to strength. This part expands the world the story takes place in and ups the stakes. New characters and a few nice twists keep it fresh and hooked me in throughout. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO. 


Book Review: The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla (Editor)

As a white British man my life is largely unaffected by race. I am the default, the traditional and the assumed. When people ask where I come from “Neath” will suffice, perhaps with more clarification for those not familiar with Wales (“Neath, it’s just by Swansea”), but that’s where it ends. A few of the writers in this collection of essays, and a friend, get more questions “No, where are you from, originially”. Their race differentiates them, and makes some view them as not entirely British. Which is bollocks of course, race and nationality not being the same thing.

Of course, I know that Britain has a diverse population, with Brits who have family history from all over the world. And I know that race is still a very big deal and effects people’s lives everyday. But these are superficial observations, and thankfully this book provided me with a more diverse, nuanced look at what life is like for BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) Brits.

The contributors discuss their family histories, the way they feel about how their culture is represented (or isn’t), how attitudes towards race effect their lives and our society. Issues like stereotyping, Western beauty standards, cultural appropriation and more are on show and the book is continually enlightening.

I learnt more about Cyprus and it’s history, something I previously knew about in vague terms, gleaned from half remembered news reports and the tactical voting of Eurovision. I had to reflect on how I am guilty of viewing my white experience as being the norm or universal British experience. 

It gave me pause when one contributor, Darren Chetty, discussed how few children’s stories feature diverse characters and how that effects the audience who don’t see themselves represented, to the point they don’t think stories about people like them are valid.

There are pieces that amused and others that moved me, with the different voices ensuring a variety of tones and styles. Of course, as with all collections, there are some you connect with more and favourites. 

It’s a book I found easy to read, dipping in and out over a few days, even if it raised difficult questions. How often do I stereotype people? What would I do if I witnessed someone being racially abused? Why is race still so divisive and can Britain improve how we integrate and deal with the complexities of a multicultural society?

It’s a book I strongly recommend, it’s always good to have a look at life from someone else’s perspective, and it prompts discussion that we need to have. The writers are a good mix of the serious and more light hearted in terms of tone, but every one is interesting and well worth a read.

Verdict: A very interesting book about an important subject, this gives the reader lots to think about and includes some fantastic writers. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

If you’re familiar with Bruce Springsteen’s music you’ll know that he’s a songwriter of great skill. He tells stories of everyday life, of characters and their desires and fears. Songs filled with empathy, compassion and insight.

Here he shows all the same talents, this time about his own life. It’s a glorious book, filled with keen observation, insight and moments of humour.

Springsteen captures his childhood in New Jersey, growing up poor and amidst a dysfunctional family. There are large characters here, but it’s his quieter father who looms largest. Tormented by mental health issues exacerbated by drink, his father is a distant figure, one that the young Bruce fears and loves at the same time. The small, scrawny kid feels like a disappointment, or worse an active cause for his father’s disatisfaction. Throughout the book the relationship with his father returns as does Springsteen’s fears that the same darkness lurks within him.

This is one of the things I feel he should be applauded for. There’s an honest assesment of his own mental state, an acknowledgement that it has led to poor relationships and decisions, yet some of it has contributed to his drive. Bouts of depression are relayed without hyperbole or shame, therapy is mentioned and thanked for helping him through his life.

Springsteen is aware of his faults and when things do sour owns his part in them. It’s not all gloomy, there are high points, the joy of love and family, of the contentment he finally finds. And of course there’s the music. 

He captures the excitement and joy of seeing Elvis for the first time, of the shot in the arm that rock ‘n roll provided him, a focus that he would never lose. When he talks about music Springsteen seems invigorated, humming with enthusiasm and energy. He talks about the bands who influenced him, of meeting his heroes and of creating his own place in music history.

There is pride here and references to success, but it never tips into arrogance, not a man boasting, rather a man satisfied with a job well done.

The prose is enthralling and I found myself easily reading for long stretches, happy in the company of the Boss. The writing is captivating, charming and utterly absorbing. It prompted reflection and smiles, and even tears as he discusses the passing of Clarence Clemons, his friend and bandmate.

Autobiographies don’t come much better than this.

Verdict: Fantastic. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Of Mice and Me by Mishka Shubaly

I’ve become a fan of Shubaly’s work because he has the knack of mixing dark humour and scathing honesty with moments of fragile tenderness. This is evident in this short read, which is another slice of honest, introspection and tinged with a recovering addict’s regret and worry.

While staying with his sister and his family, Shubaly rescues a baby mouse from the pet dogs and decides to look after it. Nobody is surprised than he, as he lacks a nurturing instinct and keeps people at a distance. And yet over the following days he becomes devoted to his rodent son.

The mouse serves as a jumping off point for Shubaly to examine family and caring. He reflects on the once strained relationships with his family and how they have slowly strengthened and healed.

He examines his own ideas about fatherhood and his suitability as a father, with honest admissions of fears and flaws.

It’s a very touching, emotional book which is a captivating read. There are still glimpses of Shubaly’s jet black humour and the chaos of his past, but it’s a tender book without lurching into cloying schmaltz.

Verdict: A moving and charming short read, Shubaly continues to impress but shows a softer side here. Lovely stuff. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.