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.


Film Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming 

Tobey Maguire was a good Peter Parker. Andrew Garfield was a good Spider-Man. Tom Holland is the guy who nails both halves of the character.

For starters, Holland looks closer to an awkward teenager and is just wonderfully charming as he stumbles and bumbles his way through his teenage life. This charm and awkwardness transfers across when he dons the mask, the body language still capturing the gawky youth and attempts to be cool. Also the voice work captures the enthusiastic way Spidey goes into action.

This movie gets one of the things I loved about the character of Spider-Man. He enjoyed being a hero. Sure, there was drama and tension, but when he got up there swinging, he was having a ball. The same is true for large parts of this film, Spider-Man throws himself into crime fighting, even for minor offences with boundless enthusiasm. Even when things get tough there’s still a sense that he wants to be a hero, and that he likes being in the tights. It messes with his day-to-day life, but there’s no stopping him, and there’s no brooding.

There is frustration, having helped out in Civil War Peter hopes to become an Avenger and work closely with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), but finds himself sidelined. Stark tells him to stay close to the ground, and that he’s not ready.

Tony and Peter, with a flawed mentor-student relationship

Some criticised the movie for including Stark, but I like it. It makes sense that after recruiting Peter he would keep tabs on him, and Tony’s attempts to mentor him show how the character continues to evolve from the playboy at the start of the first Iron Man movie. RDJ is excellent as ever, and his affection and concern for Peter is pitched just right. There’s a sense that he respects Peter despite his youth and sees his potential to be great, evidenced when he tells Peter that he wants the young hero to be better than him.

Eager to prove himself Peter decides to go it alone aftee discovering someone is selling hi-tech weapons. This leads him against Adrian Toomes AKA the Vulture (Michael Keaton), who turned to crime having been thrown off the salvage contract after the events of The Avengers leaving him in financial difficulties. He and his crew use the alien tech they grabbed to make weapons and to steal more, leading them to cross paths with Spidey, who persists after Iron Man warns him off.

Michael Keaton’s performance and the changes to Vulture’s backstory are fantastic and make what I’ve always viewed as a lacklustre villain more interesting. Not only does his origin tie in with the rest of the MCU and show the fallout of previous events, it makes him a more relatable and believable character. All his crime is driven by his need to provide for his family, and Keaton captures a sense of a man driven to extremes to keep his head above water. Not that he isn’t great at the basic villain stuff, with him giving the character an intimidating steeliness which as the film continues to impress and increase. Not an utter villain, but with a ruthlessness that makes him a decent threat.

Keaton in great form

The plot unfolds at a cracking pace, the film fizzing along so that the action and laughs flow constantly, but with enough character stuff to mean you genuinely care, largely due to Holland’s work.

While there are some MCU similarities this film has its own tone, being closer in tone to a teen comedy at times, just with superheroics thrown in, there’s a nod to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and that’s kind of the vibe here. It helps that the dialogue is genuinely funny and some of Peter’s schoolmates are wonderful.

Best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) is a scene stealing character, a geeky fanboy who is overjoyed at discovering his best friend is a superhero and who pesters Peter with questions. It’s a charming and funny performance, and Ned provides a lot of humour as well as providing Peter with a confidante. 

Ned and Peter, geeky buds

Also worth mentions are Jon Favreau returning as Happy Hogan, Marisa Tomei as Aunt May and a delightful performance from Zendaya as Michelle, Peter’s sarcastic, offbeat classmate.

The whole movie clicked for me, managing to balance peril and humour. It felt like the closest to the Spider-Man from the books and fits well with the MCU by adding a slightly smaller scale. Peter is the friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, and the bigger more cosmic threats can be left to the other characters.

I was won over by Holland in his brief appearance in Civil War and this builds on this. For me this is up there with the best of the MCU movies and I hope Sony continue their deal with Marvel because this is how to do Spidey. 

Verdict: An entertaining ride from start to finish this has bags of charm and action. Simply magnificent. Holland IS the character. 9/10.

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. 


Film Review: Wonder Woman

So far the DC extended universe (DCEU) has been playing catch up with Marvel who have built up their shared universe since 2008’s Iron Man. It’s easy to see why DC want to get in on the same kind of thing but unfortunately it’s all felt rather rushed. The first film worked on it’s own, but Man of Steel still had some flaws and the follow up, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice was hit and miss, and saw Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman thrown in the mix in a way which seemed a bit rushed. The less said about  Suicide Squad the better. 

So, having already met Wonder Woman what we have here is a flashback, an origin movie which takes us back to the First World War. Not that the war has had any impact on Themyscria, the idyllic, hidden island of the Amazons. Here, Princess Diana learns of the Amazons’ purpose, to guide mankind to peace and oppose the corrupting force of Ares, the God of War.

Diana wants to learn to fight, but her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) opposes this, as Ares is seemingly defeated and she has fears that Diana’s training and increasing strength will draw the attention of the war god if he is still out there. But Diana’s aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright) is more cautious and secretly trains her niece, who becomes a skilled fighter but appears to have odd powers and enhanced strength.

After years of isolation the first man visits the island as Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands in the sea off the island attempting to flee with stolen plans of a new deadly German weapon. Diana rescues him but the Germans arrive and there is a short battle which leaves all the Germans and a few of the Amazons dead. Steve is taken prisoner and bound with the lasso of truth reveals his misssion, Diana believing that the villainous General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) is Ares in an attempt to continue the war.

In defiance of her mother’s wishes, Diana steals the godkiller sword and she leaves with Steve to the world of man. There they deliver the plans and are forbidden to attack Ludendorff as it may damage the delicate armistice talks. 

Diana is outraged when Steve agrees not to get involved, accusing him of lying to her, but he reveals he plans a secret mission, gathering old allies and receiving assistance from Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis), a politician attempting to sort out a peace but determined not to lose more lives or allow Ludendorff to find a weapon to extend the war.

Can Diana stop Ludendorff? Is he actually Ares? What will she think of man’s world and is she ready for the horrors of the front?

This movie’s major strength is Gadot, who not only looks the part as a strong warrior woman but who also captures the character’s journey very well. She excels in the action sequences and shows Diana’s steely determination throughout, while also doing well with the script’s more humourous aspects. She also shows Diana’s confusion and wonder at the things she encounters and the “fish out of water” vibe works well.

As Diana progresses she becomes disillusioned with mankind and the war, and the film is clever in avoiding merely blaming Ares for mankind’s conflict. When Ares faces Diana he talks about how the darkness was inside man and he just guides them to better weapons, hoping to destroy them and have the world return to the paradise it once was. 

The war is hell aspect of the film is decent and a good angle, but the handling is poor. The horrors of war are shown in an oddly bloodless way, and while there are hints that both sides do wrong this does paint the Germans as the bad guys in a way which simplifies the complex reasons for WWI and the fact that neither side really held a moral highground.

Also, it’s hard to say that war is bad when the film delights in the Amazons’ fighting. The battle on the beach between Amazons and Germans is filled with slow motion, which is overused throughout. The Amazons’ skills are presented as cool and admirable, but it’s still basically war. And it feels odd that we get a sombre moment of a dying Amazon as though this is some great tragedy, when they have literally just killed half a dozen soldiers with arrows. It feels fumbled and half done.

That being said, the action sequences are, slow mo aside, quite well done, especially a sequence where Diana charges across no man’s land under heavy fire to save civilians. It’s a solid sequence and visually striking.

But in a way the problem here is that Diana is too strong, too powerful. There are only one and a half characters who can really go toe-to-toe with her and aside from these fights the rest of the battles feel one sided and lacking peril. It’s a similar issue that DC face with Superman, their heroes being too pumped up and often without decent foes.

But for the most part the movie works, landing more hits than misses and entertaining throughout. It’s definitely the funniest of the DCEU movies and a good background for the charcter, even if it doesn’t move anything forward. In fact it adds more questions, like what the hell has Diana been doing between 1918 and throwing down in BvS: DoJ?

Special mention should also go to Chris Pine who does good work here. He shares good chemistry with Gadot, and his Steve Trevor is a likeable character. Heroic without being too clean cut, Steve is a good counterpoint to Diana. Both see the horrors but Diana’s fresh eyes make her willing to deviate from their mission in a way his more jaded view is less inclined to do. And he acknowledges that people can be bad, whereas it takes a while for Diana to dismiss the idea that it is all down to Ares.

I’m definitely interested in seeing more of the character and it bodes well for the DCEU going forward as this is definitely the strongest entry since Man of Steel and left me excited for Justice League.

Verdict: Has it’s flaws but generally works quite well. Gadot is good as the lead and the script manages a decent balance in tone. Stumbles in places but manages to stride out with pride. 7.5/10.

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.