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: 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: 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. 


Book Review: Bag of Meat on Ball of Dirt by Mara Altman

I’ve read a fair few of Mara Altman’s Kindle Singles already, so I knew I was going to get a fun, warm and personable read. This book sees her travel to India to find people who are trying to find themselves.

It’s interesting and she has to overcome her own shyness to talk to strangers. She then interviews them about why they’re there. She finds a world of hippies, gurus and a few stereotypes, but it does raise the question of why it’s India people go on their personal quests? Can’t you find yourself anywhere?

  These snapshots of the travellers are quite entertaining but the book feels a bit aimless.

Why Altman chose this topic seems vague and unlike her other books it doesn’t revolve around a personal life event or experience. For me it suffers because of this as Altman feels out of place, and it lacks resolution.

It’s an entertaining enough quick read but it’s a bit something of nothing.

Verdict: Altman is a skilled and likeable writer but this book feels pointless and unsatisfying. Raises plenty of smiles but the weakest of her books I’ve read. 5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Football Neutral: Season 2014/15 by Jim Smallman

One of my favourite books that I read last year was Jim Smallman’s first Football Neutral. This is the second season as Smallman continues his travels to various clubs. A stand up comic, Smallman decided that attending football matches on Saturdays instead of wasting time in cafes, and blogged about them, the results being collected here.

Like the first one this made me miss the experience of going to matches regularly and I’ve made a nee resolution to try and go to at least five matches in the 2017/18 season. I would especially love to go see Clapton FC, who, based on the entry here, have a great following that creates a fun, entertaining atmosphere.

The Clapton players marking their anti-homophobia match

Smallman writes with natural charm and enthusiasm. His analysis of the games is fair and unpretentious, but where he excels is capturing the atmosphere and characters of the matches. An astute people watcher and seemingly a lover of humanity, these are usually warm and funny.

Throughout the book, Smallman is enthusiastic and passionate about football and it’s infection. 

He also seems like a top bloke, and is great company here.

Hopefully, there will be more collections to come.

Verdict: A charming, fun read that gives readers a great tour around British football, with a likeable and engaging guide in Smallman. It’s fuelled by a simple, honest love of the game and its fans and gives more background to clubs I only knew from the classifieds. A nice, easy read full of charm. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Decline of the English Murder by George Orwell

Really getting into Orwell’s essays and nonfiction writing recently, with this being another solid collection of pieces on a variety of subjects.

The title essay is about the British public’s appetite and morbid obsession with murder cases and what makes the best in terms of public interest. He talks about how for a crime to really capture the public interest it should involve macabre ingenuity, and issues of class, love and tragedy. It’s an interesting piece and darkly comic in a way.

Other pieces deal with analysis of boys’ magazines and what they say about society, the death of what he calls “good bad books” and an account of his time as a hop picker. 

All are handled with intelligence and insight, and Orwell is a shrewd observer and commentator. It’s an interesting quick read and I thoroughly enjoyed it, and more of Orwell’s work has been added to my “to read list”.

Verdict: Highlighting Orwell’s skill as a writer and his insight these essays show that even on seemingly trivial subjects he can see deeper themes. He looks at what literature shows about the society that births it. Smart and holds the attention well. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.