Book Review: Frank Sinatra Has a Cold and Other Essays by Gay Talese

The title piece of this collection was mentioned in The Girl in the Spider’s Web and after a quick Google I decided to check out Talese’s writing. And I’m glad I did so.

Talese is a fantastic writer with a great eye for detail and small, quiet moments. His writing is engaging, warm and filled with clever observation. He was one of the front runners of “New Journalism” which was more subjective, literary and informal than what had come before. 

Talese puts you right in the heart of his stories and the focus of his pieces is informed by his attitudes and feelings. He writes about boxer Floyd Patterson languishing in misery and embarrassment after a loss to Sonny Liston, a melancholy portrait reflecting his habit of empathy for the defeated. 

The pieces are collected from over thirty years and so a theme is hard to pin down. What does appear in several is fragile or damaged masculinity. Most evident in Patterson hiding out after a loss it appears elsewhere; Joe Louis is shown in middle age, his prime years before, Frank Sinatra’s talent, his voice, is shaken by illness and this throws him off. Similarly in an article from the ’90s we see two enemies of the American establishment in the ’60s, Muhammad Ali and Fidel Castro, meet as ageing men both with poor health. 

Sinatra demands to be in charge, is shown to be a man who hates disrespect and being made to look foolish. Patterson has a fake beard in his dressing room so he can sneak out should he lose. Talese homes in on these insecurities, on male proud it’s even in the story he tells of his father where a wily tailor tricks a mafioso using the man’s vanity and fear of looking stupid to win the day. 

While many pieces feature famous faces there are other examples where Talese turns his focus on less well known subjects. He writes about the offices of Vogue in a wry piece where he steals the language of the magazine to describe it’s workers. There is an article about the dedicated, grim work of an obituary writer at a major newspaper as well as personal essays about his father in Italy or how he became a writer.

Despite the time he wrote in Talese seems liberal and even handed. His portraits of black boxers avoids racist stereotyping or condescension, which can mar other articles from this era. The one misstep is that during the Sinatra piece he refers to Ali by his former name Clay, which many sportswriters were guilty of, but it’s hard to see any malice here, perhaps ignorance or the insistence of an editor?

Talese’s writing and the empathy, insight and understanding that resonates through it show that he was a student and lover of human nature, and a keen observer. Each portrait is engrossing and detailed, providing a real sense of all who feature.

A great read and I shall be checking out more of his writing in future.

Verdict: A talented nonfiction writer Talese produces essays which are involving and insightful. He captures the small, quiet moments that reveal the bigger characters and deeper stories. A delight. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO. 


Book Review: Commitment by Didier Drogba

Cards on the table time, I’m not a massive Didier Drogba fan. This is probably because despite being a skilled footballer I felt he was too prone to diving and he played for Chelsea during an era when I severely disliked the team (mainly because of the tag team of tools that was Ashley Cole and John Terry).

But I received this book as a Christmas present from my big sis, who likes Drogba a lot because of his Christian beliefs and charity work. To be fair to the guy, he does seem to do a lot of good work and has donated a lot of his sponsorship cash to worthy causes. 

This book details some of this work, and the reasons behind his charitable work as well as his personal life. Born in Ivory Coast he moved to France as a young boy where he moved frequently as he lived with his journeyman footballer uncle. A lover of the beautiful game from a young age he wished to follow in his uncle’s footsteps.

Missing out on academy football he was late in making it compared to his peers, but soon made up for this with a knack for scoring goals. This is what most of the book is devoted to, with the story divided by specific sections of his career.

For non football fans it might be a bit of a struggle as it’s mainly about how he did every year, the goals, injuries, triumphs and failures along the way. The sections about family and charity are separate, and feel tacked on.

Drogba comes across well enough and it does give a little bit of background to the dressing room atmosphere and his explosions on the field. But the insights are rather limited and the writing is thoroughly pedestrian. 

Maybe it’s because of the language barrier, but there’s a genuine lack of humour or depth. It’s an easy read, but uninspiring. But as I used it to help pass time on night shifts this actually turned out to be a positive- just about interesting to keep you going and easy enough for a sleep deprived mind.

An okay read if you’re a huge Chelsea or Drogba fan, but for others might be a bore.

Verdict: It passes the time, but is rather dull and lacks the humour, scandal or insight to make it a great autobiography. 5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Conclave by Robert Harris

Whenever a Pope does the process for choosing his successor is the same; Cardinals from all over the world travel to the Vatican where they are locked in until a new Pope is chosen. This is the conclave. There have been two during my lifetime, and I’m fascinated by the whole thing.

The idea is that through prayer and meditation the Holy Spirit guides the Cardinals to the new leader. But a cynical view is that the lock in is essentially where the politics of the papacy plays out. Either way, the whole system is shrouded in mystery.

Clearly the idea intrigues Robert Harris too and he has written a smart, involving thriller which follows the Cardinals within the walls.

When the current, unnamed Pope passes away, the ball is in motion and as Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Lomeli is in charge of the show. There are several contenders and as the voting begins factions are forming.

Lomeli, aging and experiencing a crisis of faith, watches as the political machinations start up. Secrets and scandals bubble to the surface, and ambition muddies the water. Lomeli becomes increasingly suspicious of some of the frontrunners and investigates rumours and whispers. He wants to maintain the church’s reputation and avoid scandal, but it becomes apparent that there are lots of skeletons in the closets.

Does Lomeli have the strength of will to see it through? And as he does expose the corruption is he unwillingly moving himself up the pecking order? Leaving others questioning his motives.

This is a cracking read, with the twists and turns playing out in a well paced and involving manner. Lomeli is a decent hero, riddled with doubts and fear, but ultimately commited to doing the right thing. As the process wears on he becomes more proactive in ensuring the best man gets the big job.

Harris layers in the intrigue and uses the claustrophobic setting to his advantage, the isolated cardinals are sealed off from the outside world, meaning that Lomeli’s investigations are hindered and some information is revealed too late in a surprise ending which is impossible to see coming.

A fantastic read which hooked me in early and entertained me throughout.

Verdict: A very well written and involving thriller, Harris has a great knack for letting the story unfold at a decent pace and slowly allowing his characters to reveal themselves. There’s not much action but the political schemes are gripping. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Medic! By Ben Sherman

Since my teens I’ve been fascinated by the Vietnam War and have read several books about it. This one, a memoir of one man’s war is unique in that it deals with a man who was drafted but refused to carry a weapon.

Sherman requested to be listed as a conscientious objector, as his personal beliefs meant that while he was happy to serve his country he wasn’t willing to kill for it. His objections are overruled and he is sent to basic training, where he refuses to pick up a rifle. After a brief spell as a military prisoner he is transferred to become a medic and ships out to the war.


I admire Sherman for his courage in sticking with his beliefs and also for the honesty in his writing. He describes simply but effectively the horrors he witnesses and his emotions throughout. He repeatedly opens up about his fears and doubts.

His war is slightly shorter than the average tour but not without incident. Originally placed at the morgue he then moves on to his posting where he medics rotate through three jobs- surgery aboard a ship, combat medic on the ground with the troops and then on helicopters for medevac missions.

During one mission and under fire, he falls from the chopper and is listed KIA. Dazed, wounded and alone, Sherman is haunted by ghosts of dead friends and drifts in anspd out of consciousness, terrified of what might be hiding in the jungle. It turns out he isn’t alone, his only companion being a deranged officer. Nicknamed Captain Buttshot because he has been shot three times by his own men, he makes poor company and Sherman worries for his safety.

Luckily a fellow medic comes out to rescue him, and he returns to base where he discovers that his colleague Smitty has been looking out for him for longer than he thought and hides him from the front until he recovers.

It’s a short book but well written and engaging, with Sherman being a no frills writer who delves into his memories of his time in Vietnam. As a medic he saw the horrors of war up close and experienced the tension of waiting for attack and the terror of combat. 

It’s refreshingly low key and as a conscientious objector he isn’t going hi but admits to not having been one of the protestors. In a way he highlights the middle ground, the disinterested youth who were sucked into this war. And his return to the world means he discovers what has been going on and how divisive the war is.

Sherman provides a unique and atypical war story, and it’s admirable that he doesn’t try to avoid service but stays true to his belief. His war shows the odd mix of bureaucracy and chaos that was his life in the army. The impression is one of young men thrown into a mad, confused conflict with only ten days of medic training to help him deal with the carnage he would be faced with.

Verdict: An interesting and well done memoir of one man’s war and principles. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz

It’s been over four years since I read the final novel by Stieg Larsson, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, but the trilogy about the tough, mesmerising Lisbeth Salander stuck with me. There was talk that Larsson had begun work on a fourth before his death in 2004, but it appears that this is a separate story following a bitter argument between those Larsson left behind. Those who hold the rights chose David Lagercrantz to continue the series.

It picks up around a year after the events of the last book where Lisbeth Salander, the tattooed, vicious hacker brought down her father’s criminal empire and the government figures who protected him. In this she was aided by investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who wrote about it in his magazine Millennium earning great praise, but since the magazine, and Blomkvist, have struggled and the two have lost contact.
Salander continues to chase down and break the ruins of her father’s empire which leads her to hack the NSA, searching for information on the criminals she wants. This group named the Spider Society have been hard at work in the areas of industrial espionage and computer genius Frans Balder has discovered they stole some of his work and are after his pioneering AI work. He leaves Silicon Valley and returns to Sweden where he takes custody of his autistic son, August.

The Swedish government are trying to protect him while Balder debates what to do next. Meanwhile, the NSA are trying to find out who hacked them. Blomkvist is approached by an associate of Balder who tips him off to what may be an interesting story, but Blomkvist is unsure, but Balder contacts him personally and he goes to visit the scientist. Unfortunately, the Spider Society have decided to make their move and Balder is killed, the assassin sparing August, who he dismissed as “a retard”.

Blomkvist starts to dig deeper and discovers the Spiders are quite ruthless and vicious, headed by a mysterious figure nicknamed Thanos after the Marvel Comics character. When August’s gift of photographic memory is discovered he could provide a clue to the killer’s identity.

The Spiders decide to get rid of him, but Salander works out their plan and rushes to his aid, managing to get him to a safe place thanks to Blomkvist and his colleagues. As Salander hides out with the boy she tries to get him to draw what he saw and attempts to crack the NSA file she stole.

Meanwhile, Blomkvist and the police investigate. Blomkvist makes big strides and discovers a link between Salander and Thanos, which surprised him and explains the hostility between them.

What secrets were the NSA hiding and can Salander uncover them? Will Blomkvist be able to save his magazine by working out this story? And can Salander really protect the boy from an intelligent and skilled criminal gang?

I must say I really enjoyed this book, which while being gritty and filled with unsavoury characters softens the brutal, sometimes overdone darkness of Larsson’s writing. Lagercrantz manages to nail a similar style, but gives more humanity to the supporting players.

Salander and Blomkvist remain a decent central pair, the uncompromising, aggressive hacker and the world weary, more personable writer. They are separated for much of the work, but communicate through computer messages, and Lagercrantz shows their respect and affection through their responses to hearing from the other.

The plot unfolds at a good pace and there are some tense, gripping moments. It’s a well handled thriller and introduces a new, and interesting villain. It doesn’t quite match the first book in the series but it’s a solid continuation and an entertaining read.

Verdict: Lagercrantz seems to hold a less bleak worldview than Larsson which results in an exciting thriller which avoids the nastiness of the previous installments. An engaging, entertaining thriller. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Books v. Cigarettes by George Orwell

This is the third nonfiction Orwell book I’ve read (after Homage to Catalonia and Down and Out in Paris and London) and I definitely prefer them to his fiction. This book contains a handful of articles that he wrote which cover a range of topics including his experiences in school and a French hospital, the threat to freedom of speech and books.

The title piece sees Orwell thinking about how much cash he spends on books and why reading had fallen out of favour. It’s dry and I’ve always found old money slightly confusing, but it’s interesting to see reading weighed up against other pursuits and Orwell observes that it is not just cost that can be blamed.
The book works at it’s best when he’s writing about personal experience which gives him an opportunity to use his keen observation and description to great effect. When talking about a hellish hospital in France or his miserable time as a schoolboy he writes in evocative style, honest about his emotions and recollections. The events and characters are utterly real to the reader, and his insight is keen.

But his talent is linking these personal experiences with wider themes and ideas. He talks about how doctors and medical attitudes have changed, how the hospital in France could never exist in Britain and how his schooldays represented the end of an era of snobbishness and petty cruelty which he celebrates being consigned to the past.

Most interesting is his writing about his patriotism, his feeling as World War II loomed that he would do what he could for his country. He writes openly about how as a teen he dismissed all patriotism as foolish, but now writes about it in a different way. His patriotism seems to me the same I feel, a love for country which doesn’t mean blind acceptance or faith. He knows Britain is flawed, but he knows it is better than the Nazis and has good points.

It’s a quick, interesting read and Orwell is an immensely talented writer. The dryer parts drag a little, and it’s dated but the keen observation and intelligence shines through.

Verdict: Not every essay is a winner, but it’s all written well and Orwell impresses with his ability to express his memories in such evocative and full fashion. A good book to dip in and out of. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Alone No More by Chris Philbrook

My new year resolution may have been to broaden my reading, but here we are back with the zombies. The second part in the Adrian’s Undead Diary series this picks up where the first left off. Our narrator, Adrian, is an ex-soldier who after the dead start walking and biting has holes up at the remote, elite boarding school where he worked.

Alone he tries to gather supplies, fortify his home and build a new life, all while dodging the undead who hunger for flesh. His only comforts being his cat, Otis, and the journal he writes.
The book is told in these foul-mouthed entries as he details his exploits and vents on his fears, theories and regrets. The journal format works as the missing days usually mean something has happened and the insight into Adrian’s mind set is well done. While a laddish, vulgar narrator at times Adrian is likeable enough and relatable, showing flashes of dark, self deprecating humour.

Philbrook changes it up with short chapters from the perspective of other character’s caught up in the apocalypse. Often people who have crossed over with Adrian’s story. In the first book these often ended badly but here there are a few that hint that life endures elsewhere.

As the story implies Adrian meets living people once again and these sections are quite moving as behind the bluster you can tell it means a lot to the frazzled hero to have company.

It builds to a strong ending and number 3 is on my wish list now. I’ll just have to fit some different books in between.

Verdict: Improves on the original and Philbrook impresses with his ability to capture his characters. The changing world works well and the arrival of more characters is a nice touch. A solid, entertaining zombie book. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Kindle Single Bumper Edition

A little bit of a change today as I’m going to review three books in one post. Over the Christmas period I read a few Kindle Singles, the short books Amazon offer for their e-reader. I’ve grouped them together as I thought it would be better than trying to fit three separate posts in.

First up was I Murdered My Library by Linda Grant, a charming read which sees novelist Grant talk about the dilemma she faces as she prepares to move to a smaller place and realises that amazingly there is such a thing as too many books.

Grant describes her sprawling, book filled house in a way that would make a book lover green with envy and during her clear out touches on how the books we read and keep often carry more than what is on the pages in between. Writing with easy charm she talks about the memories attached to some of the books, how her personal library both shows how she has changed over the years while also influencing those changes.

What could just be one woman’s clear out is far more involving thanks to skilled writing with a light touch. Addressing changing attitudes to books and reading, the influence of new technology and the passing of time, Grant writes beautifully and in a way that reader’s who hoard books like me will relate to. 

While Grant talks of one woman’s small scale story, M. J. Foreman’s Bomber Girls deals with several women who played a part in a larger story. Shining a light on a corner of World War II that I was unaware of, Foreman writes about the female pilots of the ATA (Air Transport Auxillary) who during the war were responsible for transporting planes to wherever they were needed.

These brave women flew a variety of planes, often in poor conditions and with little training on that model. They encountered sexism and danger along the way, and while Germany and Russia had female fighters and bombers, the Brits refused to let the ladies carry ammunition, leaving them defenceless against attack.

Unfortunately the book highlights the flaw of the Single format as Foreman is unable to provide any real depth or insight into the women and their war. It’s an interesting enough read but really only a taster, and I feel that I’ll probably look into more books about these young women. Perhaps focusing on one or two pilots would have been better, but the scope is too broad and so we get intriguing snapshots rather than a detailed account. It also suffers as Foreman is a rather uninspired writer.

If Foreman’s prose feels flat this is not a problem afflicts Mishka Shubaly in Are You Lonesome Tonight? I’ve read a few of Shubaly’s Singles now, and while they’ve been a mixed bag there’s no denying that the man has a talent for honest, raw writing.

In this book Shubaly opens with an angry, tear filled argument in the street and a suggestion of lies being revealed. He then jumps back to meeting and connecting with a woman online. Detailing their online communications and his growing affection with open emotion the reader sits uncomfortably, drawn into his warm words but aware it will end badly.

The bad ending arrives with a surprising twist at which point everything crashes down around him and the recovering addict struggles with a tumult of emotion. It’s written in such raw terms that it’s like watching a friend break up, feeling their pain but unable to help. That’s not that Shubaly is a whining heartbroken wreck, his writing is well done with a good eye for metaphor and visceral description and also some dark humour. A great read of heartbreak, betrayal and obsession.

Verdicts:

I Murdered My Library: Well written and relatable look at books and our relationship with them. Book lovers will find themselves nodding along. 7/10.

Bomber Girls: An interesting story but handled poorly, with not enough depth to satisfy. 5/10.

Are You Lonesome Tonight?: Brilliantly written and involving, Shubaly is a gifted and genuine talent. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My 10 Favourite Books of 2016

As ever split into fiction and nonfiction. Fiction first.

5. Deception Point by Dan Brown

Brown isn’t the best writer and some of the characterisation and dialogue is wooden but you can’t deny he crafts an easy pageturner and I ploughed through this.

4. Lady Killer by Ed McBain

When the detectives get a note taunting them about a murder which will be committed in twelve hours it kicks off a ticking clock thriller as they try to work out who the killer is, as well as their target. Proves writing under pressure works.


3. The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

A warm easy read about life, death, fate and the connections we form in our lives. A nice read and wonderfully unpretentious. Review.

2. Ex-Purgatory and Ex-Isle by Peter Clines

Clines’ superheroes vs zombies series gets better and better with two clever installments. The first sees a bizarre parallel universe and the second sees the heroes discover a new group of survivors while tensions mount back at home. Quality stuff and the full reviews are here and here.


1.  Killer’s Wedge by Ed McBain

I am loving McBain’s Precinct 87 series and this is probably the best yet. It starts with a woman entering the detectives’ office and announcing she has explosives in her bag. The rest of the book is a tense face-off as the cops try to work out what to do and Steve Carella, her target makes his way for the precinct. Full review here.

Honourable mentions, all the other Precinct 87 books I read and Adrian’s Undead Diary by Chris Philbrook. 

And now nonfiction.
5. Spectacles by Sue Perkins

Perkins’ memoir is warm, funny and incredibly moving in places. I liked her going in but I liked her even more afterwards. A real gem. Review.


4. A Life Inside by Erwin James

An honest, clever look into the life of a prisoner James has a knack for observation and telling quick, short stories which are still insightful. Full review.

3. Are You Dave Gorman?/Too Much Information by Dave Gorman (and Danny Wallace)

Massive fan of Gorman and his funny, fussy and friendly writing. Whether looking for his namesakes or examining the weird customs and conventions of modern life, he is an affable, funny narrator and I enjoyed both books.


2. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

Ronson delves into the world of online jobs and shaming in a clever, funny and well researched book. He writes with compassion and he goes off in different directions. Review.

1. Playing the Enemy by John Carlin

A book that moved me immensely, delving into the political and personal stories behind Nelson Mandela’s ambitions for the 1995 Rugby World Cup. The great man comes across wonderfully and the optimism and healing powers of sport had me quite misty eyed. My full review here.


Honourable mentions The Football Neutral by Jim Smallman and D-Day Through German Eyes by Holger Eckhertz.
Any recommendations for the coming year? Let me know in the comments. BETEO.


Book Review: Deception Point by Dan Brown

I’ve only read one Dan Brown novel before, The Da Vinci Code, and quite enjoyed it. Sure it was largely forgettable but there’s no denying that Brown knows how to craft an incredibly effective page turner and for me this book falls into the same territory- not a great book but a gripping read while it’s in your hand.

The story follows Rachel Sexton, who works for the National Reconnaissance Organisation (NRO) who run a network of spy and observation posts. Her working for the government is a problem for her father, Senator Sedgwick Sexton who is in the running to be the next President due to his stance of attacking government overspending. One of the rods he beats President Herney is NASA’s budget and failures.
Herney calls Rachel in and asks her to help with something very hush hush. He needs her to authenticate something as her job ensures she knows how to spot faulty or doctored evidence. She winds up in the Arctic where NASA have found a meteorite containing fossils of bugs. Big news.

Unfortunately some of the evidence is shaky and when Rachel investigates with some of the independent scientists called in to verify NASA’s findings they are attacked. 

Meanwhile her father’s campaign aide and one-time mistress, Gabrielle Ashe, is alerted that Sexton’s anti-NASA stance may be financially motivated and begins digging.

Is the meteorite genuine? If not, who has faked it and why? Who calls the shots for the elite soldiers after Rachel and the scientists? And how dodgy is Senator Sexton?

The plot whips along quite nicely and Brown does a good job in making the tension build up throughout. There are enough thrills to keep you going and by using quick, short chapters Brown keeps it moving so you find yourself racing along and ignoring some of the book’s flaws.

And there are quite a few. There’s a lot of scientific blather delivered through heavy handed dialogue and the characters are underdeveloped. Even the lead Rachel is a shallow, hastily created figure. Aside from a fear of water, a dead mother and a grudge against her dad she has nothing to her and the romance that develops with another character doesn’t feel right. It springs up so quickly and under such pressure that the bloke’s feeling that he can finally move on from his dead wife feels stupidly premature.

Incidentally a memory of his conversation with his wife is so cheesy and TV movie like it actually made me laugh aloud.

It won’t change your life and I doubt it will stick with me but it’s a gripping yarn and passes the time well enough. I blazed through it rather quickly and despite some dialogue that makes you roll your eyes it’s an engaging and gripping thriller. I was hooked in early and involved in the adventure, and am grateful I had it to help pass the time on an extremely boring shift.

Verdict: Brown isn’t the best writer but he does know how to create tension and keep the reader hooked. The pacing is done well and the central conspiracy involving enough that you forgive some of the failings and go along for the ride. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.