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: See Them Die by Ed McBain

I decided to return to the 87th Precinct, and I’m glad I did as this is a belter. 

Love the variety of covers for the same book

It ditches the usual formula of starting with a body being discovered and instead sets the scene on a hot, sunny street. The characters are introduced slowly; a sailor, a cafe owner, a punk kid, the cops. Then it transforms into a tense stand off between the police and a cornered criminal. 

It’s aided by McBain’s knack for evocative description and character, a keen eye which layers in background for all the players in the tale. It’s also quite interesting to see McBain, through the interaction of two of the Precinct’s detectives, loutish Parker and Puerto Rican Hernandez. The story is set in the Puerto Rican neighbourhood, and the racial tensions bubble away in the background and in the different characters. 

It adds a different level to the book, and allows an exploration of how the community reacts to the stand off and the criminal involved. To some he’s a hero. To others a disgrace. Even the cops differ on their view of how he wound up there.

The tension ratchets up and the different subplots unfold nicely throughout, with McBain cleverly acknowledging what would be a happy ending before stating “but that’s not what happened “. The finale, a tense, bloody climax to the siege is handled with simple brutality and manages to be satisfying and frustrating.

Throughout the writing is filled with the usual wit, toughness and intelligence that I’ve come to expect from McBain and while the slang and some attitudes are dated, it still holds up as a gripping, enjoyable read with depth and empathy beyond it’s pulpy trappings.

Verdict: Another excellent addition to the series, this is an incredibly absorbing quick read which hooks you in. McBain builds tension throughout and crafts realistic characters. A cracking read. 8/10.

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: Twelve Grand by Jonathan Rendall

I bought this book because I’d seen a documentary inspired by it, where Rendall was given £12k by Channel 4 and had to gamble it all away. It was quite interesting, and I liked Rendall’s sarcastic, louche presence.

This book sees him get a similar offer from a publishing company, but instead of being a true story this is a work of fiction, albeit with the bets and amount being true.

The hero is a fictionalised version of Rendall, an alcoholic writer who at the start receives bad news from the doctor. He then gets the offer, and while he debates not doing the job, he realises that if he doesn’t win the £12k back he’ll have to write the book he isn’t fussed on.

Rendall jumps between his gambling efforts and his past, stories of school and lost love, which intertwines with the present. He meets his teenage love in a New Orleans strip club as a young journalist, and then at the end tracks her down in Vegas.

It’s a dark, sordid book in some ways. The narrator drinks and smokes throughout, planning to con his publishers and make off with the money. He visists depressing casinos, dive bars and strip clubs, accompanied by unscrupulous friends and shattered strangers.

It’s extremely well written though and I liked that the narrator frequently uses abbreviations and acronyms, and that the more out of it gets the more these slip in. Some sequences are made of short, almost incomprehensible abbreviations, as though based on a drunk’s scrappy notes.

I also liked that given that the book takes place in 1997 there are references to a pre-fall Gary Glitter, and that Princess Diana’s death influences our writer. The national mourning gives the cynical, closed off narrator a chance to weep, a release valve for all the darkness that lurks within.

There’s dark comedy throughout, and through it all there’s something engaging about our narrator, who despite his at times selfish, bleak view of life is likeable enough. Swinging from defeatist gloom to optimistic daydreaming, he is an accurate representation of an addict and gambler. Sure he is in control, and has got the balance, unaware of how close to the brink he teeters.

I really loved it, the sort of dark, enthralling read that makes the underbelly of gambling life both bleak and oddly enticing.

Verdict: Might be too dark and grim for some, but I liked the down and dirty vibe, the striking writing and the narrator. A good read, and a glimpse into addiction, loneliness and regret. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO. 


Well Read? Better to Just, Well, Read

The othet day I was reading the paper and there was a list slotted among the articles. Compiled by a website it was a list of books that people lie about having read.

I can see why people lie about what they read, or at least I used to. When I was younger I would worry more about what others thought of me.

As I’ve gotten older it’s been less important to me. I’m not saying I’ve cast off insecurity and self consciousness entirely, but the anxiety of being seen as stupid or uncultured has diminished.

Take the list above, there was a time when I would have stated that I had read 9 of those. But now I’ll fess up. I’ve read 6. And parts of three.

I managed to slog through The Fellowship of the Ring, helped by my decision to skip all the songs, seriously Tolkien was not a great poet. But a few chapters into The Two Towers I decided life was too short and I’d just wait for the movie. I don’t see anything embarrassing about admitting that I find the man’s writing painfully long winded and dull. He saps the energy from action sequences and in a thousand words makes you care less about a character than some can do in a page. 

I was probably too young when I tried to read The Diary of Anne Frank and at some point I’ll have another go, and be kinder on the teenage narrator. 

I was a kid and I found the early stages self absorbed, but I think as someone who grow up to share my opinions online I can see why writing things down helped her (and not want to throw stones in my lovely glass house). And like I said, be more forgiving of a writer who wrote for herself in an immensely difficult time.

The final one I could claim to have read is George Orwell’s  1984. I’ve taken two tilts at it, but never got to the end. It’s undoubtedly clever, filled with great ideas and foresight. But for me it lacks heart, the characters don’t engender warmth and I grew bored. It was a story I cared little for taking place in an interesting and well crafted world, but you need a book to grip you. You need to care, and I didn’t. 

I’ve since become a fan of Orwell’s nonfiction writing but can’t bring myself to rally for a third assault on his most famous work.

Here’s the thing, nobody should feel like they have to lie about what they’ve read. Read what you like. 

I used to read those “100 books you MUST read” lists, and take pride in how many I scored. But I care less for them. 

Too many books I love don’t feature. Ed McBain, World War Z, Roald Dahl, A Song of Ice and Fire, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bernard Cornwell, Terry Pratchett- you don’t see them there.

And they always feature Charles bloody Dickens. Gods, has a writer ever been hyped so much. I struggled through Great Expectations as an A Level English Literature student, a slow torturous read lacking incident or excitement in every rambling, dreary page. It holds an unshakeable place on my list of least favourite books.

I’m convinced that Dickens makes these lists not because those asked genuinely love the books but because they feel they should. His books are regarded as classics, he’s a titan in English literary history, so one of his books at least must be there. And someone will write about them because they want to look cultured.

Balls to that.

You like the books you like. Don’t let some sneering snob make you feel bad because you prefer Dahl to Dickens, Sue Townsend to Tolkien, that you threw Moby Dick aside three chapters in for Bridget Jones. It’s better that you’re enjoying reading, and spending your hard earned on what you want not what you’re told you should be reading.

People complain that we read less, but then they slag off what they read. And why is “classic” status never questioned? 

Never let someone make you feel bad for not having read something. Ask them if they’ve read your favourite book, and tut if they say no. Or arrange a cultural exchange. You both might discover a new book you like.

Incidentally the one book I haven’t read on the list is Jane Eyre, which has filled space on my Kindle for quite some time. Must give it a go sometime.

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. 


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.