“There’s Only Two David Beckhams” by John O’Farrell (2015)

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“Back when I was at school, the careers advisor asked me if I had any private hopes or dreams.”

My interest in sport is negligible. I’ve nothing against games, and even the Olympics is quite fun, but organised sport where billions upon billions of pounds are funnelled in to a handful of people running up and down a field – no chance. Football is that for me. I don’t understand the appeal. I don’t get the hours of coverage we need to explain why it matters that a ball did or didn’t go into a net. I don’t understand how teams can buy players like some kind of modern slave trade. I don’t get the appeal of a reheated meat pie and standing out in the drizzle, and I pray that if I ever have children, they don’t show any interest in the game. And yet, here I am, finishing up a book about football and admitting that it was all kinds of enjoyable.

Alfie Baker is a sports journalist who is the polar opposite of me in that he lives and breathes the beautiful game. We join him in 2022 at the Qatar World Cup, where against all expectations, England have made it into the final with a team that seems truly unbeatable. Alfie, however, has become convinced that there is more to this team than means the eye. Certain there is a scandalous secret behind the new line up, he finds himself threatened by higher powers in the government to shut down the investigation, but when the likes of Greg Dyke and Tony Blair start getting in touch, he realises that he really has uncovered something big. Perhaps it’s not just a coincidence that that midfielder performs just like David Beckham, and that defender uses the same techniques as Bobby Moore…

After years of wondering who the best English team would be, they’re finally here, but now Alfie is faced with a choice. All his life he’s wanted to see England win the World Cup – and they’re in the final against Germany, no less – but if he reveals the truth, it could see his dreams dashed. Will he choose love or duty? All’s fair in love, war and football.

From early on, you know exactly where it’s going, but you don’t mind. I’ve read John O’Farrell before and he’s effortlessly funny, no more so than here. I can’t pretend to understand every reference, and some of the prolonged scenes where there’s actually football being played and described in the painful detail that I can’t begin to be interested in are a bit much, but generally, this is a total riot, and not in the bad football hooligan way. The characters are daft, and the story weaves in real people with hilarious results. Packed with one-liners and full of silly ideas, it’s one of those books that I would press into many hands.

Some of the daftest stuff comes from the gap between the book’s publication (2015) and the current year (2020). O’Farrell has had to create the events of the 2018 World Cup, the 2016 and 2020 Olympics, and several other football championships to boot. (Question: why are there so bloody many?) He couldn’t have foreseen last year’s news that Russia wouldn’t be allowed to attend the 2022 World Cup, for one, but he does get a laugh from suggesting that the Vatican City finally field a team for the first time – only to beat England in their first outing.

It’s hugely satirical, pretty predictable, but too funny to dislike. It’s a love letter to a world that I will never be a part of, and there’s a lot in here about fairness, passion and patriotism, although the good kind. As Alfie himself says, “Patriotism is simple; you can be proud of anything and anywhere – just don’t ever use it to denigrate anyone else.” At the end of the day, that’s the best performance we can hope for.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Next Person You Meet In Heaven” by Mitch Albom (2018)

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“This is a story about a woman named Annie, and it begins at the end, with Annie falling from the sky.”

I rally against sequels a lot. More often than not they serve as a way for someone to cash in on a previously great story with a slightly worse story that wasn’t really needed. Of course there are exceptions – Toy Story 2 and Shrek 2, for example – but it’s a good rule of thumb. Sometimes we have to let stories standalone. The trouble is, of course, no story really is told in a vacuum. It links to thousands of others. Mitch Albom has used this technique to the full in the beautiful sequel to the truly excellent The Five People You Meet In Heaven.

In the original book, we focus on Eddie, an elderly war veteran who dies saving the life of a little girl. He ascends to the afterlife where he is met by five people who impacted his life and teach him a lesson he must learn from it. At the end of his novel, he takes his place in the queue to meet the girl he saved. This is her story.

Annie has just got married, but the marriage is doomed as within hours, she and her husband Paulo are in a devastating hot air balloon crash. Annie feels herself go under the anaesthetic when she gets to hospital, but she wakes up in the afterlife, meeting the first of her five people. She now undertakes the same journey as Eddie once did, meeting five people who changed her life, including the doctor who reattached her hand after it was lost in the accident, her strong, protective mother, and Eddie himself.

There aren’t many books that bring a tear to my eye, but this one certainly did. The original tale is one of my favourite books and while I’d not held out much hope, I think I’d always been curious to know what had happened to the little girl. I’ve always been a bit obsessed with the idea of sonder, that feeling that everyone you meet has their own story and a life as complex as your own, but you only get to play a part in a few of them. This book, and the previous, play that up to the max. Annie is a sweet person, not perfect, but more courageous than she lets herself believe and the sort of woman I would like to be friends with. It’s nice to see Eddie again, less grizzled than we first knew him. The story is by its very nature quite tragic, but like all the best books, hope still shines through.

That’s always what goodness boils down to – hope. There is always hope. Belief in an afterlife in itself is a hopeful act, and while I’m not religious and don’t really think there is anything after “this”, there are worse things to encounter on the other side than five people with important messages.

A beautiful, powerful story. I love it.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“Fox” by Anthony Gardner (2016)

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“As dawn broke over London, the sound of a horse’s hoofs echoed along Oxford Street.”

As the world continued to fall apart last week in a somewhat concerning landslide election victory here in the UK, I vowed that I’d give up on reading dystopian fiction until things had righted themselves again. I thought Fox might be a welcome distraction, realising only too late that it was just another dystopia. Nevertheless, I was committed and thus began one of the silliest adventures of modern times.

Foxes across Europe are spreading disease. The rabies-like epidemic is incurable and fast-spreading, and there is some concern that it’ll find a way to cross the sea and reach Britain where a paranoid Prime Minister has reintroduced fox hunting to cull the huge population of urban foxes that have caused so much damage in the cities that whole streets in London have caved in. While on a visit to China, the Prime Minister learns of a surveillance system called Mulberry Tree which allows the Chinese government to spy on anyone in the country. Under the guise of protecting the population from fox flu, the Prime Minister sees a way to get this technology into Britain, too.

Elsewhere, a Christian faction called the Brothers of Light are suspected of foul play, two animal rights activists are facing the consequences of trying to free a bear from London Zoo, Frank Smith is relishing his role as London’s Master of Foxhounds and believes that the flu has finally reached Britain, and a university professor has found out the truth regarding Mulberry Tree and is trying to smuggle evidence from China to a medical friend in Northumbria. That’s all still before we get to a lovestruck bureaucrat, two Chinese assassins, the beautiful missionary trying to escape China, and the innovative Pu Dong Pudding Company. As everyone races to their intended happy endings, their stories begin to tangle and merge and life will never be the same again for anyone.

There are so many threads in this novel that, at first, all seem to be so wildly disparate that you can’t begin to fathom what they’ve all got to do with one another. When they begin to come together, then, it gives one goosebumps. While some of the overlaps are down to sheer coincidence, most of them are not, and even though everyone has a very different goal in mind, it’s fun to watch them compromise and help one another in increasingly amusing ways. Gardner is also certainly a man who doesn’t let a plot thread hang. At first you think he has, but as the book winds down, three of them resolve themselves satisfactorily – one of them being something that I’d entirely forgotten about.

The ending, however, leaves a little to be desired. We see vaguely what has happened to the main characters in the interim, but the overarching story line regarding fox flu and the Mulberry Tree project remains a cliffhanger. Was a cure found? Are there other infected foxes in Britain? Is fox hunting banned again if the disease is wiped out? Does China stop using Mulberry Tree technology? We will never know for sure.

Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters. We can guess where it’s going, and we can hope that it’s in a positive direction. The story is still good and it’s tightly-plotted, with throwaway lines and characters suddenly becoming important later on. The writing itself is somewhat reminiscent of P. G. Wodehouse, and the whole thing is very British with a solid sense of humour and a good degree of farce. Some of the notions are amusing too, such as fox hunters having moved from the countryside into the inner cities, swapping horses for bikes as they seek out foxes around Marble Arch and Hyde Park. None of it makes fox hunting a more palatable activity, but it’s an amusing concept executed well.

While not what I was expecting – the dealings with fox hunters are just one small story of several overlapping ones – it’s still a fun read, proving that Orwell’s thoughts of a government that wants to watch everything its people are doing have never really gone away.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“In The Miso Soup” by Ryu Murakami (1997)

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“My name is Kenji.”

I’m always a little bit sad that I never had to write a dissertation at university. Having done a degree in Creative Writing, my final project was instead to write 15,000 words of a novel. I still wonder to this day what subject I would have written it on. I wasn’t yet a Christie lover, so she’s out, meaning I probably would have written something about the Mr Men’s approach to cultural norms. Because I don’t have my own, I’m always fascinated by what other people wrote their dissertations on, and I learnt earlier this year that one of my colleagues wrote hers on post-war Japanese fiction. After we’d compared notes on Kazuo Ishiguro, Genki Kawamura and Haruki Murakami, she asked if I’d ever read Ryu Murakami. So here I am.

Kenji is a young tour guide, specialising in taking visitors around the various sex clubs that make up parts of Tokyo’s nightlife. Just before New Year, he has been hired by Frank, an overweight American who wants to experience some of the seedier parts of the city. Frank, however, is unlike anyone Kenji has ever met, odd even by American standards, and Kenji begins to doubt the man’s authenticity. As they spend more time together, Kenji finds himself pulled down into a pit of evil where Frank reveals his true intentions, with the only hope of rescue in the form of Kenji’s girlfriend, Jun.

While it all starts off quite interesting, and Frank is immediately portrayed as an unusual man, there’s nothing that sets your heart racing to begin with. We are sucked in because Kenji can’t shake the feeling that there’s something very wrong indeed with Frank, and it’s only when it’s too late that we realise he was right. Comparisons to American Psycho are just, although it’s much shorter, and I found that even as someone who writes a good deal of gore into their stories, it’s somehow harder to read from someone else. The characters introduce us to a world unlike many of us in the West will ever experience or understand, where sex is a commodity sold far more openly than here. Kenji himself notes that while this sort of thing is taken for granted in Japan, and much of it is certainly illegal to some degree, no one in Japan actually questions why it happens, so they can’t really explain it to foreigners.

The writing is succinct and it’s a fascinating translation, with the whole thing feeling claustrophobic and intense. You join the characters in the dark, damp and cold back alleys of Tokyo, a city that always seems to be burning brightly with artificial lights and advertising hoardings, and everything feels like it’s encroaching on you. There’s an unrealness to it that leaves you unsure what’s actually happened, but whether it all really happened or not, you’re never going to be quite the same coming out the other side.

A shocking and staggering read.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“Kismet” by Luke Tredget (2018)

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“The bus to Kilburn is a long time coming, and while waiting Anna looks back and forth between two versions of the Edgware Road, the real and the digital.”

As the chronically single member of my friendship group, I’m the only one who has much experience with dating apps. Most of the people I know seemed to get in just in time and settled down before they could download. I’m not particularly a fan though, as it’s often difficult to maintain a conversation with someone when there’s no need to reply immediately and you can project whatever version of yourself on there you like. There’s no denying, however, that they have changed the dating landscape forever, and some people seem to become obsessed with them. Luke Tredget’s book, therefore, is very timely.

Anna is having a bit of a crisis. While her career is going from strength-to-strength, and she’s got a great boyfriend in Pete, her thirtieth birthday is inching ever closer, and she begins to doubt whether she’s really got what she wanted. Intrigued, she downloads Kismet, a dating app that matches you to people nearby, but to her dismay she finds that the app has been so successful in the last few years that there are barely any single people left. That is, until she meets Geoff. He’s quite a bit older than her and, while handsome, she wouldn’t normally consider him dating material, but Kismet has given them a match of 81, which is extraordinarily high.

She starts to question everything, not least her relationship with Pete which Kismet rates at 70. Surely if there’s an option to do better, she should take it? She’s become all the more nervous because she’s accidentally discovered that Pete is going to propose after her birthday dinner and she isn’t sure she’s ready for that yet. As she looks at her life and all the things she’s yet to do, the stability of everything crumbles around her, all for the sake of a simple number on a screen.

The cover quote says that this is the book equivalent of Fleabag, which is true in that it’s about a not particularly likeable woman showing agency regarding her sex life, but I would say otherwise that it’s not quite the same thing. It is, however, a hugely important book for the zeitgeist. We are so used to algorithms now telling us what we should like, do and be, that even when it comes to love we’re happy to pass over responsibility to an artificial intelligence that thinks we’re compatible with someone just because we’ve watched the same TV show. You only need to spend five minutes on a dating app to know that these numbers are mostly meaningless. For example, I just checked my rarely-used OK Cupid profile and have a 91% match with a girl, but the entirety of her profile is a single “I’ll fill this in later” and it seems to therefore be based on the fact we both think Paris is more romantic than a camping holiday, and an aversion to horror movies. Hardly enough to make me drop everything and run off to find her.

The book is a romance, but not many of the old cliches are in evidence, which is nice. Rather than being desperate to settle down with her partner, Anna is scared by the commitment of marriage, and the mistakes she makes with her job are not part of her “ditzy but charming personality”, but rather quite serious and have actual consequences. While superficially, she and Geoff are a good match, Tredget does a good job at dismantling the notion that we are better off with someone just because it’s better on paper. It doesn’t account for everything, as there are some things that even Amazon and Facebook don’t know for sure about us. Kismet is shown as a particularly advanced app, but with a lot of secrecy embedded into its functionality, and it works on a whole other level to Tinder and its kin, suggesting this is a slightly altered version of our world where technology has developed a little faster. The app is spooky, but the world seems obsessed by it, as Anna is frequently seeing news stories and adverts for it, implying it is a hugely influential piece of tech.

I enjoyed the book because it toys with that notion of finding “the one” and how we’re all imperfect people trying to find perfection. Tinder only works because you can swipe left with few consequences, as another face will be along in the blink of an eye. How many people have you rejected on dating apps that you’d probably actually have quite a good time with? Kismet makes the reader face up to the idea of being happy with what you’ve got, rather than constantly striving for something that you think will be better, regardless of whether or not it actually is.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“The Iron Bird” by Robert Woodshaw (2019)

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“Let me make one thing clear from the outset: I am a lappet-faced vulture, dear.”

Being one of those people who has a passing knowledge of the classics but hasn’t read most of them, it may come as no surprise that I’ve never actually read Animal Farm. Of course, I know what it’s about and I’ve actually seen a film version of it. As we all recall, it is an allegory for communism as told through a group of farm animals. Robert Woodshaw has taken the principle, shaken it out and injected a sense of modernity with The Iron Bird, the story of the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher as told through the lives of a group of zoo animals.

During the Second World War, young Bel-imperia Pinch, a lappet-faced vulture with dreams of being educated under the wise owls of the Cloisters, finds herself working begrudgingly for her undertaker father, assisting in his role as undertaker of Hesper House and Zoological Gardens. The fledgling knows there must be more to life than burying the dead, and when she meets someone who informs her that she will one day be greater than Chartwell, the elephant seal currently serving as Prime Exhibit, she prepares to develop a core of iron to achieve her goals.

Meanwhile, in 2010, an increasingly fragile Bel-imperia sits in a rarely-seen cage at the zoo, still taking audiences from curious animals and one particularly nosy human writer who wants to know all about her life. A new scent-marking contest is underway in the zoo and the incumbent Prize Exhibit, Ebenezer Bull, a half-blind rhino prone to charging in without thinking, is having his position threatened by the new leader of the Order of Carnivores, the slick smooth-coated otter Dale FitzClarence. Bel-imperia is sure that her time to return to the ranks is nigh, but with her health failing and her mind going, it will be a challenge.

Robert Woodshaw manages to bring what could be a very silly idea to life with great aplomb. Fast-paced and packed with superb characterisation, it’s an example of how to write animals without making them too human. Granted, they can do things that many animals can’t such as write, vote or perform religious ceremonies, but they’re all still done through the eyes and abilities of animals who have their own rules, culture and society. Here, it’s not impolite for a mother bird to regurgitate dinner for their chick, and carrier pigeons are used as the postal service. The novel has its own internal logic, and that’s often all I require.

Woodshaw also does a great job at translating politicians into animals, each one perfectly representing their human counterpart. The three major political parties – Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat – find themselves populated by carnivores, herbivores and omnivores, respectively. From Gordon Brown’s blind rhino, to David Cameron’s slick otter, and even Boris Johnson’s purposely-dishevelled polar bear, the characters feel rich and good fun, even if the people they’re portraying are less than sympathetic. Other jokes regarding this I particularly liked are the subtle nod to the sheep and goats of Norn Iron Farmstead, a reference to the Troubles of Northern Ireland (“Norn Iron” being exactly how “Northern Ireland” sounds in the appropriate accent) and the fact that the zoo’s equivalent of the House of Lords is populated by extinct creatures, a reference to the average age in the Lords.

Of course, questions are raised regarding how the animals are able to move so freely around the zoo, why dinosaurs and dodos still manage to exist but no human seems to have noticed, how the Prize Exhibit always gets to move into Dower House which appears fit really for humans rather than any of their kind, but somehow none of it matters. You just go with it and it all adds to the humour of the piece. While it is funny, and Woodshaw makes sure to use as many references to real world political parallels, often just as passing references (I’m sure there are many I didn’t get), it’s also curiously moving, and like in the film The Iron Lady, where Meryl Streep played Thatcher, you find yourself sympathising with her, even though she is, at the very least, one of the most divisive figures in recent British history.

The novel is a brilliant allegorical tale that should be a key text for anyone interested in recent history. I know I’m someone who complains that there aren’t enough new ideas these days, and many might think that the parallels to Animal Farm here means this counts as a “rehash”, but I happen to disagree in this case. In a lesser writer’s hands, perhaps this wouldn’t work so well, or would be more derivative. I couldn’t do it. Woodshaw has produced a book that sparkles with wit and warmth, and that’s not easy to do when you’re writing about a woman who, according to many, lacked basic human empathy.

Wonderful, thoughtful stuff.


Dexter is frustrated. Everywhere he turns he finds wedding invitations, housewarming parties and tables for two. While all of his friends have now coupled up, he remains single, not believing in society’s insistence on finding “The One” and just wishing his friends were available to hang out more often. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available from Amazon and Waterstones. Being single isn’t the end of the world.

“Z” by Therese Anne Fowler (2013)

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“Picture a late-June morning in 1918, a time when Montgomery wore her prettiest spring dress and finest floral perfume – same as I would wear that evening.”

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a performance of the play The Lost Generation, a three-hander about the tumultuous relationship between Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald. Long a fan of their hedonistic lifestyles if not their writing (I’ve still never read any Hemingway or Mrs Fitzgerald, and only a couple of Mr Fitzgerald), I was inspired to finally pick up Z, which tells the story from Zelda’s point of view.

Not long before her eighteenth birthday, fun and flirty Zelda Sayre meets the handsome and confident F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s 1918 and Scott is about to head off to join the war in Europe, meaning Zelda isn’t sure whether to accept his sudden offer of marriage, even though she knows she’s never felt like this about another man. When the war ends, Scott stays after all and just two years later, the two are married and begin their journey to define a generation.

As Scott gains success and recognition for his writing, Zelda finds herself living in his shadow and her once exuberant personality and zest for life begins to wane. They drink too much, they argue, and Scott becomes increasingly controlling and obsessed with his new friend Ernest Hemingway, who Zelda can’t stand. There is some happiness and love in their relationship, but very little stability, and Zelda must work out who she is in this modern world and reclaim her own independence once more. As they pass through various cities and countries, with Scott always working on the next novel (read: drinking heavily), the couple – along with their daughter Scottie – begin to change and we wonder if their lives are as glamorous as history has recorded.

As it’s based on the true story of Scott and Zelda, how it ends is a foregone conclusion, but I won’t reveal it here in case you don’t know what befell them. We hear a lot about the Fitzgeralds as the couple who made the 1920s what it is. They are a symbol of the Jazz Age, Prohibition and the excesses of the interwar years. Myth states that he was worshipped as a literary idol, and she flirted her way through the entire Western world, but the version presented here by Fowler is much different and far closer to the truth. Zelda was hamstrung by Scott’s ego and he dominated her life, dissuading her from following her own goals of being a professional dancer because they didn’t fit in with what he wanted to do. Perhaps this is par for the course given that at the time men did have much more say in relationships than women, but Zelda is not your average 1920s woman (considered by many to be the “first flapper”) and doesn’t like being corralled and beaten into submission. And yet, on a couple of occasions where Scott’s abuse turns physical, Zelda still seems prone to blaming herself.

Scott, himself, was prolific and wrote stories for magazines and screenplays for Hollywood, but his novels were few and far between and he didn’t really achieve the success and introduction to the literary canon until after he’d died. Because the story is from Zelda’s perspective, it’s hard to know if Scott’s monstrosity has been played up or is an accurate reflection of his personality, because he comes across as singularly unpleasant. He is selfish and domineering but simultaneously thin-skinned and weak, breaking down in tears whenever things don’t go his way or he doesn’t get to be the centre of attention. Depending on which side of the argument you’re on, there are people that say Scott ruined Zelda’s life, but also those who say that Zelda ruined Scott’s. I know which side I come down on, easily.

It is nice for Zelda to be thrust into the spotlight for a change. She also wrote a novel, Save the Last Waltz, and was a great painter and dancer, but to this day she struggles under the reputation of simply being “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife”. It’s fantastic and fascinating to see her given some agency and learn about the tragedy that she went through.

A compelling and startling exploration of the Jazz Age and how history likes to put a neat gloss on everything.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

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