Film Review: ‘Nowhere Special’

I’ll warn you right now that if you are in possession of a heart, this will be a difficult film to watch! If you’re a parent you’ll be in trouble too. And then you find out that it’s based on real events! ‘Nowhere Special’ is easily one of the saddest films that I’ve ever watched, but it is nothing short of a masterpiece too and I would implore you to watch it, safe in the knowledge it’s likely to stay with you for a while.

John and Michael live in Belfast. John is a single parent, bringing up son Michael after his wife just upped sticks and walked out on them shortly after Michael was born. We’re never given a real reason as to why. Michael though, is perhaps the cutest kid you’ll see all year and he clearly loves his daddy, which given the set up of the film, makes it all the more difficult to cope with. The love they have for each other is very clear right from the start, but as we’re drip fed more information, it becomes apparent that all is not well. Prepare yourselves for tears and what is very much an unhappy and uncertain outcome!

James Norton plays John, a single father and a window cleaner, who struggles every day to protect his young son Michael from the harsh realities that the both of them are faced with. As the film moves on we are slowly allowed into John and Michael’s world as the truth about John’s future becomes clear. It’s obvious from fairly early on that something is wrong, but we’re left guessing as to what exactly that is. Whatever it is, Michael is at the heart of John’s thinking in the matter simply because he isn’t going to be able to be there to protect Michael’s future.

‘Nowhere Special’ is a beautifully crafted film. We focus on the love between a father and son while becoming ever more conscious of the distance that will be cruelly put between them. Because of this, as an audience we almost can’t fail to be affected and wholly invested in the characters. It could be argued that you’ll want to protect Michael just as much as his father does, but ultimately it’s something that none of us will be able to successfully achieve, such is the sadness and inevitability of the situation.

The film deals with a truly horrible and emotive subject matter with a particularly light touch, so that while ‘Nowhere Special’ is a tear jerker, there are never the in-you-face moments designed to elicit tears. The camera may linger on a facial expression or the dialogue may hint at what is going to happen to both John and Michael, but there’s never any outlandish attempt to shock or sadden the viewer. The actual identity of John’s problem is never fully revealed and Michael’s fate is drip fed to us by a series of scenes where he, John and a social worker spend time with unfamiliar characters, who it turns out, are all strangers to John and his son.

I’d thoroughly recommend watching ‘Nowhere Special’ but with the proviso that you prepare yourself for the sadness that ensues. A heart-breaking story, but a simply brilliant film. I’d give ‘Nowhere Special’

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Gig Review: Rich Hall at The Leadmill in Sheffield

Wednesday, middle of the week and two stupidly busy people have taken the bold decision to go out. Not just to go out, but to go out having made a 45 minute journey down the M1 to Sheffield in order to do so. And on a school night as well! They don’t get out much either and when they do they tend to aim for a weekend, so being out on a school night had better be worth it! Over to you, Rich Hall.

Walking towards The Leadmill I’ve got the familiar pre-gig nerves. I won’t be on stage or anything, but I always get a bit nervous around big groups of people. Gigs make me additionally nervous because, despite my vintage, I’m still really self conscious. What if I fall over in a rush of people? What if everyone thinks my t-shirt’s shit? Rational types of fears, you know?

I’d forgotten about the calming effect of certain places though and as we pass through the front doors of The Leadmill and head towards the turnstile and the ridiculously slim door that takes you through, it all disappears.

Even though I’m a long time fan of Rich Hall, I’ve never actually seen him live. No idea why, but it’s certainly not a deliberate choice. Just one of those things, I guess. I know I could list bands that I love that I’ve just not gotten round to seeing too. Tonight, I don’t quite know what to expect. I know that Rich will come on and do a stand up set for the first hour or so and I also know that after a short break he’ll be back on with his Hoedown band. And, as someone who would gladly roll out every stereotype in the book if I was asked about country music, here’s where a bit of a problem lies.

The country music side of things almost swung the vote as to whether or not we’d come tonight. We had the tickets, but had an awful lot on in terms of work and personal stuff and to be honest, the thought of sitting through an hour of country and western music, nearly had me sat in an armchair in defiance 45 minutes north of Sheffield. (That’s defiance as in an emotion. Defiance is not a place 45 minutes north of Sheffield).

I’m now so, so glad we decided to come out instead of staying home.

Rich being Rich he ambles on stage, having given himself a fairly downbeat intro. Just the sight of him boosts my mood! From this point on it’s all set at an dawdling kind of pace and sometimes in a rambling kind of direction. But it’s fantastic.

Rich tells jokes and tales about all manner of subject matter. From Donald Trump, to budgeting and health care, right the way through to various places and accents in England that he’s well aware of. He’s clearly done his homework too as he opens with some observations about Sheffield taken from reading the local paper, The Star. It’s fair to say that this goes down brilliantly and from the moment he sets foot on stage, he’s got the audience on his side.

There are tales about the perplexing differences between Americans and British people and our non-linear way of thinking as well as combine harvesters and how they link to how a Tory MP might have mistakenly looked at porn in the House of Commons. There’s also a fantastic story about Rich’s trip to Buckingham Palace. And if you didn’t know, he’s also unearthed an improbable link between Morgan Freeman and the American actress Ashley Judd. Everything here is laugh out loud funny and all of it smattered with a liberal helping of curses.

By the time Rich has done about twenty minutes of stand up I’m sold on the idea of the hoedown. I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? Maybe a 13 minute song about a dead pet, but I figure I can get through that.

There’s a fifteen minute break between Rich strolling off at the end of his stand up set and the Hoedown and then, on come the Hoedown band to start us off with a little bit of country riffing before Rich himself joins them.

I have to confess that Rich Hall’s Hoedown is a revelation to me. This is not a morose hour of dead pets and droughts (look, I was trying for some alliteration, alright? I have no idea if either of these things crops up in regular country an western). This is more comedy, but with a country twist. And it’s clever stuff too. Not only does Rich come up with a song about Sheffield, but there’s lots of audience participation where he’ll have a little chat with someone in the front row and then get a few things about their lives into a song, more or less on the spot.

Now, I’m not daft enough to realise that there’ll be song templates in use here, but I’m still left admiring the skills involved. And it’s still endlessly funny! Two sections stand out tonight and they both involve the audience. Firstly, there’s what we’ll call the Kieran Edge section where Rich asks a few questions of a lad in the front row – Kieran Edge, don’t you know – and then skillfully weaves him into the set, including a song that’s sort of about him and even a guest vocal slot for the man himself later on too. There’s also a section – and this has to have been off the cuff – where another bloke in the front row, named Sid, turns out to b a musician and is then invited to come up and play guitar for a song. And Sid does a cracking job, let me tell you, while Rich watches on from the side of stage clearly enjoying this twist, but slightly bemused all the same. I find myself tapping my foot, laughing along and ever-so-slightly wishing I too had a cowboy hat.

The evening ends with the interruption of a country song for a burst of Lynrd Skynrd and some gunfire courtesy of Kieran Edge again and some rednecks from the Hoedown Band’s brief tour of some southern states in America – you had to be there! It sums up the hilarity and sheer sense of good fun of the night though. Where else could you be included in a country song and then get asked to stand up and fire an imaginary pistol at the guitarist at a gig? Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Rich Hall’s Hoedown, coming to a venue – maybe – near you right up until September. I’d heartily recommend that you get out to see him as quick as you can!

https://www.ents24.com/uk/tour-dates/rich-hall

As a post script to this review, I’d like to both show my support for The Leadmill and in my own small way, hopefully publicise their fight against closure. I’ve posted a link below that will tell you all about it as well as the relevant hashtag should you want to protest via social media.

From my own personal viewpoint The Leadmill and small venues like it simply cannot be allowed to close. They’re the thriving, beating heart of local entertainment and the places where many an act will find their feet, hone their craft and give some of the best performances that they’re ever going to give.

I live in Leeds, but me and my wife have been going to The Leadmill for years, seeing countless bands and comedians. I could bang on about the place for another few thousand words, but it’s easier just to tell you that it’s just a fantastic venue. There’s nothing flash about the place and it’s not some kind of enormodome where you might have the misfortune to squint from a distance at what you’re told is Ed Sheeran, having payed three figures for the privilege. The Leadmill is small and intimate, the people are welcoming and the atmosphere is always electric. Spit and sawdust spring to mind, but you’d never actually find any! From the turnstile to get in, the brilliant bar and of course the venue itself, it’s just perfect in it’s own special way. Everyone seems happy to be there.

On our most recent visit – the one you’ve read about above – we followed a couple of women down the street and into the venue. They were chatting about whether or not they were in the right attire for a comedy gig (I’m not sure what the right attire would be, unless you’re dressed like some kind of North Sea fisherman in order to save your clothes from the tears of laughter you’re exepcting) and as we got to the doors they came to the following conclusion.

“Aah, doesn’t matter really. Leadmill, innit?”

We don’t need a multitude of reasons to save The Leadmill. Let’s do it because… “Leadmill, innit?”

#WeCantLoseLeadmill

Please click the link below and sign the petition to save The Leadmill!

https://leadmill.co.uk/2022/04/20/help-save-the-leadmill-please-sign-our-official-e-petition/

Book Review: Big Game by Dan Smith

How do we measure manliness? What is it that we do that tells the world, ‘yep, he’s a man now’? Different cultures would give different replies and different definitions. Some would say it comes with a certain age, others a certain responsibility. For 13-year-old Oskari, it’s about something very different indeed.

Oskari lives in a rural hunting community in Finland where tradition is king. And today, tradition dictates that in order to be declared a man, he must venture out into the forest and kill a wild animal. When he returns back to the ominously named Place of Skulls with his quarry, then he will be a man. What a way to celebrate your 13th birthday!

From the very start of this novel you get the feeling that this manhood business could be a bit of an uphill struggle for Oskari. He seems like a nice kid (which in itself could be viewed as a bit of a barrier to becoming a man) but the more we read, the more we discover that the odds here are thoroughly stacked against him.

Firstly, Oskari’s dad is pretty much the village hero, having killed a bear when it was his turn to enter manhood. I mean, a bear! How do you follow that? As a man who jumped firmly skyward when a tiny mouse ran over his foot a couple of weeks ago, I think I’d be taking a net and looking for the odd stickleback or butterfly and just accepting that the village didn’t really see me as much of a man! But Oskari – who early on declares himself the best hunter in the village – is determined to live up to his dad’s legacy.

However, when we join him on an ultimately fruitless solo hunt at the start of the novel, it becomes clear that he’s going to struggle. With a deer in his sights and conditions almost perfect, his shooting is so weak that the arrow simply bounces off its prey. Later, he is sniggered at by the other boys at the start of the hunt and then, when he receives the ceremonial bow, he finds that it’s so big that he can’t even fire it properly. Maybe this manhood thing is going to take a little while longer.

Tradition is tradition though and Oskari and his father are determined that he’ll have his day. So, after a faltering start and with little confidence left, he heads out for a night in the forest.

‘Big Game’ tells the tale of Oskari’s night in the forest and his quest to be viewed as a man by his peers and the elders of the village. Starting off at the tradtional meeting place, The Place of Skulls, Oskari ventures off into the trees determined to prove himself. However, he could never have predicted what lies ahead.

Oskaris’ coming of age is dramatic to say the least. And while it’s certainly far-fetched, the story makes for an exciting read as he stumbles over a manhunt and then battles to bring something home that will not only prove that he’s a man, but arguably save the Western world in a quite remarkable twist.

However remarkable and maybe even a bit silly the action is, Dan Smith has written an excellent book. After all, if we can’t drift away into something or somewhere beyond imagination with books and films, then what’s the point? So it would be churlish to quibble about the details here. Better to simply suspend your disbelief, pick up the book and read on.

The action here is fast and fairly extreme as Oskari is charged with not only proving that he’s a man, but saving his rather unusual hunting trophy from the grasp of a group of highly trained, professional killers. But Oskari has the local advantage. This is his territory, his hunting ground, he has decades worth of historical knowledge; better still though, this is his day! Nothing is going to be allowed to get in the way of Oskari becoming a man!

‘Big Game’ is a book that is full of action and packed with twists. Whether you’re of the age that it’s aimed for – tweens and teens – or a fully fledged, should-know-better-than-to-read-this-kind-of-thing adult (which in some people’s opinions I will be) this is a real page turner and in fact, more than anything, it’s just good fun.

I would absolutely recommend ‘Big Game’ to you. Yes, it’s pretty improbable. Yes, some of the characters are almost cartoonish and yes, there’s very little chance of anything like this ever actually happening. But it’s undoubtedly well written, well researched and in Oskari, has the kind of character that you can’t fail to root for!

I give ‘Big Game’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Book Review: ‘I Saw a Man’ by Owen Sheers.

In my job as a teacher there are times when, at a parents’ evening, there is very little to say. I will jokingly tell the parents of a particularly wonderful child that this could be a very short appointment. There are no targets, there are no complaints…their child is a pleasure to teach. Then I try to string this our over at least a few minutes, so that I can truly feel like I’ve done my job for the night and that, for the parents, there was a point in coming out. And it’s a bit like that parents’ evening appointment with this novel. I literally can’t think of a bad word to say about it, but just telling you it was great would make for a terrible review.

I fell in love with ‘I Saw a Man’ from the very first page and my work as an English teacher was immediately at the forefront of my mind as I found myself thinking about how I could use some of the description from the first couple of pages in a lesson. Sometimes, it’s hard to switch off from the job! However, as a reader I found myself lost on the fringes of Hampstead Heath – somewhere I’ve only ever heard scurrilous rumours about – within a couple of pages of Sheers’ prose. In short, I was immediately hooked and then desperate to share this writing with not only friends and colleagues, but my students too.

The story here revolves around Michael, a writer and widower who moves into the neighbourhood in order to make a fresh start. On the surface, it’s all going fairly well. Life has an element of normality and he’s struck up a friendship with a young, professional family – Josh and Samantha Nelson and their children- who live in the house next to his apartment block. However, grief is never far away and it feels like any ‘moving forward’ will be done in glacial inches, rather than at any real pace. He follows a humdrum daily routine, sees his friends often but his writing seems to have stagnated. Michael is existing, but little else.

The narrative here jumps in and out of the present day to the back stories of the three main protagonists, at will. And in actual fact, the primary part of the action unfolds in what feels a little like real time as we inch forward through Michael’s call to his neighbours’ house. No one is home, but something is not quite right and Michael feels that he needs to investigate. He shouldn’t be there. He knows this as well as we do and yet he keeps on creeping through the house, all the while leaving the reader more than a little on edge. He senses that something is wrong and we know that it is, yet when the devastating event that will change all of their lives occurs none of us would have guessed what it was that would actually happen that day.

What happens to Michael is shocking. But it’s what he does next and the dilemma that it leaves him with that produces such a superb thriller. He can’t move on, but he can’t fall any further backwards either. Michael finds himself in a self inflicted purgatory and yet he’s actually done nothing wrong at all. As a reader I found myself constantly changing the advice that I’d give him, the actions that I’d take if I had found myself in his situation. And yet, I never thought I had a solution.

Michael’s story contains elements that we hope we’ll never face ourselves. Not necessarily in the specifics of what happens, but in the kind of dilemmas that you might face while knowing all along that there isn’t really a right decision to be made. And then, just when you suspect that there might be a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel, the old adage of trouble coming in threes is proved right and there’s another terrible twist in the tale.

‘I Saw a Man’ is brilliantly written. The suspense will seep into your thinking and keep you wonderfully hooked; worried for Michael, willing Samantha to find the strength to move on and feeling conflicted by whichever angle you take on Josh. Sheers’ writing is sumptuous and beautiful and there were plenty of times during reading where I just felt compelled to call out to Michael, be it to offer advice or just out of complete frustration. Maybe that’s a sign that I might have got a bit carried away, or maybe it’s just a sign of brilliantly written characters. I prefer to consider it the latter.

Mr. Sheers, we could have made this a very short appointment. Your novel was a pleasure to read.

I give ‘I Saw a Man’

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A tour round a brewery, lovely free beer and cracking company. What’s not to like?

There have been a fair few downsides to turning 50. Not least the idea of being 50. Seeing the number 50 on so many birthday cards was also pretty unpleasant. And people’s enthusiasm for pointing my age out has been not only kind of weird, but really annoying too. But, there’s nothing I can do about it, apart from adopt a showbiz age and I’m afraid I’m far too male and northern to start doing things like that.

With downsides often come upsides though. There’s been a veritable outpouring of love and affection from family and friends and even as someone who doesn’t like a fuss, it’s been wonderful to be on the receiving end of.

My wonderful wife has ensured that the celebration of turning 50 can be stretched out by buying me gifts that keep on giving. In short, as well as lots of other presents, she got me tickets for lots of gigs, plays and experiences, meaning that for once I have an extraordinary social life and will be kept busy for most of the year!

The first of my experiences came on Saturday gone as my wife had booked me and a friend on a tour of the Brinkburn Street Brewery in Byker, Newcastle. To say that I was excited would be an enormous understatement. So, let me tell you all about it.

My day started off at 10.15am on the Quayside in Newcastle, meeting my friend David. We were booked on the tour at 11am and thought, as we didn’t exactly know where the brewery was, we’d give ourselves plenty of time to get there and find it! Predictably though, we found it really easily, leaving ourselves 20 minutes to sit by the river in the winter sunshine; a brilliant start to any winter day.

Having walked straight into the wrong room at Brinkburn Street, we were shown downstairs to the bar and kitchen, where our tour would begin and end. Owner Lee was quick to head over for a chat and put us at our ease with a warm welcome to his brewery, involving telling us the first of many stories that he’d keep us busy with for our time at Brinkburn Street! A fantastic host! We were also joined by two other fellow Geordies who would be taking the tour and thankfully, we got along famously as like us, they were Newcastle fans.

Soon, we headed through to the brewery where one of the brewers talked us through the process of how our pint goes from being just oats and water to a wonderful glass of the stuff we love. He also made me feel incredibly old given that he looked to have discovered the elixir of youth someone between the hops and the water! Imagine my envy at one so young – just finished a Master degree, so mid-twenties at the most – being lucky enough to have this job!

As someone who really hadn’t the first idea of how to brew beer, I was fascinated by the process and the dedication that goes into making something I love so much. Every angle was covered and all questions were answered in real detail. And boy, when you’re nursing a thirst and waiting to go through to the bar and sample some beers, even a couple of questions can feel like a hell of lot!

We were treated like kings in the bar. This wasn’t just a list of beers that you had to try; we were given a choice of something like 12 beers and encouraged to vary our choices all afternoon. Our tour and tasting session was due to end at 1pm, but we were still being asked what we’d like at 2pm! It’s safe to say that we had a fantastic time!

The bar itself is a really eclectically decorated place. There are prints and posters everywhere you look that nod to all manner of music and film as well as plenty of local heroes, many of the black and white (footballing) variety, so there’s loads for you to see. I think – I forgot to enquire – that there are local prints available to but as well. You can also buy Brinkburn T-shirts too. Even the glasses were stylish and I kept meaning to ask if I could buy some, but ultimately the beer and the chat meant that this was another thing I forgot. Definitely next time though!

The furniture and decor veers between modern and bohemian and it really is a fantastic setting for an afternoon or evening relaxing with friends or family. If other exciting plans hadn’t have been on the horizon, I think we’d have stayed there a lot longer.

Brinkburn Street is a creative and imaginative brewery that seems very much forward thinking in its approach. Lee and his team are clearly passionate about what they do and it showed in the beers that we tasted. Depending on the beer we chose, we’d get either a third or a half pint, which obviously encourages you to take your time and consider your choices. My choices were as follows,

  1. Cushty, Cushy – an IPA session beer
  2. Byker Brown – a hoppy brown ale
  3. Wrong Side of The Pennines – an American IPA
  4. Ford Street – an American IPA
  5. Afternoon Tea – a spiced, herbed beer infused with Earl Grey tea
  6. Helter Skelter – a double hopped IPA

I remarked a few times on the fact that I hadn’t had a bad beer all day. This was the drink talking in every sense of the phrase. Firstly because every sample was delicious and different, but also because having had a decent amount to drink I was at that stage where you just keep repeating yourself for something to say! But it was wholly true too. And the other three members of our touring party said much the same. We all remarked on the fact that a lot of breweries brew beer that as ultimately pretty much the same thing, so that once you get beyond the interesting label and the alcohol strength, it’s just bland. But not Brinkburn Street. We found that each beer had something decidedly different about it, be it in the taste or the finish and as a result, it made for a cracking couple of hours of just sitting round, sampling wonderfully drinkable beers and putting the world to rights! Strikes me that’s what middle age was made for!

I’m not usually a brown ale drinker, simply because it’s not very tasty (and I know that might seem sacrilegious coming from someone from the home of Newcastle Brown Ale), but when one of our party recommended the Byker Brown, we all had one and it was an absolute revelation! I also loved the Helter Skelter, which at 9.2% was a bit of a scary prospect and although the strength was evident, it certainly didn’t take away from the fact that it was just really tasty! My favourite was the Wrong Side of The Pennines, which was just a tasty and very drinkable American IPA.

Just as good as the beer was the atmosphere. We were made to feel really welcome, with owner Lee occasionally popping over for a chat and serving us our beer too. The brewer that had initially shown us round – please forgive me for forgetting his name – also popped back on several occasions to tell us about what we were drinking and just check on how we were doing, making it a genuinely positive experience.

Brinkburn Street also do food, but as we were on a tight schedule we were unable to partake, but the choice looked great and some of the aromas were just lovely!

At the end of our time at Brinkburn, we stepped out – a little unsteadily, it has to be said – into the sunny afternoon air having both enjoyed ourselves immensely. As the headline suggests, a tour of the place, great beer and great company – you couldn’t fail to have the time of your life! I would highly recommend a visit to Brinkburn Street if you’re in Newcastle or if you’re planning a visit. Take a short walk along the Tyne towards the Ouseburn where a warm welcome and a cracking selection of beers awaits!

Huge thanks to Lee and his team, who as I’ve mentioned, were perfect hosts. We’ll definitely be back! Apologies, dear readers, for the lack of photos. I meant to take loads, but somehow got sidetracked by the fabulous beer…

Book Review: ‘Come Again’ by Robert Webb.

I’ve always been a sucker for a good cover. Be it when choosing a book or, particularly when I was a lot younger, picking up vinyl in a record shop, I was always attracted by an interesting image or simply something colourful that caught my eye. And while this hasn’t always worked out – boy, I’ve bought some absolute turkeys in my time just because they were a bit shiny – it’s often been a decent indication of a potentially brilliant buy. But it wasn’t just the colour or the image that grabbed my attention with ‘Come Again’; the author was of obvious interest too.

If you’re unfamiliar with the name, Robert Webb is best known as a comic actor who was one half of Mitchell and Webb, the pairing responsible for hit shows like ‘Peep Show’ and ‘That Mitchell and Webb Look’. When I picked up ‘Come Again’, I was also fully aware of Webb’s memoir ‘How Not to be A Boy’ and so I was almost duty bound to buy it in the end!

‘Come Again’ tells the tale of Kate Marsden, who’s job in her own words is ‘to re-write history’; she cleans up the internet profiles of prominent people and high profile business types. And now she’s discovered something about a major client that is so morally abhorrent, she simply can’t cover it up. What to do with the information creates a major dilemma. But this isn’t Kate’s biggest problem, by a long, long way.

A year ago, Kate’s husband, Luke died. They’d been together since Fresher’s Week at university; 28 years in all. Unsurprisingly then, and despite the best efforts of friends and family, Kate has not been coping. Time isn’t healing and she’s resorted to drink, which has led her to the point she’s now faced with. Suicide. But not before one last enormous act of vengeance.

‘Come Again’ is a fantastic read. As a story, it’s multi-layered. We have the question of whether Kate will live, alongside whether she’ll do the right, but highly dangerous thing and expose the moral shortcomings a shady billionaire and her boss, Charles. There’s the sub text of the relationship with her mother as well as that with her old university friends, all of whom have spent the year since Luke’s death reaching out to her in an attempt to get her to start living her life again. And then, when you thought there wasn’t room for another layer, there’s the twist in the tale. Now that will really put the cat among the pigeons…or in this case, the middle aged woman among the Freshers.

I’d hugely recommend ‘Come Again’. It’s brilliantly written with a fantastic storyline and believable, but complex characters. Certainly, if you went to university, this book will transport you right back there. But besides that, alongside the subject of grief being tackled with a wonderfully light touch, there’s a wicked sense of humour here too, as you’d expect I suppose from a comic mind like Webb’s. Kate herself is a character whos full of surprises and towards the latter stages of the novel she even becomes a bit of an action hero, so there really is something for everyone in ‘Come Again’. There’s even a happy ending, although even that has quiet a bit of a twist to it and will not be what you were expecting at the halfway point of the novel.

If you like a laugh, a bit of nostalgia, action or romance, ‘Come Again’ is well worth picking up. And it’s got a lovely shiny cover too! What’s not to like?

I’d give ‘Come Again’ by Robert Webb

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Review: Leeds Knights vs Raiders IHC

I first got the ice hockey bug on a holiday to Canada. We were in Toronto visiting friends and the local team, Toronto Maple Leafs were heading for the NHL play-offs. We watched a game at our friend’s house and I fell in love immediately with the pace, the action and the atmosphere (of the game, not my friend’s house).

On the same trip, we travelled across Canada to Vancouver and one night, as we were heading back to our hotel, there were thousands of people on the streets and cars everywhere honking horns with people hanging out of windows. It felt like the kind of scene you’d only witness in a film and it took a while to work out what was happening. However, the Vancouver Canucks had just qualified for their first play-offs in a long time and Vancouver was very much in celebratory mood! So, ice hockey had just added another attraction in terms of the fans.

From that moment on it was something that I always intended to make more of an interest, but due to any number of reasons, didn’t really manage to fulfill. Despite being a major city, Leeds didn’t have an ice hockey team and having to follow the progress of the Leafs from afar, I didn’t want to do it again for an English team, so my ice hockey watching plans went on the back burner.

And then, in 2019 as a new ice rink was built in Leeds it was announced that we would have an ice hockey team; the Leeds Chiefs. However, Covid put pay to my hopes of attending games and while I might have fairly regularly driven past the rink, I never visited. In the meantime there was a change of ownership and the team were re-branded as Leeds Knights.

On Saturday evening, thanks to my wife buying me tickets as a birthday present, we attended our first ever ice hockey match; Leeds Knights versus Raiders IHC a team based in Romford in Essex. The whole family went along.

I think I’m probably too old to get overly excited by anything at all nowadays, but I was definitely looking forward to going to Planet Ice. Ice hockey is very much an all-action sport and so I knew we’d be sure to be entertained. Other than that, I didn’t really know what to expect, which I suppose is a good thing!

Having parked up, we made our way to the ice rink, which was only a few minute’s walk away. This being a fledgling sport in Leeds, there wasn’t an enormous queue like you might find at the neighbouring Elland Road stadium on a matchday, and so we were ushered in and pointed in the right direction for our seats within a couple of minutes. After a quick glance at the merchandise stall we made our way up the stairs and into the stand above the rink. I’ll buy a scarf or a puck next time though!

The players were already warming up as we sat down and again, this was very different to what I was used to at football. Only the goalkeeper (the net minder?) seemed to do any stretching at all and the rest of the squad just seemed to skate around at high speed or whack pucks towards the net! A much more dynamic way to get warm and it was something I watched in complete awe. I’ve always been fascinated by people who can skate or ski as they just seem to make it look so effortless and incredibly graceful. I’ve never skated before – I mean, if you can avoid car crash, you’ll just avoid it, right? – but have skied and I never felt like I had any control whatsoever. I make young Bambi look poised.

A word of warning if you’re planning on going to watch ice hockey and something we discovered within minutes of our arrival. Watching ice hockey is not a warm experience! Luckily we were aware of this and attended with several layers of clothing in place, but it was still oddly cold. Not oddly as in, where’s all that cold coming from, but as in it was only really certain parts of me that got cold. I mean, I suppose my toes would be obvious, but my knees? My knees were almost frozen – maybe some hastily improvised knee pads will be an option next time! I’d brought gloves, but my hands never got anywhere near cold enough to wear them, so it was rather strange indeed.

As the face-off/puck drop got closer the mood in the arena built. A countdown clock will automatically raise tension anyway, but when the lights dropped and the opposition emerged from their dressing room to line up, things were beginning to get exciting. I’d expected entrance music and a burst of Leeds Knights racing onto the ice, but instead the announcer gave each individual a build up and they came out alone. After this was done, another surprise, as the teams and fans stood for a burst of the national anthem, which I really wasn’t expecting. And then, the puck was dropped and away we went!

I won’t attempt a match report, given the sheer amount of action and my somewhat ‘relaxed’ grasp of the rules, but suffice to say the game was a real experience. The action itself was almost non stop and even when there were stoppages for various penalties the PA would play a burst of music, meaning the whole crowd were kept positive. Actually, not the whole crowd. We counted 16 Raiders supporters and broadly speaking, this wasn’t a positive night for them. Leeds Knights dominated the game and ran out convincing 7-3 winners, with well over 30 shots at goal. And if 30 odd shots isn’t a great advert for hockey, then I don’t really know what you want our of a sport!

Each period of play is 20 minutes long, followed by a 20 minute break. I didn’t understand the need for such a break until watching the sheer speed of the game. The six players from each side on the ice are frequently rotated and it’s only when you watch the intensity of what they do that you realise why. There’s literally no chance for a breather in ice hockey. I have to say that it all combines to make the game utterly gripping.

We went with our two kids, aged 15 and 12, and both really enjoyed themselves. From the drum-led chanting of Leeds Knights fans, through the adrenaline of the game itself to the frequent bursts of music during breaks, my two – usually found attached to some kind of mobile device – were totally involved. The atmosphere was really family friendly too and smiles were very much the order of the day. There was none of the anger, edge and foul language that I associate with football, where I feel like I’m having to protect my kids rather than just relax and enjoy the game.

I’d thoroughly recommend a trip to the ice hockey, if you have a local team. It’s still very much a niche sport in the UK, but I reckon if you go along you’ll be hooked pretty quickly. We’ll definitely be back to watch the Leeds Knights before the end of the season, hopefully more than once. The four of us thoroughly enjoyed what we encountered and felt absolutely welcome alongside punters who were obviously far more regular watchers than ourselves.

Let’s go Leeds Knights, let’s go!

Book Review: ‘There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom’ by Louis Sachar

For the first few chapters of reading this book I really didn’t like Bradley Chalkers, which felt a bit mean given that he’s a primary school child. But, as a teacher, it felt like everything he did was calculated to disrupt and irritate and that Bradley didn’t want to do anything he was told to do. I’ve known a lot of Bradley Chalkers in my time in the classroom!

Then, the more I read, the more I started to understand him. The more I understood him, the more I felt sorry for him and wanted him to have more to his days than picking on girls, threatening to spit on his classmates and telling lies. But even Bradley’s lies and fantasies are endearing. Away from school he has an army of friends in the form of many of his toys and his conversations with this gang made me fall for him all the more!

I first heard about ‘There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom’ from Twitter. I think it was a recommendation from a comedian that I follow and the gist of his tweet was that everyone should read the book in order to enjoy the kindness inside. So, I bought the book. Actually, that’s a lie worthy of Bradley Chalkers himself. What happened was that I put the book on an Amazon Wishlist and my wife bought it for me! And what a choice it turned out to be!

Louis Sachar is undoubtedly more famous for his YA novel ‘Holes’ which is itself a wonderful read. I must admit, even though I’ve read a few of his other books I’d never even heard of this one. And while Twitter can be a real snake pit at times, it’s recommendations like this one that make me glad I ever logged on. ‘There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom’ is a kids’ book but it’s very much accessible to all. Whether you’re of elementary school age or left education a very long time ago it doesn’t matter; everyone should read ‘There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom’. Literally everyone.

The story follows the fortunes of Bradley Chalkers, an elementary school problem child. Bradley is a loner; at first glance mean, angry and disruptive and it seems like everyone has given up on him. Until he’s given an appointment with the new school councillor, Clara who immediately takes to him, helping to change his life for the better. But this isn’t a simple and formulaic happy ending kind of book. There’s plenty of resistance and self sabotage from Bradley along the way and this makes for a comical, yet often sad read.

This is essentially a good news story though. Despite his protestations and his resistance to change and the help of people around him, Bradley begins to make friends and live what we’d happily term a normal life. But the journey from problem child to golden child is never going to be easy. There are traps and trip hazards along the way and just when you think he’s finally cracked it, Bradley always seems to fall or fail.

‘There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom is a beautifully written book. Sachar’s characters, particularly Bradley, are wonderful and very easy to imagine. I always like a book where I feel that I can consistently ‘hear’ the characters whenever I pick it up, and this book has that quality in abundance. It’s a lovely, engaging story that will have you smiling, laughing and wincing in equal measure. So what are you waiting for? Get yourself a copy – or just put it on your Wishlist and wait – and fall just a little bit in love with Bradley and his life.

With a great big smile on my face and the realisation that this won’t make a jot of difference to sales of the book, I’d give ‘There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom’…

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Book Review: ‘Marriage Material’ by Sathnam Sanghera

Every now and again, a newspaper or a magazine that I read will publish a list of some kind of essential reads. It might be an end of year poll or just something that links to a particular time of year, but for as long as I can remember I’ve cut these lists up and stashed the cuttings elsewhere as books that I will mean to get around to buying and reading. ‘Marriage Material’ was published in 2013 and was found on such a list and then, years later, recovered from whatever receptacle it had been stashed in. I finally got round to buying it last year! And I have to say, it’s the kind of book that makes me thankful for my hoarding!

‘Marriage Material’ is a novel that is predominantly about families. From the love and the tenderness through to the irritations, the regrets and the great big falling outs. But it’s about much more than that too. Set largely in the West Midlands from the 1970s and 80s right through to the present day, the novel has culture, prejudice and division at its heart and for those of us who grew up in these times – if not the precise location – it makes for a really interesting read as well as one that brings back times that were a lot darker in their attitudes to anything or anyone that was deemed ‘different’.

The book tells the tale of Arjan Banga and his family with the story being told via a dual narrative taking place some years apart, before the two sides come together in an interesting twist. I loved the narrative style here as it left me not only trying to follow the story but also trying to work out the connection between the two. I think I was a little slow on the uptake, if I’m being honest, as it wasn’t actually that hard to work out, but for the first third of the book I must confess that I didn’t make the connection!

The family are immigrants to UK, so as the story is set in the 1970s and 80s, the book covers the ugly racism prevalent in our country at this time. However, I’d say that Sanghera treats these issues with a light touch and is prepared to write with humour when tackling some of the notable instances of prejudice in the book, such as the geographical inaccuracy of most of the insults hurled his and his familys’ way. It certainly puts the ignorance of his abusers into perspective and Sanghera’s observations made me smile on more than one occasion.

As the two narratives collide the story picks up pace. When his father dies Arjan heads home and immediately feels family pressure to take over the business. But he desperately doesn’t want to slip into the kind of stereotyped life he’s worked so hard all his adult life to avoid. However, seeing his mother again leads to him worrying about her health as well as her ability to run things and he’s is forced into a couple of decisions that will have a huge impact upon his future. One of these decisions is to track down a long lost relative and her impact on all of their lives has mixed, but ultimately positive results.

Rather than returning to his far more cosmopolitan life in London, he opts to stay at home to help run the business, as well as looking after his elderly mother. However, with a fiancé patiently awaiting him back in London and old acquaintances vying for his time in the Midlands, his life just gets more and more complicated. Inevitably, Arjan messes things up!

Marriage Material is a great read. Arjan’s life veers from one catastrophe to the next and as a reader you can’t help feeling sympathy, even when it seems abundantly clear that he must know he’s making a terrible decision. There’s a real humour – often quite dark – to the book and though at times it seems seems like Arjan’s life is spiraling out of control, you can somehow still laugh at his predicament.

In the end it all works out for the family. But not without the kind of scene that wouldn’t look out of place in a Tarantino film near the end. But just when you think it might all end in the kind of tragedy that none of us saw coming, there’s a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. A happy ending of sorts and certainly not in the way that you might have predicted when you first picked up the book!

A funny, engaging and just all-round excellent read, I’ll give Marriage Material

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Book Review: ‘The Honest Truth’ by Dan Gemeinhart

It might be argued that there’s no more honest truth than the fact that you’re going to die. I mean, I’d like to hope that – inspired by the theme tune to ‘Fame’ – I’m going to live forever, but you can’t escape the honest truth though, can you?

Mark is a young boy who’s facing up to a whole lifetime’s worth of problems, only they’ve appeared in the shape of just the one big problem. And with that problem comes his honest truth. It’s looking pretty much certain that he’s going to die. I mean, that’s a big old problem when you’ve not even made it to high school age . And Mark’s facing this problem…by running away to climb a mountain.

Mark has had cancer for most of his life. He’s battled to stay alive, battled to fight off the cancer and just be a normal child. But however many times he fights it off, it keeps coming back to have another go at him, as is the way with this horrible disease. In running away, he now hopes to just die and end all of the heartache for not just himself, but his parents and his best friend Jess. While he’s at it, he hopes to climb a mountain like his grandfather asked him to just before he himself died. In short, Mark is a boy who has simply had enough of the hand that life has dealt him.

The subject matter of ‘The Honest Truth’ isn’t what you’d call particularly nice. The death of a child, even a child with a terrible illness, is never pleasant. As a parent, having one of my children in hospital for any length of time and for anything at all, is a real nightmare. But Dan Gemeinhart writes about Mark’s situation with a wonderful balance of optimism, humour and of course a tinge of sadness. It all makes for a compelling story and right up until a few pages from the end, you’re never quite sure how things are going to work out for Mark.

‘The Honest Truth’ is probably what we should be referring to as a YA novel. But, even at my age, I still love reading novels from this genre. I have a bit of an excuse, given that I’m a high school English teacher. But regardless of what it is and where we squeeze it in, ‘The Honest Truth’ is an excellent story and at not much over 200 pages, a really quick one to get through too!

The story is intriguing as Mark runs away with the intention of dieing on the mountain, while dodging a missing person’s investigation that has been publicised on every format of media you can think of. As a reader I felt like any second now, he’d be found. I mean you’d imagine people would be on higher alert than usual keeping their eyes out for a little runaway, stricken with cancer. But, with the help of his dog Beau – the kind of amazing, loyal canine companion we’d all dream of having – he seems to stay at least one step ahead of it all, despite becoming increasingly sick and increasingly slow in his ‘escape’ to the mountain.

In all, ‘The Honest Truth’ is a just fantastic read and I was gripped from start to finish, torn between wanting Mark to get his final wish and wanting him to get caught and taken home to his parents and best friend, Jess. Whichever way it ended, it almost wouldn’t have mattered and surely that’s the sign of a truly wonderful story.

I’d give ‘The Honest Truth’

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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