Book Review: ‘Gone Fishing – Life, Death and The Thrill of The Catch.’

Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse have been entertaining the nation for the best part of 30 years. With classic comedy credits like ‘Vic Reeve’s Big Night Out’, ‘Shooting Stars’, ‘The Fast Show’ and ‘Harry Enfield and Chums’ to name but a few, it’s safe to say that the pair are national treasures. Both are people that I admire hugely.

So when they paired up to make a show about fishing, the subject matter…well, it didn’t matter. I was onboard immediately. The result was another cult classic in BBC2’s ‘Gone Fishing’ and the book is borne out of the show.

‘Gone Fishing’ is a great read and as you’d expect from its writers, it’s full of laugh out loud moments. But it’s much more than just a good laugh. The book details the pair’s friendship in a genuinely touching way, while also discussing health, happiness and of course, the art of fishing.

By the far the best parts of the book for me were the sections where Bob and Paul discuss their friendship of over 30 years. For those of you that don’t know, both of them have suffered from heart disease in recent years and both underwent open heart surgery as a result. And when Bob felt he couldn’t go on, it was Paul that reached out, offering to take him fishing. And not long after a TV show was born!

It was the heart health angle that really piqued my interest in the show. Having gone through heart surgery myself a few years back, felt I could empathise a little bit. And so, when this aspect of both mens’ lives was discussed in the book I found myself more than a little choked up.

The book makes quite an emotive start. First we’re introduced to both men, their history with heart problems and then their friendship. The realisation that both could have died felt like quite a revelation for me as a major fan. And the passage when Bob actually discusses the very real thoughts that he had that he was facing up to his own imminent death, makes for a powerful read. It certainly felt like a side of one of my heroes that I’d never witnessed in such detail before. It was discussed on the show, but it felt like the book gave the subject a slightly greater depth.

The book ploughs on; a mixture of humorous anecdotes, explanations of aspects of the show, the locations for the fishing and the episodes as well as some real insight from Paul Whitehouse on how to actually fish. And while this might sound a bit dull to some, I’d say don’t knock it until you try it. Certainly both men have quite an infectious enthusiasm for their hobby and while it didn’t make me want to return to fishing – a hobby I dabbled with as a lad – it did shed light on why grown men stand on riverbanks in all weathers for untold hours on end.

As we move further through the book Paul guides us through some quite encyclopedic knowledge of various species of fish, as well as the more ecological side of the sport. This felt like hard going at times, but it certainly never made me want to put ‘Gone Fishing’ down. By the end, Bob has thrown in some of his favourite recipes for cooking on the riverbank, spattered with his trademark wit and wisdom and in truth, you’ve got all of the knowledge you need to get out there and fish. It’s just a question of working out whether you can handle the early morning starts before getting out and buying the kit.

‘Gone Fishing’ is an optimistic read. Joyous and life-affirming at times, educational at others. If you’re a fan of Bob, Paul, the show or just fishing, it’s well worth a read.

I give ‘Gone Fishing’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Book Review: Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks

Imagine if you will. it. You’re just about as multi-talented as they come. You once turned into a child at the fun fair, before turning back into an adult with the help of your best mate. Another time, you ran across America, just because you could (and this was after your time in Vietnam and your exploits as a shrimp based entrepreneur). You’ve been a daredevil cowboy, a much-loved television presenter and America’s favourite pilot. Everybody loves you. I mean you even made friends on a desert island once… with a football. You are Tom Hanks.

And then just when we thought there might be a limit to your talents, you went a wrote a collection of short stories.

As a reader, short stories generally aren’t my kind of thing. So a collection of them doesn’t normally work for me. I like the full development of characters and an actual narrative that I feel a novel always brings. But ‘Uncommon Type’ intrigued me when I spotted it on the shelves of my local supermarket. I liked the look of it, but I have to be honest and say that it was Hanks’s name that drew me in and led to me taking the book off the shelves. Yes, I’m that shallow!

Uncommon Type is a collection of seventeen stories, all set in the USA and as the quote on the front of the book says, ‘All American life is here‘. Several of the tales revolve around the same four friends and their various adventures, but then we also have a Word War II veteran facing up to life after active combat, an actor who suddenly and unexpectedly finds ridiculous levels of fame and also the thoughts of a child facing up to his parents’ divorce and the strange ways in which can sometimes move on. So although we’re largely faced with tales of small town America, there’s a great variation in the stories. And one last twist; all of the stories are connected by the presence of a typewriter (hence the title), which while it doesn’t sound a particularly clever or attractive selling point, is carried out brilliantly.

I have to admit, I was hooked from the first page of ‘Uncommon Type’. It turns out that as well as being lauded as an actor and just an all-round nice guy, Hanks can spin a yarn too. He writes beautifully and although there were one or two of the stories that did nothing for me, I couldn’t put the book down for the majority of my time reading it.

As a reader, you’re immersed in the worlds that Hanks places you in, such is his gift for description. Whether it’s small town America or the other side of the moon, Hanks’s prose transports you there convincingly and makes for an excellent read.

As you’d expect from the award winning Hollywood superstar actor, Tom Hanks can write a character! From Anna, an ex-triathlete with a penchant for telling her boyfriend, “Atta baby” through Virgil and Bud, army veterans, both the epitomy of masculinity and typical of their generation and on to American immigrant and stowaway Assan; all are believable and thoroughly engaging. Hanks has created real people that the reader can’t help but care about and ask questions of. And if you’re like me, all the while that you’re in the worlds he creates, watching the characters go about their lives, it’s all being narrated by the man himself! For all seventeen stories Hanks was my reading voice, which, let me tell you, is relaxing to say the least.

I loved ‘Uncommon Type’. It’s subtle eye for detail, charming characters and sense of humour made it a brilliant, engaging read. Although there are one or two perhaps below par tales here, all in all there’s something for everyone. A definite winner that I’d certainly recommend you read.

I give ‘Uncommon Type’ by Tom Hanks

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Book Review – Fever by Deon Meyer.

Like most of us, this time last year I’d never heard of Coronavirus or Covid-19. Regardless, it was there and had been around for a while. However, even as news broke left, right and centre and day by day the situation worsened, most of would have never have imagined how bad things would get and how much our world would change. So imagine a situation where it seems like the very same virus wipes out 90% of the world’s population.

This is the premise of ‘Fever’ by Deon Meyer. Even as a lover of almost anything dystopian, the facts here would have seemed a little far-fetched without the reality of the present-day global pandemic. And while Coronavirus has had nowhere near such a devastating impact, the severity of the damage done to the world of ‘Fever’ made it all the more readable for me.

The novel is set in South Africa and while the rest of the world is rarely referenced, the reader is aware that the entire planet has changed almost beyond recognition. The South Africa inhabited by our protagonists, Willem and Nico Storm is merely a microcosm of what’s going on elsewhere. And there’s a lot going on. ‘The Fever’ has wiped out the majority of human life and those that are left are now battling for survival. Everything that they need to stay alive is either sparse in quantity or heavily in demand and the competition to stay alive is strong. This really is survival of the fittest.

But, in amongst the chaos, Willem Storm has a dream. Having lost everything to the fever, he now wants to create a community that will welcome anyone and be fair to everyone. Willem Storm wants to restore order while at the same time offering hope, even if it is on a relatively small scale.

In my opinion this is dystopian fiction at its best and at its most relevant. The book is around 5 years old so while there was an awareness of coronavirus, Meyer couldn’t have predicted just how quickly it would take hold and just how relevant his novel would eventually be. I must admit though, that for the first few sittings of reading the novel I was fascinated by the coincidence, even though I knew that coronavirus had been a ‘thing’ for a while. So reading the novel when I did, in the midst of our latest lockdown, gave it a definite edge. As the infection rate and the death toll spiked again and again, I couldn’t help but think, ‘what if?’

The novel is written from the point of view of the 13-year-old Nico Storm, looking back on the events of his childhood and the early post-Fever years. South Africa is in a state of emergency and no one is safe as rival gangs roam the country, robbing, killing and trading as they try to stay alive. Think ‘The Road’ but with a better climate. The wildlife poses a problem too and packs of wild dogs are a constant threat. So we have a landscape and society that is very much a cross between something out of Mad Max and The Walking Dead, but with no zombies and more Negans and Whisperers. And in amongst it all, his father Willem, sees a dream of a new society.

The dream becomes reality, but despite the spirit of evolution and the fading of the fever, this was never going to be simple and there’s little chance of a happy ending. The population of Amanzi – Willem’s vision for the future – grows, but so do the problems. And as with any good dystopia – and there’s a paradox if ever there was one – just when you think you’ve overcome the problem, another one appears. And another, and another. ‘Fever’ is very much edge of the seat stuff.

‘Fever’ is a novel of hope. Everything is a struggle, but with that, even the smallest of successes is a victory for the good guys. Within its 500+ pages there are plenty of moments where the reader has to suspend their disbelief, but this isn’t War and Peace; this is the world minus 90% of its population and a book full of drama and edge of the seat thrills. I must admit I didn’t enormously enjoy the twist and ‘big reveal’ of the ending, but it certainly didn’t spoil the read for me either.

If you’re a fan of anything dystopian then you’ll enjoy ‘Fever’. Meyer creates a surprisingly believable world while managing to fill a long story with enough problems to keep you well and truly interested and perched on the edge of your seat. It’s possible that there are too many characters to really focus on, but then again, with the protagonists creating a new world and aiming to accept all who arrive at their gates, we were never going to be able to just stick to the two points of view. And frankly, if you don’t get confused while the world is falling apart around your ears, then is it even falling apart at all?

‘Fever’ plunges us right into the situation that we’ve been living through for the last year…but replaces government sanctioned exercise, closure of shops, face masks, hand sanitiser and social distancing with the fact that it all got a lot worse and nearly everyone died. What more could you want to get your teeth into?

I’d give ‘Fever’ by Deon Meyer

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Book Review: Anti Social by Nick Pettigrew

I thought I knew what an Anti-Social Behaviour Officer was before I read this book. I had them pegged as being akin to a Community Support Officer in the police and so I imagined this would be the book version of shows like ‘999 What’s Your Emergency?’ The odd fight, neighbours who play their music too loud and a lot of time wasters. And then I read the book.

Nick Pettigrew fell into a career as an Anti-Social Behaviour Officer in the way that many of us have fallen into a career. He came out of university with the kind of degree that doesn’t have an obvious next step (bloody English!) and before he knew it, was taking a job that he didn’t know a great deal about. Lots of us have done it. I did it. Over two decades after leaving university I’m still in a job that I once told my wife I’d “probably give a couple of years”. Fortunately, I love what I do, so although I can’t help but wonder what might have been if I’d have had an actual plan, there are no regrets. But then, my job doesn’t involve regularly dealing with problems ranging from noise nuisance to crack addicts.

‘Anti-Social’ is Pettigrew’s memoir of his time in what sounds like a tremendously testing and frequently unrewarding job as an Anti-Social Behaviour Officer in a local authority in London. A job he fell into and then gave his all to for over a decade before finding that he could no longer cope with the conditions in which he worked every day. And these weren’t what some of us might call ‘testing’ conditions, like having to sit on an uncomfortable chair or huffing and puffing about the fact that the stationary order was taking a bit long in arriving. No, Pettigrew worked with and represented some of the most vulnerable members of society in one of the busiest cities in the world.

So while some days were dominated by what Pettigrew might call routine investigations, inspecting flats and collecting evidence of noise nuisance, many others were spent trying to help the neighbours of drug dealers or battling to save the tenancies of incredibly vulnerable people with appalling mental health problems. Put simply, Pettigrew often gave every ounce of his energy and time helping those that wouldn’t admit they needed help or those who simply couldn’t help themselves. In fact, his diary tells us that his working days were often spent in vain, trying to help people who were a dangerous combination of both.

‘Anti-Social’ is a book that should shock you. In fact, if you think you have problems with every day life, then this book might just provide the antidote. While I probably spend too long moaning about life’s smaller problems, some of the cases that Pettigrew documents here left me in tears. Some of the powerlessness and some of the blatant exploitation of society’s most vulnerable is truly haunting. And all the while Pettigrew struggled with his own mental health, as documented at the start of every monthly chapter when he indicates to the reader his own current medication, accompanied by his newly changed and usually deeply ironic password.

The book is brilliantly written. Obviously the real life nature of it lends itself beautifully to an ever more engaging narrative, but what makes ‘Anti-Social’ stand out is its dark sense of humour. Often, the same tale is likely to have you tearing your hair out and close to tears while at the same time laughing at the way it’s told. There’s a certain dark irony in a lot of the problems that are discussed that makes the book both addictive and alarming in equal measure. And while ‘Anti-Social’ will introduce you to a dark side of society that you were perhaps unaware of, it will also expose human stupidity at its most hilarious with a deadpan tone that will help you to smile or laugh your way through the horror that is often unfolding on its pages.

If you enjoyed ‘This is Going to Hurt’ by Adam Kay then ‘Anti-Social’ is a logical next step. Similarly funny, maddeningly frustrating, but also fantastically engaging. The kind of book where what you’re being told makes you want to put it down, yet not put it down at all.

In what some all too often refer to as dark, desperate times, ‘Anti-Social’ should be a wake-up call to all of us. Yes, a series of lockdowns caused by a ham-fisted reaction to a global pandemic has made the last year or so undoubtedly tough. But if you’ve still got a job, can get out for a walk every so often, can afford to just sit and watch television for any length of time or you just still have your health in some semblance of working order, then you probably don’t know you’re born. Reading ‘Anti-Social’ might just help you stop feeling so sorry for yourself. Thank Christ for people like Pettigrew!

I’d give ‘Anti-Social’ by Nick Pettigrew

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Book Review: Love Anthony by Lisa Genova

So let’s start with a confession. When I found this book in one of my ‘To read’ boxes in the loft, I had little recollection of buying it. And for the life of me I couldn’t really think why I’d bought it. I knew it wasn’t a gift though and was sure it had been one of my own purchases.

In a remarkable coincidence though, a Facebook memory popped up soon after and I was informed that I’d bought it 3 years previously in a book splurge at a discount shop called The Works. I still had to work out what had attracted me to it though, but a bit of perusing did the trick. Turned out I’d made a very good choice.

‘Love Anthony’ is a novel about friends, and love, as well as the challenges of autism and family life. It tells the tale of two families; Olivia, David and their son Anthony and Beth, Jimmy and their three daughters. The first family face the enormous challenges of their son’s severe autism and the heartbreaking feeling that they’ll never be able to ‘get through’ to Anthony as a result. Meanwhile, Beth and Jimmy face their own challenges despite everything initially seeming to be pretty much stable with their lives.

The action takes place on Nantucket, which was almost certainly one of my reasons for buying the book. (I have a cousin who lives there.) The stark beauty of the island definitely adds something to the story and it’s on Nantucket where we find new arrival Olivia who’s life and marriage have fallen apart. The beaches of the island unwittingly bring Olivia and Beth together and yet their lives continue on seperately, despite everything they have in common. Their brief meeting has a profound effect on Beth, who when her own world seems to be falling apart, falls back on the memory to begin writing.

Only later do the two women become entangled in each others’ lives. There’s another meeting on the beach, this time through a family photoshoot, booked by Beth and to be undertaken by Olivia, now a family photographer. Memories are jogged, favours asked and when Olivia finally reads Beth’s book, lives are changed seismically.

‘Love Anthony’ is a great read. Heartbreaking at times as we read about Olivia and her desperate attempts to engage with and protect her son, Anthony, but life-affirming at others, as likeable characters triumph in adversity. There’s an element of the feel good factor about the book, despite some traumatic events, but then there are a number of twists which are sure to leave you racing through the pages. Hearts are broken, lives are shattered and then rebuilt and throughout it all you’ll find yourself rooting for characters like Beth and Olivia in their pursuit of a small chunk of happiness.

A wonderfully written book that deserves your attention.

I give ‘Love Anthony’

Rating: 4 out of 5.