The Last Days of Disco by David F. Ross

DiscoI grew into The Last Days of Disco the further I read. At first the setting and especially the language presented a barrier but by the end it was simply a part of these characters that I had grown to care about. David Ross draws you into the lives of the Cassidy family and their neighbours, you share their triumphs and defeats, so that whilst in some ways nothing much happens in others everything matters.

This is a social commentary about a time when the young were by turns labelled useless wasters and national heroes, unemployment statistics one day, intrepid explorers sent to kill for their flag the next. Yet it is also the simple story of a group of people doing what we all do, trying to make the best of the hand they have been dealt, however bum the deal, and by fair means or foul.

The main thrust comes from Bobby and his mate Joey who decide to set up a mobile disco. This dream brings them inadvertently into competition with the local gangster and japes ensue, comic and otherwise. As the teenagers strive to make a success of their fledgling business other lives around them are falling apart, sending ripples into every corner of their community.

Each of the characters rolls with the punches, trying to make some headway and escape whatever shackles have been placed on them, but they do it with a humour and hope that binds the reader to them. The laughs come thick and fast but so does the heartbreak. There are genuinely laugh out loud on the bus moments alongside deeply moving scenes, whether it’s Bobby reaching out to a disgraced performer with an empathy that belies his years, his older brother facing up to the brutal realities of war, his sister retreating into the sanctuary of herself or the gangster’s muscle trying to find a way to honour the love he has lost.

This is David Ross’s first novel but he demonstrates a gift for expressing life that surely has more to give. There is a real empathy for people of all kinds in the pages, there are “good” people doing bad things and “bad” people doing good things, because people are not good or bad they are just people dealing with what is in front of them, imperfectly. This book is worth reading for that truth alone, but it also takes you on an emotional journey that reminds you what it is to be human, a fabulous debut.


The Last Days of Disco is available as e-book now and will be published in paperback on 15 March 2015.


The Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul E Hardisty

AbruptPaul Hardisty has delivered a thriller of the highest quality with The Abrupt Physics of Dying, which is published by Orenda Books, initially as an e-book, on Monday. As an entertainment it keeps the pages turning relentlessly as truth is glimpsed and then lost in uncertainty and deception, and as a story of our times it highlights the powers lurking in shadows, moving their pawns around a global chess board and casting lives into the abyss for the sake of power and profit. This is a must read novel for fans of the genre and already Claymore Straker has shown the potential to one day stand in the company of such luminaries as Bond and Bourne.

Most of the action takes place in Yemen and the setting is wonderfully described such that the reader is immersed in its geography and positioned right in the midst of events. Straker himself is flawed. His past is dark and haunts him. Up to now he has managed to bury the nightmares in a grim determination to simply do his job, never questioning his conscience, but no longer. Drawn into a devout culture he is forced to reflect on his actions and face his reckoning.

Hardisty’s own CV shows many years’ experience as an engineer, hydrologist and environmental scientist who has lived and worked in the Middle East. Born in Canada he now lives in Australia where he is a university professor and a Director of Australia’s national science agency.  He also describes himself as a pilot, sailor and explorer, who competes in ironman triathlons for fun. It’s not hard to see where the authenticity of the writing comes from as “Clay” explores the science, and the corruption of science, of oil production in Yemen.

The action is intense and violent, but the storytelling is rooted in character and culture, it has a depth that you connect with. As events unravel in front of Straker you join him in trying to understand the different agendas and perspectives that are demanding his help and loyalty. The blurred lines in his internal struggle leave room for you to wrestle with your own values and beliefs. We all make judgments every day even on the very fringes of global issues and we all turn a blind eye to corruption and injustice, allowing us to forget our part and take the easy option.

The narrative twists and turns, you have no more idea than Straker who to trust, who to believe, and you share in his fear and frustrations. It is a roller coaster ride of a read and the strength of the visual imagery seems to make it an ideal candidate for conversion to the cinema screen. If the second instalment in Straker’s story, which is due for release in around a year’s time, continues to deliver at this level then it will surely attract such attention. This is intelligent writing that both entertains and challenges and it deserves a wide audience.


The Abrupt Physics of Dying is published as e-book on December 15th

The Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelto

hummingbirdIt is a generally accepted truth that exercise is good for you. It is also suggested that part of your regular workout should include a period of vigorous effort that pushes you out of your comfort zone and gets your heart rate up. Alternatively you could just read The Hummingbird, the debut novel from Finnish author Kati Hiekkapelto, and allow her writing to achieve both of those goals without you leaving your chair.

The main protagonist of the novel is Anna Fekete, a female lead with a complicated background that will no doubt be further explored as this series develops. On her first day in a new job, switching uniform for the detective scruffs of the Violent Crimes Unit, the body of a girl is found in woods with her head blown off. We’ve already run with the girl and felt her fear but it is Anna’s job to piece together what happened whilst also trying to find her place in a new station with new colleagues and come to terms with her past.

There is no time to settle into her new job, back in the city where she spent much of her childhood following her family’s escape from conflict in the Balkans.  She quickly finds herself on the hunt of a possible serial killer, whilst spending her evenings off duty trying protect a girl she is convinced is a victim of honour violence and reconcile with her brother, who’s experience as an immigrant in Finland is as much a case study in failed integration as her own is of success. The encroaching darkness of the Finnish winter and the inability to switch off from pressures on so many fronts combine to create an intense atmosphere as Anna sacrifices her own mental state in trying not to let anyone down.

These different threads of story, which could threaten to overwhelm the reader, are handled well. Kurdish teenager Bihar tells her story through an extended e-mail that is intertwined with Anna’s ongoing attempts to protect her from a controlling, possibly dangerous, family, whilst the different personalities and backgrounds of the police station are revealed through their interactions with the new recruit. It feels natural as we are drawn deeper into the lives of the key people and their personal stories are expertly interwoven with the police investigation.

The only real criticism is that there was a sense that the main investigation came to a slightly abrupt ending and the horror of the crime wasn’t really justified in the motivation and psychology of the murderer. As the investigation unfolded there had been opportunities to speculate as a reader and try to work out what was happening but again when the truth was revealed it was nothing that could have been guessed at. It felt a little like an end was needed and so one was pulled out of a hat, which left a slightly unsatisfied feeling.

Having said that, for a first novel The Hummingbird delivers a lot. The perspectives on immigration feel genuine and are insightful and the writing is atmospheric and absorbing. The two police investigations, one official and one not, are balanced well and the characters are rounded and appealing such that you want to know what will happen next in both their professional and personal lives. A second instalment is on the way and I look forward to following the careers of both Anna Fekete and Kati Hiekkapelto.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller

MillionThe premise of A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is that the principles of storytelling can be applied to the creation of a meaningful and fulfilling life. Don discovers this while making a film based on his earlier book Blue Like Jazz as he finds that he isn’t living a good story, so he sets out to learn what makes a good story and how to turn his life into one. What results is a very personal journey that also speaks volumes to the wider, universal audience.

This was actually my second reading of the book. Having previously read Blue Like Jazz I was keen to pick this one up as soon as it hit the shops back in 2009. After that first reading I began my own very limited story plan which led to me volunteering with a local charity working with homeless and vulnerable people. It would be hyperbole to say that this life changing move was entirely down to reading Don’s book but it certainly played a part in helping me to frame that new story in my life.

If I am honest my conscious story planning has waned since then. It is not that the story I began has died but rather that it gathered such pace that it has run away with itself a little. That was one reason that I decided to go back for a second reading, to revisit the content and my own story plan and put it back on a conscious trajectory. When I consider the memorable scenes that have made up my volunteering story I realise that something important has been lost (as well as much being gained) as I have moved from being a “frontline” volunteer to being a trustee and I need to address that.

I have also noticed a need to balance the demands of different strands of life so that they include those closest to us. It is possible for a well-meaning and altruistic plan to become a lone journey if we are not careful and too many personal goals can lead to others being excluded. A good story can actually end up creating an unintended bad story along the way if we allow it to run unchecked. In my own desire to be part of a grand epic I managed to lose sight of my responsibilities to those I care about most and the joy that those responsibilities bring with them.

Don writes from a Christian faith perspective but the principles of story can be used as a tool in your life whether you are talking to God or your paradoxical chimp Kevin. I don’t mean to be flippant when I say that, there are many crossovers between faith and psychology, as well as crucial differences, and you need not share Don’s faith to draw value from his writing. The book is accessible and easy to read and the takeaways are quite simple and easy to digest, helped by not only Don’s journey of discovery but also a host of other people he meets who have moved from living destructive stories to life-giving ones.

Whether it is the former addict proving to himself that he has changed by completing a challenge to cycle across America having failed in the past to deliver on his commitments to his wife and children, or the simple memory making of the Goff family as they all jump fully clothed into a river to mark their farewell to house guests, the book is full of lessons that we can take into our own lives to make them better for us and for the world we inhabit.


“Dirty Northern B*st*rds!” And Other Tales from the Terraces by Tim Marshall

DirtyI have to admit that when I first saw the title, the cover and the dreaded word “banter” I wasn’t sure that Dirty Northern B*st*rds! would be my thing, but I was quickly won over by the well balanced mix of humour, serious themes and history – both football and social. It turned out to be a light and easy but fascinating trip around the country discussing rivalries and stereotypes, the wit of the terraces, the roots of deep feelings and where lines are sometimes crossed, whilst providing regular chuckles, occasional moments for thought and reflection and a host of fascinating little historical tales.

The book is split into three sections, first half, second half and extra time, and they cover different aspects of football chants with the first one largely focused on rivalries and how chants have developed by emphasising our differences. The highlight of this section for me was an interesting discussion around interpretation that can lead to a chant being one side of offensive or the other. This particularly comes into focus with the issue of race and being only a distant observer of Tottenham Hotspur the focus on the “Y word” was fascinating. The influence of being in a crowd also plays an important part in this to the extent of individuals joining in with songs that they might find personally offensive outside of a football ground because of the group mentality.

The second half was my favourite as it covered signature songs of clubs around the country and their origins. I am a regular participant in Nottingham Forest’s rendition of Mull O’ Kin Tyre by Wings, in which the words are changed to “City Ground, oh mist rolling in from the Trent” and have always been impressed by visiting Stoke fans when their massed choir sings Delilah, though I never understood why before. It was also pleasing to finally discover all of the words to one of my favourite signature tunes; Sheffield United’s version of Annie’s Song by John Denver. Those words in full are:

“You fill up my senses

Like a gallon of Magnet

Like a packet of Woodbines

Like a good pinch of snuff

Like a night out in Sheffield

Like a greasy chip butty

Like Sheffield United

Please fill me again”

At the risk of upsetting Sheffield Wednesday fans I heartily recommend a trip to Bramall Lane to hear it sung by the Blades fans in person. In fact that was the great thing about this book, it introduces us to the history and character of clubs all around these Isles and putting rivalry aside in favour of the wider game it pricked my interest further in travelling around our football grounds to experience each unique twist on a shared passion. Redressing the Sheffield balance a little the Wednesday fans apparently serenade their team to “Honolulu Wednesday”, their take on a song that featured in the 1933 Laurel and Hardy film “Sons of the Desert” and there are a host of similarly obscure journeys made by songs to football terraces.

The final section is a bit like a Tim Vine show of one liner chants and wise cracks from the terraces and brings the book to a fast paced and funny close. The pace is suddenly slowed right at the end though for its best three pages. It focuses on Stockport County but its brilliance lies in the way it captures so much that is good about the game. I will leave it for you to discover for yourself but it is a perfectly selected way to end a book that is all about what it means to be a fan.

Apart from some inevitable bias towards the author’s favourite club this is an enjoyable journey through football and Tim Marshall has done his research to tell the narratives behind the songs thereby allowing us to glimpse a little of the heart of each club and its fans. On a Saturday afternoon we are rivals but this book celebrates both our unique and our shared stories for which we are all richer.



Jumpers for Goalposts – How Football Sold Its Soul by Rob Smyth & Georgina Turner

JumpersThe spiel on the back cover of Jumpers For Goalposts begins “On August 15th 1992, the Premier League kicked off for the very first time to the sound of money.” On August 16th 1992 I took up my familiar position at the City Ground as Nottingham Forest hosted Liverpool for the first live Sky television broadcast of a Premier League match. At the end of the game the roaming camera went straight to Teddy Sheringham, who had scored the only goal of the game to secure a Forest win, and he proclaimed whilst still on the pitch his desire for a move to Tottenham. It was a moment that announced to me that everything had changed, for my club and for the game as a whole.

This book is a lament for things that have been lost. It is not saying that everything in the past was perfect or that our modern game is all bad, it simply recognises that important things have been set aside as football’s collective head has been turned by money. That collective culpability is important. Yes, we have been let down by governing bodies and the way they have been blinded to their proper responsibilities by the bright lights of the Premier League. Yes, our heroes have turned sour as wealth beyond a normal person’s imagination has shaped their lives. But we fans also have to share some blame as we turn a blind eye ourselves to cheating, violence, racism and rape so long as the goals go in.

The voice of the book is that of the ordinary football fan and as such is as accessible as the thousands of pub debates that have taken place across the country every weekend since football began, which in case you’re in any doubt was long before 1992. It’s only real problem is that, just like the 24/7 rolling football coverage that bombards us from our television screens and internet feeds, it is relentless. With each tale of corruption and greed the reader’s heart grows heavier and there is a reluctance to keep going, but we need to face and acknowledge these painful realities if we are ever going to change them.

In Chapter One Theo Walcott happily tells the world how he heroically convinced his teammate Andrei Arshavin, who had been awarded a penalty, not to tell the referee that a mistake had been made. Walcott tells us that Arshavin was simply “too honest” but thankfully Theo spotted that honesty coming and quickly halted it. It is not simply the cheating that hits us in this story, we see that all too often now, but the way that Walcott happily tells this story painting himself as the force for good laughing at his fair minded teammate’s naivety.

Elsewhere we review the host of decisions that have been taken to re-organise competitions at club and international level in order to pocket some extra cash and the damage those decisions have done to the integrity and quality of those competitions. The decline of the FA Cup, begun by the FA themselves when they pressured Manchester United in 1999/2000 to withdraw from it in favour of the World Club Championship, to protect England’s 2006 World Cup bid. The expansion of both the World Cup and the European Championships that renders much of it, including qualification, meaningless, not to mention the corporate bullying that accompanies such tournaments. The creation of the Champions’ League, a complete misnomer given that champions make up a minority of teams playing in it and the revamped UEFA Cup, now renamed the Europa League, once a proud competition now held in disdain by even minor teams.

Rather than simply pointing the finger at everyone else, however, we are also encouraged to do a bit of self-reflection and in this we might find both the biggest problem and the solution to modern football – our consumption of it. We are now able to watch so much football and spend so much additional time analysing it and arguing about it that all the goodness is being sucked from the game we love. There is no mystique to visiting European teams or far off World Cup players because we have watched them via our TV subscriptions and signed them on Football Manager. There is no room for simple and genuine mistakes when every decision can be analysed to death, no time to build a team when transfer deadline hysteria kicks in and ambition is measured in pounds spent, no patience for developing young players when the manager’s head is called for after two or three defeats and no limit to our myopia when our star player crosses moral lines.

This is a book for fans who remember a time before Sky’s billions and know that not everything has changed for the better and for fans who have heard others complain that football isn’t the same anymore and want to know what the fuss is about. It is a timely reminder of important things that have been lost but should not be forgotten, or assumed to be irretrievable, and it is a call to consider how we participate in the national game and whether we might have had too much of a good thing. Read it, put together your own Soul Team, reaffirm your values and then carry them into the stands with you and reclaim the game.


Fan by Danny Rhodes

fanThe opening chapter of Fan, the new novel from Grantham born author Danny Rhodes, made me feel like this might be a book for Nottingham Forest fans of a certain age. I followed my team to Wembley to see them lift the League Cup, I was at the City Ground when we bade farewell to Brian Clough, Highbury when Brian Rice became a legend and I was at Hillsborough when a beautiful Spring day turned into a nightmare and as a teenager I came face to face with death on an awful scale. Later I even sat behind Clough at Eton Park as we both supported his son Nigel in his first steps into management. The fictional John Finch walked many of the same roads that I trod myself in real life.

It isn’t just about a personal history of following Forest, however, there is a wider social history in these pages that will resonate with a much broader audience. All football fans in the 1980’s, before Italia ’90, the Premier League and prawn sandwich hospitality, were impacted by the emphasis on control rather than safety of football crowds and the chapter on the Bradford fire will cause all fans to bristle with anger. And whilst football is a major backdrop these events also coincided with the Thatcher government, the Miners’ Strike and huge social change in Britain.

There is also a fierce human energy that drives the book forwards through a series of short, snappy chapters that keep the pages turning and emphasise the desperate emotion of a man overflowing with demons. The football is a backdrop but John Finch is really facing two points of crisis and transition, ones that we all recognise. In 1989 the safe and familiar environment of his youth is falling away and he is wondering what lies ahead of him, old friendships coming to an end and Hillsborough bringing the reality of death crashing into the experience of previously indestructible youth. Whilst in 2004 he is faced with another major change, a partner who wants to settle down and start a family, but he cannot provide a solid future for a potential wife and kids when his past is still unresolved.

Finch heads back to his home town of Grantham to face his demons, but it’s messy. He has to see the world through other people’s eyes as well as his own, has to learn to accept who he was and who he is now and has to acknowledge that life isn’t straightforward, answers are not perfect, the world does not revolve around him and everyone is just trying to make the best of it in whatever way they can. The narrative glides between these two periods of time as Finch tries to bring proper closure to his first departure so that he can leave again more able to move on into the responsibility of adulthood. It is an emotional human story that will appeal to anyone who has mourned lost youth and feared the responsibility of family life.

As a football fan it is the story of a game that has also had to face great change and has done so imperfectly. The warnings upon warnings that built up to death on a horrific scale at Hillsborough are devastating. Why did it take so long for anything to change? Why did the football authorities, the clubs, the government and the media seek to criminalise and dehumanise football fans, determined to control rather than protect? Why did the fans themselves not refuse the cages of death they were forced into each week and also refuse the violence within their own ranks?

In the end it took the loss of 96 innocent lives in Sheffield to make change happen and much of it has been good – the ability to watch football safely should never be under-valued, the past never forgotten – but in amongst it something significant has been lost. The changes have been used to increase prices, to sanitise atmosphere, to commercialise football and to replace the passion of labour with the wealth of capital. Football has been cleansed and as a result sterilised.

In his closing acknowledgements Rhodes calls for the game to be given back to the fans. It is an appealing statement but also a broad one that has all sorts of interpretations and implications. It is difficult to pin down, it’s messy, just like John Finch’s journey through his past and his tentative steps forward into an uncertain future. It is good that the game has moved away from its violent past, but it also needs to take some time to reflect on what it has become and where its future lies. Football is about the fans, but fans are a diverse group with different needs and all need to be considered.

The best writing stays with you, makes you think well beyond closing the back cover. Fan does that on two levels; life and football. What else is there?

*This review originally appeared on my football blog Mist Rolling In From The Trent on April 14th 2014