Book Review: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

When consulting my bookshelf recently I decided that the time had come to re-read Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, as my initial memories of the novel having first read it more than six years ago were hazy and my main take away from watching the film as a teenager had been: ‘wouldn’t it be great to have a body like Brad Pitt?’ Having tried and failed in the latter respect in my early twenties, I re-calibrated my expectations and set myself the more realistic target of obtaining a greater understanding of the source material.

My instincts that Fight Club was worthy of being re-read proved to be correct as what I found was a book that, despite being more than twenty years old, appeared to be addressing issues still very much a part of contemporary society.

The novel’s unnamed narrator and protagonist finds himself as many people today do, in a ‘bullshit job’ which delivers comfortable pay but no fulfilment, a situation that the character has attempted to navigate through consumerism. Unsurprisingly however, the horde of commodities the character has amassed has ultimately failed to deliver the meaning that he seeks, effectively reducing him to a grown-up boy trapped in an endless cycle of meaningless work to fund the purchase of his next toy for his condominium.

The character’s rejection of his plight and attempts to reclaim his long-departed masculinity lead him on a destructive path which grows darker and darker as the story progresses. In my eyes, the book is a vicious attack on consumerism and the idea – one that many marketers take great pleasure in peddling – that if we simply have enough money to buy ourselves enough stuff, all our problems will fade away. Fight Club provides an alarming example of the ills that can befall a person who misguidedly places in their faith in the totem of material wealth.    


Book Review: The Graduate by Charles Webb

A boy who on the face of it appears to have the world at his feet after completing his final year of university, The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock, in reality feels more like he is sinking into the ground beneath him in Charles Webb’s 1963 novel. After returning home from university and being paraded like a show pony before his parents’ friends, Benjamin concludes that his entire academic life has been little more than an extremely expensive waste of time. Abandoning his plans to enroll in a graduate course, Benjamin finds himself staring into an arid desert of nothingness and embarks upon an affair with the wily Mrs Robinson – a friend of his parents – to fill the void.

The affair sparks a chain of events that grow steadily more bizarre until the conclusion of the novel, with Benjamin’s behaviour growing increasingly erratic. Benjamin’s sense of utter loss as to what to do in nearly every situation delivers absurd passages of dialogue, chiefly with Mrs Robinson and her daughter Elaine, who post-affair serve as Benjamin’s crafty nemesis and his genuine love interest respectively. The dialogue captures the awkwardness and indecision of a young man who does not know either who he is or what he wants to do with his life and can be both excruciating and entertaining in equal measure.

Following Benjamin’s descent into apparent madness, one could be forgiven for thinking they are reading about a boxer getting savagely beaten, as even though the situation seems beyond hopeless for Benjamin, reading on in anticipation of the final knockout blow cannot be helped. The finale doesn’t disappoint with the only hope Benjamin has left to cling to: that Elaine will marry him, hanging delicately in the balance.

While Benjamin’s actions throughout the story are often laughably impetuous and flawed, they nonetheless succeed in transporting us all back to our own youthful days of ignorance and impulsivity, the era in which long-term planning was alien and decisions were perpetually made on a whim. They provide a reminder of the scope of opportunity that stood before us all in our early twenties and how such opportunity though grand in scale, is often a weight too heavy for many to bear.

Rating: 4.5/5 Hilarious coming-of-age tale with sublimely ridiculous dialogue that is conducive to the book being read in one sitting.

Book Review: Elevation by Stephen King

From the first page of Stephen King’s Elevation it is apparent that there is something seriously wrong with protagonist Scott Carey, who despite an unchanged appearance cannot stop losing weight.

With his condition leaving doctors baffled, Scott finds himself in a predicament that would freeze many with worry, however rather than allow fear to stifle him, he chooses instead to embrace his circumstances. Taking the opportunity to eat whatever food he wants, pushing himself to the limit in the town fun run and reaching out to members of his community; Scott’s behaviour under his condition embodies a simple philosophy that all of us would do well to adopt: enjoy oneself and help others wherever possible. It is a philosophy often forgotten in contemporary life, where money and status are so often responsible for shaping people’s behaviour, not necessarily for the best. Thankfully Scott and his fellow citizens of Castle Rock – a town described in wholesome fashion by King throughout – seem charmingly removed from such influences.

Reading this book during lockdown (a feat that can easily be achieved in a day due to its shortness) the way Scott deals with his condition seemed even more poignant. At this moment in time all of us are living limited existences, but like most blows one receives throughout life, such a situation can be dealt with either positively or negatively. Either one can sit around idle and resentful and complain about all the things that cannot be done; or one can accept the limitations of this juncture we find ourselves at and embrace the opportunities it offers. The more people favour the Scott Carey-approach, the more positives will emerge from this trying point in history.

Rating: 3/5 – A light (literally), snappy story that can be easily read in a day.

Review: Netflix’s Sunderland ‘Till I Die Season 2

Like many football fans starved of live action as a result of covid19, I have over past few days taken the opportunity to watch the second series of the Netflix documentary Sunderland ‘Till I die, which charts the fortunes of the Wearside club as they attempt to win promotion back to the Championship at the first time of asking. With a ‘will he won’t he’ star player contract saga, a chaotic transfer deadline day and two trips to Wembley providing the main story lines, it is safe to say that Sunderland’s season – which perpetually swings from sublime to beyond ridiculous – does not disappoint.

Although the series is highly entertaining and to some (particularly those with allegiances to Newcastle United) will merely present an opportunity to indulge in an extended period of schadenfreude; Sunderland ‘Till I Die 2 in actual fact, provides far more than that. Through the various events that play out, the documentary effectively puts all that is good and also all that is so inexorably bad about modern football under a magnifying glass.

First there is the saga that blights the first half of the series: Josh Maja and his contract negotiations. A talented young striker whose goals appear to be firing the Black Cats towards an immediate return to the Championship, Maja is in the final year of his contract and Sunderland are understandably desperate to extend his stay at the Stadium of Light. Maja however, or to put it more accurately, his agent, has other ideas and this ultimately results in the striker rejecting Sunderland’s contract offer and ditching them mid-season to move to Bordeaux for more… errm… football in one of Europe’s top five leagues, naturally. This in itself was by no means a shocking sequence of events, in fact as the episodes wore on a gradual air of inevitably surrounding the whole situation seemed to take hold. But what really disturbed me about this was Maja’s complete lack of ownership of his own career. It seemed as though Maja, so devoid of autonomy as he was, would’ve probably gone and played in the Bulgarian second division if his agent had told him to. While I accept agents are a mainstay in football, I still found it alarming to see a footballer effectively leaving his entire career trajectory in the hands of someone whose primary motivation is money. My assumptions may be proved entirely wrong of course, it may later be proved that Maja was a childhood Bordeaux fan and that the decision to move to France was 100% his, but somehow, I doubt it.

Once Maja leaves, Sunderland have a 15-goal striker shaped hole to fill in their squad and owner Stewart Donald grows more desperate by the second. This culminates in a frantic transfer deadline day episode in which Donald, desperate for a striker to replace Maja, is held to ransom by Wigan Athletic as he attempts to sign Will Grigg. Despite being told by manager Jack Ross not to sign Grigg for anything above £1.25million, Donald, a self-confessed sucker for a deal, ends up signing Grigg at the eleventh four for an inflated £4million fee. Then in almost beautifully cliched fashion, Grigg, the big-money signing fails to live up to his price tag, making Donald’s deadline day gamble look all the more rash. Like the Maja transfer, this occurrence presents nothing new to anyone who follows modern football, but nonetheless, there was something about seeing a man naively throwing vast amounts of money around with all the rationality of a cavalier monopoly player that just didn’t sit right with me.

And then last and probably worst there was Charlie Methven, a marketing man somewhere between Jordan Belfort and David Brent who is detestable and clueless in equal measure. He is immediately outed as someone with no understanding of genuine football fans when he claims that blasting out Tiesto’s Adagio For Strings remix before kick-off will be the perfect stimulant for Sunderland’s pre-match home atmosphere. Then there is his domineering and at times downright rude treatment of his communications team, who look on with raised eyebrows as he makes poorly-timed EU referendum jokes and contemplates charging supporters an additional fee to secure their Wembley tickets in pursuit of a quick buck. As I watched Methven continually make a prat of himself, I couldn’t help but think that football clubs up and down the country must be littered with such characters. Characters who now, thanks to some mild form of success in a completely unrelated field, believe they have a licence to play god in an industry they have little true understanding of.

But amid Methven’s loathsomeness, Donald’s naivety and Maja’s empty-headedness there is hope for the world of football to be found in Sunderland ‘Till I Die 2 and that hope is provided in glorious fashion by the Sunderland supporters. Decent, genuine, likable people who are not without their share of wit, the Mackems are the undisputed heroes of the series. As we watch them experience joy and despair in equal measure, we are reminded of what being a football fan is truly all about: the ecstasy of last-minute winners, the heartache of late defeats and above all, the times we spend with people we care about following the fortunes of our team. The Sunderland fans’ loyalty is unrelenting and even though the season once again ends in heartbreak, there is no doubt that all the fans we become familiar with throughout the course of the series with will be back at the Stadium of Light the following season to go through it all over again. Their loyalty, like that which is shown by the majority of people who support their hometown team, is one that appears destined to go unrewarded. But yet still, like their many counterparts in different colours up and down the country, they will come in their numbers, honest, hard-working, unpretentious; flocking to the arena at the heart of their community in search of that one moment of total elation that somehow makes all the disappointment worthwhile. Capturing this undying loyalty and passion, Is Sunderland ‘Till I Die’s greatest triumph. And thankfully for the future of football, such qualities in supporters will never diminish, however many Charlie Methvens and Josh Majas the game becomes punctuated with.

Book Review: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

When I began reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, despite the rapid spread of the corona virus, the UK was not yet in lockdown. By the time I’d finished it, it was. And as I closed the final page I couldn’t help thinking that my reading it at this time was particularly poignant.

Though the story’s protagonist is Mary Lennox, a formerly spoilt and unfriendly girl who is sent to live at her uncle’s manor on the Yorkshire moors; the story by its conclusion is as much about Mary’s cousin, Colin Craven, as it is about her. And it is Colin’s story in particular that seemed to make the book all the more impactful as I read it, given the current real-world circumstances.

Every bit as secret as the garden Mary has already stumbled across, Colin is discovered by his cousin crying in his room at night time and appears doomed. Shut up inside all day every day, Colin has been told he is a hunchback and will not live to see adulthood. Mary helps to show him that this is not the case, using the beauty of nature that has already transformed her outlook on life to show Colin that there is much to be enjoyed in the world and plenty of hope to be had.

It was this way in which Mary, with the help of surely the most beautiful garden ever described in literature, manages to lift Colin out of his misery that seemed so relevant amid the challenges the world currently faces. As we remain shut up in our homes day after day, forbidden from going outside, with predictions of gloom all around us, it is easy for us all to feel as though we are modern day Colin Cravens. His unlikely transformation reminds us that however bleak things may appear, there is always hope and that nature will always have the power to put a smile back on our faces once again, when the time is right.

Though this is the most topical lesson Burnett’s undisputed classic teaches, it is by no means the only one, with the tale also providing a sage reminder that the greatest joys in life seldom involve money. This message is conveyed through the contrast between the troubled yet wealthy Mary and Colin and the penniless yet irrepressibly cheerful Dickon; who roams the moors every day to his heart’s content, accompanied by a merry procession of animals that he has befriended over the years.

The story is one that manages to fuse the purity of childhood with powerful moments of both sorrow and joy while still being virtually faultless in its delivery. From its vivid descriptions of the title garden to its authentic and individually charming set of characters, The Secret Garden is impeccably crafted, and even the dourest of critics would be hard-pressed to pick apart its claim to being one of the greatest children stories ever told.

So if over the next few days you find the lockdown gloom beginning to fester, why not pick up or download The Secret Garden? You might just find your faith in the future of the world restored.


Rating: 5/5 A masterpiece of a children’s story that 109 years after publication still has the power to make one laugh and cry.

Book Review: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Charting the rise of a boy from the Indian slums from servant to established entrepreneur, The White Tiger raises a magnifying glass to the cold, heartless culture bred into Indian society by the advent of globalisation and rampant capitalism; describing a world in which one ultimately has to choose between getting dirty or dying dirty.

Balram Halwai, a boy from a place so bereft of hope it is referred to as ‘the darkness’, is earmarked by his family for a life that outstrips the standing of his birth and living up to his apparent destiny, he gets the chance to gatecrash the brightly-lit world of the wealthy when he becomes a driver and general servant for the absurdly rich Mr Ashok.

Leaving behind a life in which he once looked at bus conductors and believed them have every treasure a man could hope for, Balram is thrust into a world of wealth and scandal beyond his previous levels of comprehension.

He becomes a silent critic of his master’s life, proclaiming his disgust at many of Mr Ashok’s actions but also declaring his pity for a man whose existence, despite his gargantuan wealth, is far from a happy one. Balram’s commentary of his master’s antics and the tones of sympathy and sadness with which such tales are often laced, highlight the bizarre paradox of the master-servant relationship, where despite the disproportionate nature of the respective roles, the natural feelings of warmth and care towards a fellow human being are sometimes not easily suppressed.

Despite his often-empathetic outlook on his master’s plight, Balram does readily condemn the behaviour he finds unacceptable and is forthcoming when it comes to telling the reader how, he, the humble, well-rounded boy from the slums, would manage such extraordinary wealth without giving in to the vices that cloud his master’s life.

After prematurely proclaiming the moral high ground however, Balram is forced to revaluate his previously sanctimonious stance as he realises that the only means of achieving his ultimate goal does not contain a trace of morality.

Balram’s journey is gritty, shocking and unpredictable in equal measure and shines the brightest of lights on the dubious merits of India’s supposedly beneficial synchronisation with Western culture.


Rating: 3.5/5. Not always pretty, but perpetually fascinating.



Book Review: Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

A quest tale with a difference, Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights explores the essence of one’s personality and the inherent human yearning for companionship, whatever journey a person embarks upon in life. The quest is undertaken by Lyra Belacqua, a girl from Oxford who encounters giant bears, witches and the deceptively charming villainess, Mrs Coulter as she bids to rescue the masses of children who have been snatched from their homes by the aforementioned Coulter’s notorious gang of ‘gobblers’.

But the most intriguing aspect of the story lies not in Lyra’s journey itself, but rather in the presence of her animalised daemon Pantalaimon, who plays the role of metamorphosing mascot throughout Lyra’s journey. Like Lyra, most other human characters also possess a daemon, which are said to be representative of each person’s soul. With each daemon unique to its owner, each character’s relationship with their daemon serves to highlight not only the intricacy of every human life, but the fundamental human desire for companionship; as the loss of one’s daemon is viewed by Pullman’s characters as a fate bleaker than death.

The concept of needing if not someone, then something to reach a true state of self-expression, is explored further through giant bear Iorek Brynison’s relationship with his armour; with the bear describing himself as ‘nothing’ if devoid of his armour. This serves to underline the idea continually relayed throughout the book that however mighty a person may appear, if deprived of company and the possessions fundamental to their way of the life, their true power or potential may never be realised.

Away from the themes at the heart of the story, Pullman’s world, like all the greatest fantasy lands, is both enchanting and labyrinthian. Although in spite of the level of complexity of immanent in Pullman’s world it never eels intimidating, with the more elaborate details concerning lands such as Bolvangar and Svalbard being divulged in a paced manner that makes the ingestion of such information not only bearable but enthralling.

A truly unique fantasy story that is excellently paced and brought to life masterfully by Pullman, Northern Lights is thoroughly deserving of its status as a modern masterpiece.

Rating: 4.5/5 Pullman’s world is dazzling, unique and a pleasure to dive into.



Book Review: Stoner by John Williams

One of the most common answers people give when they are asked what they did last night, over the weekend or even on their holidays is of course: “nothing;” and while recipients of such an answer usually accept it without any attempt to pry for further information, there is nonetheless an unspoken acknowledgment that the response they have received is not entirely truthful. Even people who say they do nothing do something. Unless they literally wake up in the morning and lie motionless counting the hours until they fall asleep again. William Stoner, the character whose surname gives John Williams’ 1965 novel its title, is a man who proves through drama surrounding the intricacies of his seemingly unremarkable life. He leaves home for The University of Missouri, stays there to become a teacher, marries and lives what most would describe as a quiet life.

He is not a hero, he is not villain, nor is he a genius, but a merely competent, good-natured man who goes about his life with little pretence. As biographical candidates go, he certainly doesn’t make the A-list and he probably wouldn’t make the B-list either. Yet when Williams puts Stoner’s life story down on paper, it is undeniably fascinating from the get-go. Why? Because most people are not celebrities, movie stars or musicians. Most of us, leave home, find our work, do the best we can for ourselves and our families, hit bumps in the road along the way and through it all, try and find solace in the simple pleasures life grants us free of charge.

Throughout his life, Stoner revels in these handouts of peaceful simplicity more than most, with perhaps the best example of this coming when his then-toddler of a daughter, Grace, watches him quietly as he works on a book in his study after his teaching hours. As she grows, Stoner frequently recalls this time that to the untrained eye, would have barely seemed noteworthy, with a wistfulness befitting of an event much more monumental.

But that is Stoner’s greatest strength: tapping into the sentimentality and powerful emotions that human beings connect to the smallest, seemingly most inconsequential things. Through its glorification of the small but beautiful through the eyes of a man with uncomplicated but decent intentions, Williams tells a story that is intensely relatable that proves there is beauty, triumph and tragedy in every human life. Even the ones of those who often tell us they do “nothing.”

Rating: 4.5/5 Beautiful, sad but undeniably brilliant.

Book Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Unless you were part of the 1% of kids who breezed through high school as though it was one long party, the chances are your teenage years were blighted by sporadic bouts of indecision, insecurity, and awkwardness which you did your best to hide. Well news flash, it turns out you weren’t alone, as Stephen Chbosky’s novel The Perks of Being Wallflower explains.

Told through a series of letters written by Charlie, an intelligent but extremely introverted high school freshman, the story examines the near-crippling fear, self-doubt and anxiety that can accompany adolescence and how in such often traumatic circumstances, teenagers find sanctuary.

Charlie does so through the friendships he forms with a group of misfits operating in their own carefree bubble outside of the in-crowd. A bubble that he soon finds himself inhabiting after bonding with brother and sister Patrick and Sam. His companionship with the siblings and the rest of their peer group grows as they bond over a shared passion for various distractions from the day-to-day stresses of high school such as good music, interesting books, and the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

While Charlie’s experiences are extremely relatable to any teenager not oozing with confidence, they also provide older readers (I must sadly include myself in this category) with a pleasant sense of nostalgia as they recall a time before they ever thought about bills and salaries and commutes, a time when the only thing that seemed to matter was finding the right song.

Despite being set in the early nineties, the story feels in no way dated and captures both the joyousness and the intense pain which adolescent life can fluctuate between in a manner that feels authentic throughout.


Rating: 4.5/5 A beautiful novel and a must read for anyone who was not one of the cool kids.

Book Review: Mrs Dalloway by Virgina Woolf

Set over the course of a single day in post-First World War London, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway was, and in many ways still is, regarded as a truly innovative novel and it was on these grounds that I decided to pick it up.

And I must say, at first, I was not too sure I had made the right decision. The opening pages though they are adorned with flowery, vivid descriptions that paint the London inhabited by the book’s affluent cast as a comfortable and charming world, seemed to be (in absence of a Woolf-esque description) about a whole lot of nothing. I found myself torn as although the prose was undeniably beautiful the distinct lack of story other than the fact that Mrs Dalloway would be hosting a party, left me seriously considering putting it down.

In the end, owing largely to its relative shortness at just 213 pages, I decided to see things through.

Having now read Mrs Dalloway in its entirety, I can say whole-heartedly that this proved to be the correct decision. What I took at first glance to be the purposeless, persistent charting of the characters’ meandering thoughts actually transpired to be a fascinating exploration into the complexity of the human mind and the enormous spectrum of emotions, feelings, and thoughts that trouble our consciousness every day. The cast of Mrs Dalloway, through their fluctuating emotions, prompt a re-assessment of the common propensity to downplay the relentless inner workings in every human mind as the simple mundanity of ‘normal people’. The character’s tribulations also force us to acknowledge as human beings that we are actually far more complex than we give ourselves credit for.

These inner musings of the male and female characters often focus around the notion status and the undeniable role it plays in life. Over the course of a single day, the characters seek to address the lifelong battle for self-definition that all people face; ponder how the world views them; and even in some cases, contemplate re-definition following a loss of status. The fact that these characters do this prior to and during a party in which the Prime Minister makes an appearance in an era that is more or less a century old, is as far as I’m concerned, irrelevant, as the soul-searching they undertake is just as applicable to people now in the era of Brexit and Donald Trump as it was in the time of David Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson. For that reason, Mrs Dalloway, though its purpose may at first seem obsolete, is deserving of its status as a classic piece of British literature.

Rating: 3.5/5 Beautifully written and unique in concept. Worthy of its place on any readers bucket list.