Book Review: The Panther in my Kitchen by Brian Blessed

Brian Blessed is a true national treasure in my eyes. The bearded, booming actor is full of life, humour and eccentricity, and the world is a better place for having him in it.

This view would no doubt be shared by the many animals the man has befriended, loved and cared for over the years. From a legion of dogs and an army of cats, to a collection of wild animals he hosted in the ’60s, Blessed has lived a life as a keen animal lover and this memoir is all about his furry friends.

The writing is laid back and conversational, complete with jokey asides and exclamations it’s hard not to hear in the loud memorable tones of the writer. The stories don’t flow in order, and he disappears on tangents, but the book doesn’t suffer for it. It’s like a favourite uncle telling you stories over a cup of tea and some sandwiches. 

The stories are amusing and told with verve, and there are moving moments. Blessed’s clear love and enthusiasm is infectious and it made me appreciate my own little menagerie more.

It helped pass the time on a couple of night shifts and is just a lovely, charming read. It gives a snapshot of one man’s love of animals and hints at the odd, crazy life Blessed has led. I will have to seek out some of his other books now.

Verdict: Full of character and humour, this is a charming quick read with Blessed a likeable and vibrant narrator. A real gem of a book. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Advertisements

Book Review: Football’s Strangest Matches by Andrew Ward

Cliche tells us that football is a “funny old game” and there are plenty of odd occurences, strange coincidences and memorable moments throughout it’s history. This book decides to collect several of these oddities.

While the book is diverting enough and there are some interesting tales it fell far short of my expectations. The problem is Ward’s rather dry writing style, which just offers a rather bland retelling of events when a punchier style might have worked.

Similarly some incidents don’t deserve a full entry and might have been better servrd by being dotted throughout as bullet points. There are far too many games that share a theme- ridiculous scores, bizarre reasons for cancellations and extensive replays, which robs this book of being truly involving.

It passes the time but it is nowhere near as entertaining or strange as a reader might hope. 

Verdict: Disappointing. Although there are interesting stories the book on a whole is repetitive and let down by lacklustre writing which seems to get bogged down in stats and facts. 5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: James Acaster’s Classic Scrapes

I’ve been a fan of Acaster’s for a little while now, he’s a regular on Mock the Week and his quirky, awkward humour and delivery works for me. One of his knacks is for telling stories of awkwardness, etiquette and things going quickly wrong. This book is essentially a bunch of those stories.

I read this during a night shift and it helped pass the time brilliantly. The stories are consistently amusing with some genuinely laugh out loud funny. They capture Acaster’s on screen persona and the sense of a man who blunders into scrapes remarkably easily. 

Acaster’s writing is easy and affable, and there’s insight into his own foibles and flaws. He seems aware that many of the scrapes could have been avoided with some thought or choosing a different approach.

But as bizarre as some events are there are other scrapes you can relate to, knowing that you wouldn’t know how to act in some situations.

It’s great fun and probably a book you can dip in and out of, if you don’t fancy burning through it in one night. 

8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


10 Favourite Books of 2017

My annual tradition of listing my favourites of the books I read this year.

Observant readers will have noticed there haven’t been as many book reviews recently. With the wedding and honeymoon in the Autumn I was reading less and I had decided to go back and reread The Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. I’ve been loving reading them all over again, and am almost done so new reviews should start again early in the New Year.

Anyway, this is about books I read for the first time in 2017, and we’re gonna kick off with the fiction books.

5. The Princess and the Queen by George R. R. Martin

Part of the reason I went back to the ASOIAF series was that I read and loved this novella by Martin. While it lacks the depth of his other works, it still manages to create a realistic, layered world and the story of treachery and war is gripping. Review here.

4. Conclave by Robert Harris 

Harris seizes on the interesting idea of what happens behind closed doors as the Vatican chooses a new pope to weave a web of scandal and schemeing. It includes one too many scandals, stretching credulity at places, but it’s a quick, gripping read. Full review. 

3. The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz
Lagercrantz takes over the story of Lisbeth Salander and crafts a gritty, involving thriller. Review.

2. 87th Precinct by Ed McBain

I continue to work my way through McBain’s series and I read three this year. The standout was See Them Die, where he creates a tense sunny day as gang members plot murder and the police engage in a stand off. Other entries Lady, Lady, I Did It! And The Empty Hours are solid thrillers too.

1. Adrian’s Undead Diary by Chris Philbrook 
I continued to read this series and as it progresses, it goes from strength to strength. The diary story telling device works very well, and Adrian’s narration is involving. Philbrook also uses other side stories to develop a wider world picture of the zombie apocalypse and provides background to why it’s happening which takes the story in a new, interesting direction. Eager to read more. Check out my reviews of parts twothree and four.

Alright, onto nonfiction books.

5. Strange Places, Questionable People by John Simpson

BBC journalist Simpson recounts his eventful career. It documents some of the major events of the late twentieth century and makes a fascinating read. In places he can be rather pompous, but for the most part he is an entertaining and likeable narrator. Review.

4. Books vs Cigarettes/Decline of the English Murder by George Orwell.

Two collections of essays by George Orwell, am becoming a fan of his clever, insightful writing and will keep my eye out for more of his nonfiction stuff. The review of Books… is here while you can find my thoughts on English Murder here.


3. Lost at Sea by Jon Ronson
Jon Ronson collects writings on various topics which serves up an entertaining read. He brings his usual warmth and keen observation to a mix of criminals, conspiracy theorists and oddballs. My review

2. Frank Sinatra Has a Cold and Other Essays by Gay Talese

Picked up after an offhand mention in another book this turned out to be a gem. Talese writes with a vivid style and keen eye for nuance and subtle tells in his subjects. The Sinatra piece is great but the essay about broken former boxing champ Floyd Patterson is just as impressive and painfully moving. Review.

1. Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

An autobiography of a rock legend which proves to be just as well written as his music. The insight, warmth and openness that make the Boss’ songs so involving is on show here and it is cracking read pleasingly light on ego. Here I am gushing about it.


Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Kung Fu Trip by Benjamin Zephaniah

There are very few living poets I could name and even less I could recognise. In fact other than Zephaniah, I can’t think of any.

Having been impressed by an interview he did with Russell Howard I decided to check out some of his stuff and found this quick read. It follows him on a trip to China to train with Kung Fu masters.

Zephaniah writes with warmth and humour, a keen observer of the people he meets and captures the sense of place wonderfully. He writes with enthusiasm about his love of martial arts and what he gets from it.

The journey includes odd characters and bizarre events like the writer being mistaken for the long dead Bob Marley.

It’s a short book, but an entertaining one and a good one to read on the go. 

Verdict: Zephaniah is a charming, fun and likeable writer and this short trip is an interesting one to join him on. 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: I Can Make You Hate by Charlie Brooker

I’ve long been a fan of Charlie Brooker, who previously wrote a beautifully scathing television column for The Guardian. And have read a few of his collections before, and this captures the end of his Screen Burn column.

The pieces cover 2009-12 and so it’s a little out of date, although it is quite nice to look back at various controversies, news stories and events with hindsight. Brooker attacks a variety of topics with his usual jet black humour and surreal, grotesque hyperbole. It had me laughing out loud and smiling repeatedly, and I found that Brooker is on the money quite frequently. 

There are times when he goes for lazy gags, but it’s evident he knows this himself. And they are off set when he takes unique views on topics and shows real insight.

What is most interesting is Brooker’s frank assessment of his own role, his own writing style and his changing character. Brooker addresses the fact he is mellowing, that he can’t muster the same anger for trivial reality TV. There’s even a sense of guilt over previous punching down. Some might regard this as going soft or even some form of “selling out” but it makes sense. It shows a maturing writer, and his open acknowledgment of this makes sense. The shift isn’t glaring as Brooker can still fire himself up and throw barbs, but the targets have changed.

It’s a very entertaining read and one you can dip in and out of.

Verdict: Sarky, dark and biting, Brooker is an entertaining and fiery writer. But these are not just rants they are tempered with insight, awareness and humour. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Unfinished Business: A sort of review of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach

The movie adaptation of this book became a massive success due to the “grey pound”, a cast of familiar faces and exotic locations won over viewers.

So, what of the book?

Well, I got it because MWF spotted a bunch of surprise books and picked it for me. 

I took it on a night shift and got cracking. The book differs from the film it seems, and I suspect is bleaker. We’re introduced to a selection of lonely, lost old timers who decide to go across to India for their retirement.

The problem is that it makes for dreary reading. One of the coffin dodging protagonists is a disgusting old man, and he is joined by a racist and a tragic old lady.

I slogged a hundred pages in but frankly at this point decided to cut my losses as I didn’t really care what happened. Possibly because if they did find a “happily ever after” it would probably only be a few more years.

Moggach adds black humour to proceedings which did yield a few smiles, but largely it was just far too bleak. And while she tried to make me sympathise with characters by explaining their background it broke the “show don’t tell” and often times the reasons didn’t excuse their actions. 

Dismal.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Riff-Raff, Rebels and Rock Gods by Garry Bushell

I knew of Garry Bushell before as a slightly laddish TV critic, but with this book covering his time as a rock journalist during the late 70s and early 80s I decided to check it out as it featured some bands I like. I also like tales of old time rock and roll stars who weren’t as neutered and bland as the current crop.

After the punk boom died down the musical landscape seems to have been a varied place with punk continuing but morphing into subgenres like Oi! as well as a resurgence of ska indluenced bands with the 2 Tone acts. There was also the birth of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWoBHM, for acronym fans). 

As a journalist for Sounds magazine, Bushell would go out and join bands on the road and interview them. It seems to have been a time for debauchery, excess and, in many cases, violence. His introduction sees him call it the best years of his life and yet the first two pieces, which see him touring India with Hanoi Rocks and in Berlin with The Exploited, are filled with griping and complaining.

He’s far happier while joining ZZ Top in Vegas and there are some fun tales later on, but enjoyment of the book hinges on how much you warm to Bushell, who is a frustrating guide on these trips. While showing great enthusiasm and a knack for inventive similes, Bushell can be extremely blokey in places and the attitudes towards homosexuality will appear backwards to many modern readers.

The rock stars here are a mixed bunch appearing as a mix daft posers, barely more than thugs, drunk disasters and the occasional nice guy (hello, Ozzy Osbourne). The bands are a mix too with big, familiar names like Ozzy, ZZ Top, The Specials and Iron Maiden rubbing shoulders with bands who faded out (Hanoi Rocks, Angelic Upstarts and Judge Dread). It’s interesting to hear about acts you know, but there’s something more fascinating about the bands who didn’t make it. And one of the most entertaining sections sees Bushell joining the Angelic Upstarts for a gig in a prison. The anti-authority aggression they bring is well received by the cons although the chaplain, tricked by their name is shocked.
It’s an interesting read, but at times irritating. It does however capture a lost era, not only of music and music journalism, but of the political and social landscape.

Verdict: Entertaining enough but Bushell isn’t always a likeable writer. The stories are entertaining and there is a lot of humour on show, but much is rather juvenile. An interesting glance back at rock’s past in an unsettled era. 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Princess and the Queen by George R. R. Martin

Currently loving the Game of Thrones TV show and still annoyed by the long, long wait for The Winds of Winter to be released and continue the series (it’s been almost 4 years since I finished last part) I needed my George R. R. Martin itch scratching so chose this short novel.

Set 200 years before The Song of Ice and Fire series this details the war between different factions of the Targaryen clan. When King Viserys dies the question of who is next causes a rift. Many feel Princess Rhaenyra, his oldest child should be next but Queen Alicent argues it should be his son Prince Aegon, as the oldest male heir.

The Princess and the Queen are old rivals, with the Queen fearing for the safety of her kids if the Princess takes the throne. What follows is a retelling of the war in the form of a history recorded by a fictional character.

While it lacks the great characterisation of Martin’s writing it still makes for a good read, a gripping tale of war, treachery and dragons. It keeps the writer’s knack for creating a complicated, textured world and not shying away from bloody, brutal violence.

Also on show here are some dragon on dragon fights and the whole thing is a cracking read. Quick, involving and entertaining it provides more background of the world of Westeros and the characters introduced are vivid and interesting.

Verdict: The history format means that the variety of perspectives found in the Ice and Fire books are lacking, but this short trip to the same world is an involving read nonetheless. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to. BETEO.


Book Review: Strange Places, Questionable People by John Simpson

Having enjoyed his short book about his adventures as a news reporter I decided to check this book out, a longer more detailed account of John Simpson’s life and career. 

While a lot of the same ground is covered, there are plenty of fresh tales to tell, and Simpson’s globetrotting to some of the world’s most dangerous places. There are near misses, tense moments and adventures spanning from the mid sixties to the late nineties. As well as this Simpson talks about his childhood and personal life, but the majority of the book is about his career as a BBC journalist. 

Simpson writes with candour and humour, discussing his odd drive to head into danger and to ignore the potential risks. This drive meant he was a skilled journalist and placed himself at the heart of global situations.

There are times when he seems a tad pompous, and politically I didn’t always agree with him, but Simpson is largely a clever, compassionate and, in places, humourous writer. He has a knack for capturing smaller stories among the chaos and a good sense of character, sketching in the figures and giving his honest opinion on those he meets.

It’s an interesting read which shows the horror of war and the changing world. Simpson has some interesting stories and gives insight into how the media works.

Verdict: A massively interesting and entertaining read which spans a massive section of modern history. Simpson is a talented writer and really pulls the reader into the story while avoiding sensationalism. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to. BETEO.