Who I’m Supporting at Russia 2018

Later on today the Russia 2018 World Cup begins, and as Wales failed to qualify, I have to pick a foreign country to root for. Luckily, I’ve had lots of practice as Wales’ 2016 campaign is the only one I’ve really had skin in the game for, and it broke me.

So, the question is, out of the 32 nations in the running for the trophy, who do I pick?

First of all, I’ll address the England question. My Dad is English, so some may be wondering why as the metaphorical Land of my Fathers failed to qualify I’m not rooting for the literal one. Well, it’s not that complicated. While I may have got behind England in 1996 to the extent I wept as Southgate ballsed up his penalty, I’ve experienced a lot since then.

And a lot of that is that some English people are massive bellends. I know not all of my neighbours across the bridge are, but there are a lot that are. I went to a Welsh university, but Welsh students were a minority and dealing with a certain breed of Englishman soured me on the country, as does watching the predictable tournament circus unfold.

  • England qualify.
  • One player is singled out as the Great White Hope. If the player is carrying a knock this adds drama. (This year it’s Harry Kane, filling a role previously filled by Wayne Rooney, David Beckham and Paul Gasgcoine)
  • Another player in the squad is singled out as a “gamble” or “risky” inclusion. He is also criticised for some perceived flaw- laziness, being a bit flash, not being English enough. (Raheem Stirling for 2018, but in ’90 it was John Barnes. Another player who got a lot of flak was Owen Hargreaves, which is odd as in the 2006 QF he was the only player to convert his penalty, while missers Lampard, Gerrard and Carragher are held in higher regard).
  • Some pundits advise caution, and fans talk about not getting carried away.
  • England get through the group stage. Probably second in their group or having squeaked into first in solid, but hardly amazing performances.
  • The fans begin to get carried away.
  • They win their first knock out game against a smaller nation.
  • The Quarter Finals are the end of the road with the fans utterly stunned as they are either (a) outclassed or (b) screw up a shoot out.
  • The press single out one player or referee decision to blame the exit on. They invoke memories of 1966 and we are treated to someone with a St George’s cross on their face crying.
  • The manager is fired and the players are slagged off for continuing their lives and being seen smiling because they should be walking through the streets flogging themselves and lamenting for at least six years.

Seeing this play out as an outsider is rather depressing, because it’s predictable and massively unfair. A team is eleven men, it seems unfair to pin it all on one poor bastard. It’s even more unfair when it’s clearly because the tabloids have decided to enter the “tear them down” part of the cycle.

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Also, I don’t think I could stand an England win because I would never hear the end of it. It’s been 52 years since the last time they won and I hear about Hurst, Moore, Banks et al. frequently. Hell, the final goal is probably the most played historic footage in Britain.

And before any English fans take issue, can you say hand on heart that you’d genuinely support Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland if they qualified and you didn’t? Honestly?

This isn’t “anyone but England” by the way. If the final was England vs Russia, or Switzerland, or Saudi Arabia, I would have to concede that I’d want England to win. But I’d probably regret it within weeks.

So, who’s it going to be. Well, I’ve narrowed it down to four.

Iceland

Underdogs. Minnows. Viking warriors.

One of the best things about Euro 2016 was the success of the Icelandic team. Coming from a pretty small country they arrived with little expectation and probably would have been a footnote if not for two things. Firstly, their fans, who were massively passionate and intimidating thanks to their primal “Thunder Clap” chant. Seriously, even on TV that was awesome, in the stadium it must have been immense.

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Secondly, they more than held their own. They passed through their group undefeated, having managed a solid draw against the Portuguese, the eventual winners. In the knock out stages they dumped out England in a giant killing that warmed the heart and while they may have been thrashed by the French, they still did themselves proud and impressed.

Germany

I’m going for the Germans because when I was asked who I thought might win it, they were my pick. I also like the fact that they could match Brazil’s five wins and they boast a decent squad. Also, I’ve never fully understood the anti-German feeling a lot of British fans have. World War II was a long time ago, people, let it go.

Mexico

I don’t know what it is about Mexico, but I’ve long had a soft spot for them. They’ve never won it before, or even come close.

Belgium

My go to international team on FIFA, and boasting some world class players like Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard. Plus, they need something other than waffles to brag about.

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Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO

 

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Film Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

2015’s Jurassic World was an enjoyable adventure which rebooted a franchise that had been dead for over a decade. Part of the appeal was that it went back to the theme park roots, upped the dinosaurs and ensuing carnage, and featured a likeable lead performance from Chris Pratt.

Of course, the success meant that we would be seeing more of Pratt’s Owen Grady and the dinosaurs. But with the park closed down, and the island having become the land that time forgot, what would be the story.

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Well, we kinda go down the same route as the very first sequel, 1997’s The Lost World. Reluctant hero returning to dino country? Check. Dodgy hunters? Check. Dinosaurs running wild in the US? Check.

Owen is drawn back to Isla Nubar by his ex Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), the former manager of Jurassic World who wants to save all the giant lizards (I’m getting sick of typing “dinosaurs”, okay?) before the island’s volcano Pompeiis them all. She’s been trying to win over influential people, but the US government has decided not to intervene. This is because someone has finally realised that the best course of action in a Jurassic movie is to just listen to Dr Ian Malcolm (a returning, if underused Jeff Goldblum). He argues that as mankind subverted natural law they should just let Mother Nature sort it all out with sweet lava justice.

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Goldblum’s back. Unfortunately he doesn’t do much

Unfortunately, while common sense is prevailing elsewhere, Claire gleefully accepts the offer of help from Rafe Spall’s Eli Mills, a slick business man who’s employer was involved in setting up the original park before falling out with John Hammond (Richard Attenborough). They travel to the island to rescue 11 species, with Owen needed to bring in Blue, the Velociraptor he trained from birth.

At the island they meet Ted Levine’s mercenary who may as well be named Dodgy McJudas because as soon as he rocks up you know he’s a wrong ‘un. Owen finds Blue, but holy double cross, Batman! The mercenaries take the raptor, leaving Owen, Claire and the comic relief behind. They leg it from the exploding island, and discover that Eli Mills is planning to sell Barney and friends in order to fund their experiments in creating hybrids, having forgotten how badly that went down last time.

Can Owen save Blue? Can they free the dinos and get them a new home? And what exactly have those mad scientists cooked up this time?

Here’s the thing, some of this movie is rather good fun, and kudos has to go to Pratt and BDH, who do well as our plucky heroes and have good chemistry once more. Unfortunately, BDH’s Claire seems a little confused here, motivation wise. She’s massively invested in the dinosaurs and as the villain points out, she exploited the lizards firsts, so her outrage is odd.

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Personally, I was with Malcolm and felt they should have let the lava take care of these abominations, but there’s no movie there.

There are very few surprises here, apart from a couple of moments when logic jumps ship. You can see a lot of the plot points coming, and one of the big reveals was so obvious that I clicked what was happening in the first scene it looms up.

It delivers a few decent action sequences, but the new Big Bad is a little underwhelming. Compared to the raptors of the first two movies, or the Indominus Rex in the second movie, this new dinosaur doesn’t chill the blood or exude an aura of danger. In fact, it’s the sequences elsewhere in the movie that are more enjoyable, which is not good. The big villain is supposed to be the main event, and here it’s overshadowed by supporting players.

This is fun enough, and is okay to pass the time, and a few sequences are quite gripping, but this is definitely a weaker addition to the series. The trouble is they’ve still hooked me in for the next movie, as this ends hinting at a far more enjoyable story. It passes the time, but it feels a tad underwhelming.

Verdict: Pratt and Howard are decent enough, but the story is uninspired and easy to predict. A few decent action sequences aren’t enough, and it doesn’t deliver on its promise. Meh. 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: “Rommel?” “Gunner who?”: A Confrontation in the Desert by Spike Milligan

Having really enjoyed the first instalment of Spike Milligan’s war memoirs, I was keen to get on with the rest of the series. So, when I got an Amazon gift card for my birthday, this was one of the first things I downloaded onto my Kindle.

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Picking up where the first ends, this sees Milligan and 19th Battery in Algeria, pushing on for Tunisia as the war starts to heat up. Whereas in the first book the conflict seemed almost a world away from his training on England’s South coast, here he is closer to the danger and actually comes under fire. This means that despite Milligan’s sense of humour there is a darker edge. One particularly dark moment has Milligan taking a watch from a recently killed Italian soldier and sending it back to his father.

The humour of the men changes, there’s more gallows humour and at times Milligan admits that the wisecracks feel forced, or repetitive. The men are clearly rattled, but trying to carry on as normal, to put on a brave face, but the cracks do show. There’s a particularly moving sequence when one of Milligan’s friends, a Lieutenant, is killed.

There are other moments when death looms large, but Milligan is also well aware of the ridiculous moments of war and the quirks of the men he serves with. There is a feeling of not taking life too seriously which flows through everything he does, with even his more introspective moments undercut with quips and gags.

The gags come thick and fast and it made me laugh many times, but there is a darkness and sense of consequence here that makes it less fun and carefree than the first part. That being said it is an entertaining and involving read about one man’s war, and thankfully a man of humour and intelligence.

Verdict: Very entertaining but the horrors of war close in and make this slightly less fun than the first. Luckily, Milligan is still a hugely entertaining writer with a keen eye for the absurdities of war and a knack of capturing characters and place well. A good read. 8/10

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: The Week Of

I liked the look of this Netflix Original and despite his hit-and-miss output, I still find Adam Sandler quite a funny on screen presence (Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer and The Longest Yard being favourites of mine). Throw in Chris Rock and the premise of a large, chaotic family wedding, and I thought this might be a decent watch.

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The premise is simple, dealing with the week of the wedding of Kenny Lustig’s (Sandler) daughter to the son of Kirby Cordice (Rock). Kenny is financially strapped, but determined to deliver the best wedding he can for his daughter, what he sees as his last proper action as a parent and his responsibility. However, this causes problems such as the fact that the venue they have chosen is beset by problems due to the cost cutting decisions of the manager, who ignored all of Kenny’s recommendations when renovating.

This leads to Kenny having to put up a massive number of guests in his own house, which becomes full and cramped with a colourful, eccentric band of family members from both sides. Kenny is the patriarch of the family, and constantly having to put out fires and being asked to solve issues.

Kirby, meanwhile, is not the centre of his family, indeed he is slightly ostracised. A successful and ambitious surgeon, he sacrificed his family life for his career and was a poor husband and father in the past. He is clearly troubled by this and his relationship with his children is distant and awkward, despite his best efforts.

Where the film works is in ramping up the farcical elements, from a diabetes effected uncle who is mistaken for a war hero, to an unhinged nephew constantly at risk of snapping, to attempts to save money by ridiculous schemes, the overwhelming family is constructed well, with Kenny constantly under pressure. Sandler does very well here as the regular Joe and nice guy placed under massive stress, doing his shtick of barely suppressed rage rather well. Rock is likeable too, as the normal man thrust into this mad situation.

While there are plenty of decent lines and some big laughs, the whole movie feels lacking in some way. It took me a while to figure out why, but I finally put my finger on it. There’s a massive lack of conflict or resolution here.

Kenny’s rage, slowly bubbling away, never boils over. It deprives the film of a big emotional blow out, and some crowd pleasing ranting from Sandler. He doesn’t lose it with his irritating relatives, the hotel manager who jeopardises the wedding or anyone else along the way.

Similarly, while Kirby scores a minor victory over his judgemental former mother-in-law, the rest of the family are still dismissive of him and despite him loosening up we don’t see much sign of his relationship with his family softening. One dance with his estranged daughter doesn’t feel enough.

And there are other factors that never pay off- the maid of honour is painted as insecure and nervous, but doesn’t get a moment of triumph over the critical bridesmaids. The troubled teen doesn’t get any saving grace other than being shown dancing at the wedding.

One area that may have saved it is a bit more drama on the daughter front. While there are glimpses that Kenny’s daughter is angry at his refusal to allow Kirby to help or embarrassed by the wedding he is putting on it never comes to much. It means that when Kenny talks about his fear of losing her it feels less powerful than had it been delivered following a heated argument.

The central couple are massively forgettable. In fact, I can’t credit the actors here as I’ve forgotten their character names so don’t want to put the wrong people here. They get one scene alone together that I remember, which is rather sweet as they joke about barely seeing each other due to the manic preparations, and the groom is shown to be a decent chap in his interactions with other family members, but they barely feature. It’s a massive shame as this could have strengthened the film and provided a nice contrast to the unending farce and OTT-ness of the rest of the movie.

Chaos is fine, but better with small, sweeter moments to break it up. And also, had they been fleshed out more we may have cared more about how the wedding turned out. But of course, the story here is really about the fathers of the bride and groom.

It’ll make you laugh, but it won’t really stick with you and it feels like some zealous editing might have helped. In order to keep the laughs flowing, the filmmakers have sacrificed story and heart, which are the things which make the best comedies work. As it is, this is merely alright.

Verdict: It delivers on plenty of laughs, but lacks focus and chooses silliness over emotion far too often. This means the attempts to add feeling seem rushed and it doesn’t resonate as much as it should. It’ll pass the time, but it’s hit and miss. 5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

You gotta love a good deal on books. On a recent trip to town I visited HMV where they had a two for a fiver offer, I picked up Carrie Fisher’s Shockaholic which had been on my radar for a while, and decided to take a punt on this book as the blurb told me this had inspired the movie Cabaret and the setting of Germany as the Nazis begin to get a foothold sounded interesting.

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I’m glad I took a gamble as it made for quite an entertaining read, with Isherwood a keen observer of people and he creates vivid, believable characters, all clearly based on people he knew. The writing is clever and witty, with insight and provides little snapshots of life in the city. The political factions are largely in the background as the semi-autobiographical vignettes unfold. It begins with a few SA members on the street, debates in cafes and then builds to the final stages with mass rallies, assaults and the Nazis seizing power.

Isherwood, as a gay man, is perilously placed and a great number of those he encounters are similarly in danger as the Nazis grow in influence. There are the family friends the Landauers, a Jewish family who find themselves subject to boycotts and threats, actress Sally Bowles who thrives in the decadent society that the Nazis will seek to suppress and then there are the Communists he talks to in cafes. Their talk of revolution and civil war has a feel of adolescent posturing to it, yet the real thing is coming and many find themselves in trouble for the things they’ve said.

The early stages of the book are slow and meandering, but not without charm due to Isherwood’s wry observations and knack of sketching characters well. There is a lack of incident which hurts the book slightly as it stops it from being the book you rush back to, eager to know what happens next. But in the closing stages there is a pervading tension and a few episodes which show just how much the city has changed. The decadent, free spirited Berlin has become claustrophobic, tense and dangerous. Isherwood ends the book preparing to leave the city, and the reader knows that worse is to come.

I’d recommend this book as the writing is wonderful, and the sense of place, character and mood is brilliantly realised. A great read.

Verdict: A well written piece that may lack for drama and incident in places, but impresses due to the characters and tone that Isherwood captures. An interesting snapshot of pre-Nazi Germany. The building tension and sense of dread bubbling beneath the surface is captivating. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


First thoughts on Jigsaw pictures

I’ve not long finished watching the Netflix series The Punisher, which sees Jon Bernthal take up the role of Frank Castle, the one man army waging a quest for bloody justice. As a massive fan of the comic book character, particular Garth Ennis’ fantastic work, I kinda enjoyed the show although I was glad that they wrapped up the conspiracy theory angle. I’d quite like it if future seasons stuck more to the basics, Castle’s war against organised crime.

One character who is returning to the season is Frank’s former friend and now enemy, Billy “the Beaut” Russo (Ben Barnes), last scene heavily bandaged in hospital after Frank introduced his face to some cut glass. Earlier this week the first on set images of Barnes appeared and the reaction I’ve seen has been largely negative.

It is true that the TV version is distinctly less horrific than the version of the character who adopts the name Jigsaw due to his patchwork face of scars. But for me this is a good thing. Why? Well, let me explain.

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Barnes as Russo/Jigsaw

First of all, while it may have been entertaining to see a horrifically mutilated Jigsaw akin to something from a horror movie, it wouldn’t be fitting with the world the Netflix shows have built, which is far more restrained than the source material. To have Barnes walk around like Leatherface wouldn’t fit with the rest of the look of the show.

My second argument for the reduced scarring is that it could actually work well into the character’s story, motivation and presence in the second series. A fully deformed Russo would be almost sympathetic and his psychopathic tendencies easier to dismiss. But the less scarred version? That’s a lot more interesting.

While the scars are noticeable and the kind of thing you wouldn’t want to have done to you, they’re not actually that bad. But here is where the writers’ can play up Russo’s vanity and warped perception. He can see himself as an utterly hideous freak, describing the wounds in extreme terms or even seeing something different when he looks in the mirror. It can become an obsession for him, a mania that he can’t escape from, regardless of the reassurance of others or the actual physical reality.

Billy was a rich man in season one, and while many of his assets will no doubt have been seized by the authorities, it makes sense that he’d have some stashed away. We could have the story follow that he’s burned through these resources with surgeries to tidy his wounds, but wants more done.

This could lead him to sell his military skills as an enforcer/hitman to organized crime, leading him to cross paths with Frank once more.

Similarly, they could highlight the depths of his obsession by showing his changed circumstances. We saw Billy as a man with expensive tests but he could now be shown a broken man in more than ways than one. Living in a mirror of Frank’s stripped down bases, he has only the essentials and a plethora of skin creams and ointments which he applies with obsessive dedication. Rebuilding his shattered face is his major obsession, rivalled only by his desire for revenge on the man who inflicted it on him.

At least, that’s how I would write it.

So, I don’t see the minimal scarring as a cop out, but rather as a sign that the show is avoiding grotesquery and going for something a little more subtle and psychological.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Sum of My Parts by James Sanford

I’m not usually a fan of misery memoirs or cancer survivor stories. In fact before this the only book about having cancer I can remember reading is Lance Armstrong’s. That book inspired me, leaving me slightly disappointed by his subsequent fall from grace.

I only picked this because I have Kindle Unlimited and I decided to branch out a bit with my reading. I’m glad I did as Sanford is a talented writer and thankfully avoids mawkishness or cliche.

Sanford wakes up one morning to a strange feeling down there and when he finally sees a doctor discovers that it is testicular cancer. Sanford details his treatment and the impact on his personal life.

One of the interesting aspects of this book is that Sanford talks about how the treatment reawakens old body image issues and his slow route to some form of body acceptance and newfound confidence.

The writing is polished and engaging enough, albeit with a lack of flair. It’s a decent reading but at times Sanford appears to be holding himself back. You get the feeling that more may have gone on but he chooses to leave it out. Which is fair enough, it’s his choice after all but it does leave this feeling rather muted. This detachment stopped me from being able to really connect with the book at times.

Verdict: A decent read that avoids self pity but feels too guarded to fully engage. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Fat Boy on a Diet: May Update: There are no calories on your birthday

Little earlier this month as I decided to have my last weigh in for May earlier in the week as I knew that with my birthday on Friday and a couple of celebration meals planned waiting until the end wouldn’t be the best course.

I’d been kinda good in May, or at least I thought I did. I made an effort to exercise more, managing to crack 10,000 steps most days. I could have done better on the eating front, and this turned out to be my undoing.

A pound and a bit.

A bloody pound is all I lost. That is frankly pathetic.

Really need to focus on the food side of the equation now. Pointless burning off all those calories walking if I then cancel it out by scoffing junk in the evenings.

At least I’m moving in the right direction, but I really need to do better.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

Someone else has probably used this, but what the heck…. ahem. The problem with Solo is that it’s very so-so.

The problem with the prequel in general is that we all know where this is going. And while it can be fun to see how characters get there sometimes it just feels like ticking the boxes of familiar touches being added or lazy forshadowing. Both are on display here.

What do we know about Han Solo’s life before the original trilogy. Well, his loyal companion is Chewbacca, he’s a smuggler in trouble with Jabba the Hutt and he won the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian. So, here we have him meet and rescue Chewie, hints of Jabba on the horizon and the card game where he wins the ship.

The winning of the ship is one of the film’s weak spots. In Empire we get the impression that Lando and Han are old buddies who have been through a lot, which is why Han trusts him and why his betrayal hurts him. While Donald Glover is wonderful as the swaggering, posturing Lando, their relationship is fleeting.

While Lando may reappear in the sequels this leaves itself wide open for, the fact he’s already lost the Falcon means that their relationship already has an edge to it. Why not have Han covet the ship here but only win it later?

Glover is one of many strong performers here, along with Woody Harrelson as Beckett, the outlaw who Han teams up with and serves as a sort of mentor. Paul Bettany chews the scenery as the villain and in the femme fatale role Emilia Clarke does well enough with a fairly standard part.

This is the problem. A lot of it is standard. There are double crosses you see from miles away, characters act predictably and the only real shock for me was the reappearance of a familiar, villainous face.

The film is entertaining enough but it’s decidedly average. While there are a couple of laughs and a few decent action sequences, there’s nothing that makes it really stand out. It passes the time but doesn’t really stay with you.

I feel as the lead Alden Ehrenreich may get some of the blame, and he doesn’t have Ford’s charisma, but few do. He does okay and does capture the character’s bluffing nature and reliance on luck, but the role he gets is painfully naive and lacks the sarcastic edge that made Solo eclipse Luke Skywalker. Perhaps the sequels will have him grow more cynical.

Sequels seem an inevitability given the way the movie ends, but frankly, I don’t really care. Personally? I’d rather just have a Lando movie come out, where we follow Glover’s character on various schemes as he styles and profiles across the universe.

Things this film gets right- the casting of Glover and Harrison, a chase through a cosmic storm, having fun with a hammy villain, one twist, the interplay between Han and Chewie. But mainly the inclusion of Lando’s droid L3, who rails against the injustices droids face, and wants rebellion, she also gets many of the laughs. I thought it was Gwendoline Christie on voiceover duties but it turns out to be Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who was in Broadchurch, apparently.

What does it get wrong? Han is written weakly, it’s predictable, they rush introducing the iconic Solo features, underwritten role for Clarke and the fact much of the film takes place in the gloom. We’ve seen the Falcon before, and it was lit decently, but here half the ship is in near darkness. Lighten up.

Verdict: Hit and miss, with the misses edging it. The film isn’t without it’s charms but it feels unnecessary, rushed and lazy. Definitely a lesser entry in the franchise. 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher

Having enjoyed Wishful Drinking, I was keen to read more of Carrie Fisher’s stuff and this book was just as enjoyable.

Like the previous book the writing here is conversational, witty and painfully honest. Fisher discusses her experience of Electroconvulsive Therapy and the help it did with her personal demons while still mocking herself for her memory lapses.

Fisher trades in sarcastic asides and silly gags, but these merely mask the big heart at the centre as she discusses the troubles of fame, Michael Jackson, ageing and her relationship with her father. It’s this section that touches on her making peace with former stepmother Elizabeth Taylor, that is most profound with Fisher showing great compassion and understanding for the man who walked out on her as a child. She talks about coming to forgive and understand him a bit better, of relinquishing the bitterness that might have grown within. There are moments of humour here too and her portrayal of Eddie Fisher is affectionate but not blindly so, she knows his failings and weaknesses, some of which she sees reflected in herself.

Fisher writes about celebrity and fame with insight few others can, having grown up within the machine and seeing how it all came together.

Her writing is chaotic at times, rambling in places but she never loses the reader, her wit and personality locking you in to what she has to say. A delight of a book.

Verdict: Funny and painfully open this is a great read. Fisher’s style is unpolished but this works well, allowing her larger than life personality to permeate. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.