Book Review: What Does This Button Do? By Bruce Dickinson

Iron Maiden frontman and Bruce Dickinson, would be an interesting bloke based purely on his rock god status. But this book reveals a man for whom music is just one of many interests.

These include flying, machines, history and fencing. All of these side interests add depth to a man who could just have stuck to the music side of his life. Throughout this book Dickinson comes across as a smart bloke, but one without too much ego. When there is boasting it’s undercut with humour and balanced out when he owns his failures.

Despite this the book disappoints, mainly because of how thin it is. You get the impression there are plenty of stories left untold, and he confesses to being selective. In fact, the personal side aside from band break ups and learning to fly is completely missing. There are no romances or relationships, and his family don’t feature after he heads to university in the 70s.

It’s these gaps that leave the reader, or this reader at least, feeling a little short changed. Dickinson’s no frills writing is likeable and charming, and makes good company to be in, but frequently it feels too guarded or too shallow. More went on than is told.

That’s not that it’s without emotion, particularly a sequence where Bruce visits wartorn Sarajevo or his cancer fight. Both are handled well, without too much wallowing.

It’s a decent read, but leaves you wanting more and knowing that Dickinson could have given so much book.

Therefore it’s a decent read, but sadly underwhelming.

Verdict: Dickinson is funny, clever and good company. There are some good tales and insight, but it feels as though the walls are up and a lot is missing. Entertaining enough but by no means definitive. 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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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.


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.


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.


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: 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.


Book Review: Lost at Sea by Jon Ronson

Subtitled The Jon Ronson Mysteries this book is a collection of articles by the writer which sees him focus on a wide range of topics.

There are criminals, missing persons, mad scientists and superheroes. All are tackled with wit and insight, with Ronson showing a keen eye for detail and ear for the offhand remarks which reveal more than intended.

Due to the breadth of people and ideas, the tone shifts repeatedly. There are some which are just entertaining, such as when he spends times behind the scenes of Deal or No Deal which seems almost cult like. Or disconcerting conversations with robots which suggest that the rise of the machines is still some way off. There’s also a surreal entry about Ronson going to a UFO convention with the pop star Robbie Williams.

Others are more sinister, with Ronson investigating the seeming cover up of a missing person from a cruise ship, or the case of Jonathan King. King, a pop music producer and B-list celebrity convicted of child sex offences. This section makes for an interesting, if troubling read.

Ronson follows the case, interviewing King several times, and it throws up many different issues. Central to it all is King himself, who seems unrepentant, viewing the accusers as overplaying the lasting effects of his actions. He is loud, cracking gags and rather unpleasant, and yet Ronson states that he rather likes King, despite knowing he’s guilty. It’s a brave admission to make, an acceptance of the fact that people who do terrible things can have likeable qualities. It’s also an indicator of King’s humour and flamboyance, which were part of how he lured in his victims.

Conversely the trial of the Who Wants to be a Millionaire cheats is less grave, but does contain a smaller human tragedy, the vilification and mockery of Charles Ingram. Ronson shows the man’s frailty and given his fear of appearing stupid the whole scandal appears more damaging.

All the different pieces are worth reading and there are some nice ideas throughout, such as Ronson meeting different Americans on different rungs of the economic ladder. Starting with a dishwasher he goes up by talking to someone on 5 times as much, eventually interviewing a billionaire. It raises questions about tax and the attitudes towards it, and how much money you need to be happy.

I’ve loved Ronson’s writing for a while and here he is in sensational form, producing a series of pieces which are all fascinating reads which range from the bizarre to the creepy.

Verdict: Ronson shows his skill as a writer in tackling a range of subjects, all with insight, humour and intelligence. A cracking read filled with interesting stories and memorable people. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to. BETEO.


Book Review: The Flying Penguin by Frank Melling

I picked this up on  a whim, intrigued by the idea of reading about a motorcycle journalist.

Melling turns out to be more than this, having been a teacher and the organiser of his own motorcycle event. This is the second half of his memoirs, starting at a low ebb when his first wife files foe divorce and he hits rock bottom. From there he rebuilds his life, going on to remarry.

Melling is an interesting bloke, having set up and ran magazines written by students and convicts, as well as some motorcycle related businesses. The problem is that these don’t really translate into many incidents and the book lacks memorable moments. A lot of it is just outlining how things were organized, and long sections about printing equipment and finances are rather tedious. 

It’s an easy, pleasant read but forgettable. Melling seems a decent enough bloke but his writing lacks edge and there are a few phrases he overuses. 

An alright read, but not one that sticks with you. 

Verdict: A capable writer and seemingly a nice bloke, Frank Melling’s life story is just a little too dull to make for a memorable read. 5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.