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.

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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.


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.


Book Review: The Binman Chronicles by Neville Southall

Everton and Wales goalkeeping legend Neville Southall’s career was winding down when I started watching football. I can remember him doing a decent job for an uninspiring Everton side and playing for Wales quite a few times. But it would only be later that I came to appreciate how successful his career between the posts had been.

Southall is Wales’ most capped player and won several trophies at Everton, becoming their most decorated player. This book charts his career and life after football, and is a decent read throughout.

He’s quite direct and open in his analysis of his career, acknowledging that the discipline and dedication which made him so successful also contributed to problems in his personal life, due to his selfish focus.

Southall talks about the players, managers and coaches he worked with, at times with unflinching honesty. He lifts the lid on behind the scenes politics and changing room rifts, as well as the unprofessional chaos of the Wales set up.

He’s also not shy in offering his opinions on problems in the sport. When discussing the banning of English clubs from European competition in the ’80s there is an anger which remains fresh, anger at the impact this had on the careers of a generation. And it’s hard to dismiss that UEFA’s frustration at English dominance may have had a part in the decision.

Throughout this book Southall is a down to earth narrator and seems a decent bloke, if a bit curmudgeonly. And it provides an insight into the drive needed to be a top athlete and the challenges faced, particularly with regards injury and navigating a world of big characters and egos.

And it shows the cutthroat world of football as various players and managers are cast aside unsentimentally. In fact reading about the end of Big Nev’s time at Everton after 17 years provides a sad example of how, despite a player’s contributions and history, clubs are quick to move on and replace players.

A good read for football fans, and Southall had a good life after football, using his experience to teach and help disadvantaged youths.

Verdict: An honest and direct read from a man who opens up about his career and peers. Southall is a likeable writer and provides a detailed look into what was going on in the teams he played for. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall by Spike Milligan

What an absolute gem of a book. This is the first part of Milligan’s war memoirs and I will definitely be continuing with the series.

The book charts Milligan’s life from the start of the war through his enlistment and time as a signaller. The book goes right up to his arrival in Algiers with the prospect of real combat looming.

Milligan’s writing is simply marvellous, delivering a steady stream of gags in a breathless fashion that makes this a hard book to put down. The stories of shirking, scheming, drinking and disorder are hugely entertaining, with Milligan mocking pompous authority figures. The war is largely a distant thing, with the odd moment where it starts to intrude on his life.

The book had me laughing aloud repeatedly and smiling almost continuously. Milligan’s humour and individuality leaps off the page and the result is a book you wish was longer. Thoroughly recommend.

Verdict: Just wonderful, a masterpiece of hilarity. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Countdown to Lockdown by Mick Foley

When I got back into wrestling as a student Mick Foley quickly became one of my favourites. He had some ridiculously brutal matches while coming across as a likeable, rather sweet dude. There was something about him that won you over and he seemed more real than many of the characters he grappled with.

I read his autobiography which just made me like him even more as it was well written and very entertaining.

He’s since written more books and this, a fourth memoir details his time having left WWE for TNA. Lockdown is the pay-per-view event where he would face wrestling legend Sting.

As the title suggests the book details the build up to the event with Foley giving a behind the scenes look at how the feud is created, how he comes up with his promos and his fears regarding his injuries and whether he can still deliver an entertaining match.

Foley talks about the mental and physical preparation, the way he tries to build the story for the match. It’s interesting and shows the work and dedication he puts into his craft.

It also provides insight into why Foley left the WWE, and the problems he had there towards the end.

Other parts of the book see Foley write on a variety of subjects including performance enhancing drugs, Tori Amos and his charity work. In places Foley’s humour is slightly juvenile but he still manages to come across well.

For wrestling fans it’s another chance to look behind the curtains and Foley continues to write well.

Verdict: A fun and interesting read about the wrestling business. Foley is adorably goofy at times and a warm, engaging writer. Non wrestling fams might not be too fussed, but for Foley fans it’s a solid read. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Unspoken by Luke Allnutt

This Kindle single is an intensely personal story of death and loss. The writer’s father is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the book deals with him coming to terms with this and also his expectations of what the loss will be like.

Allnutt discusses how attitudes towards death have changed as has the idea of what a “good death” is like. He talks about how we’ve started to expect profound, meaningful conversation as part of the process. This expectation weighs heavily and slightly sours the time they have, with Allnutt uncomfortable trying to engage and his father’s condition eventually robbing him of the ability to have that kind of talk.

It’s extremely honest and open about the whole process and Allnutt doesn’t shy away from times when he is self centred or feels left out.

All in all it reads well and raises an important point that we need to embrace and experience events, and not worry they don’t fit how we expect or think they should be.

Emotionally powerful and an interesting read. It’s rather short though and Allnutt has a tendency to use a lot of sources about philosophies surrounding death. It perhaps would be more powerful if it remained focused on Allnutt’s experience.

7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Beautiful Dream by Ralf Haley

I found myself identifying a lot with Ralf Haley. Like him I was a kid who loved football and who dreamed of being a professional. And like him, I was nowhere near good enough.

It’s a dream billions of kids have across the world, with only a relatively small number of them achieving it. I knew I was crap even as a kid, and realised that my few skills – okay in the air, hoofed clearances and hacking tackles, weren’t going to be enough. And so, my dream faded away aside from bus stop daydreams where I envision myself leading Swansea to Champions League glory.

Haley, however, reignites his dream and despite hating exercise and not having played a proper match in years decides to give it one last go. He just wants to get paid to play once. One euro, one minute, it doesn’t matter. He’ll still be able to say “I was a professional footballer”.

Haley sends requests for trials all over the world. He joins the gym, which he hates and tries to play more football. He also starts saving money from the job he hates to fund his trip to various countries.

He chooses smaller, less successful footballing nations and sets out with his brother in tow. Malta, Andorra, Latvia and Lithuania are among his destinations as he tries to get a game.

It’s a frankly crazy idea but one that is admirable in it’s ambition, naivety and optimism. Haley wants it badly, and throws himself into his trials.

The problem is that while the quest is noble, it feels half baked and left me wanting more. Haley gives himself a few months to train and save cash, leaving him a relatively small budget. I found myself wondering why he didn’t save for longer which would have helped him go to more places and got his fitness to a higher level too.

This not only would have made the book more interesting and given Haley more countries to write about, but would have helped his chances, as his low key build up leaves his mission looking pretty likely.

The writing is good, if nothing special and could do with a bit more of a polish. And the tone shifts quite a lot, with lots of moaning slightly souring the optimism of his journey. Haley is likeable enough and fairly humorous, but the banter between him and his brother grated on me, completely failing to win me over. It’s like an inside joke, with me being the outsider who views it as stupid.

That being said it was a decent read and Haley’s conclusion is strong. And I had to admire him for just going for it, despite the odds.

Verdict: Flawed but fun, Haley’s dreams surpass his abilities as a writer. A decent attempt at the dream but at times a frustrating one as you wish he had done more. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


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.


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.