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The pieces cover 2009-12 and so it’s a little out of date, although it is quite nice to look back at various controversies, news stories and events with hindsight.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.

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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.


Book Review: Kindle Single Bumper Edition 2

Been working night shifts this week and my Kindle has been useful in passing the time. Particularly the Kindle Singles, quick short books which are usually easy to read and pass the time easily.

I kicked off with some fiction in Consuelo Saah Baehr’s Thinner Thighs in Thirty Years, a pretty decent read which details the life of a older woman going through divorce and trying to sort out her life. Written in the first person and in an almost stream of consciousness manner, this is filled with little bursts of insight and dark humour, but the short nature means there’s no real story and a hazy ending. I guess that reflects real life, but doesn’t make a satisfying read.

Following this I switched to nonfiction with Comic Con Strikes Again! by Douglas Wolk. As a geeky guy I’ve always wanted to attend Comic Con in San Diego but this book dampened my enthusiasm.

Wolk captures a chaotic, corporate event which seems like a lot of faff and mainly involving queues. Now, I’m British and comfortable in a queue, but it seems annoying. Part of me still wants to go, but not as much as I did before.

Wolk’s writing isn’t overly jaded, but there is a cynical edge as he describes the weekend’s events and the changing culture around the con. It’s an interesting insight and a nice shapshot of how it all works.

And last of all another nonfiction read in Crazy Stupid Money by Rachel Shukert. A deeply personal piece it details the stress the writer’s marriage falls under when her husband stops working and she becomes the breadwinner.

Exacerbated by her own anxiety ans issues with money, the situation quickly turns toxic with arguments leading to neighbours calling the police and the couple on the brink of divorce. Painfully honest Shukert doesn’t shift blame, owning up to her own mistakes and tresspasses. It’s a fascinating and emotional read, helped by her skilled, unshowy writing and openness. 

It also provides a few interesting points on privilege, gender roles and our society’s odd view of money, as something not to be discussed. 

Verdicts:

Thinner Thighs in Thirty Years- Well written and entertaining enough it feels too brief and fails to give the reader a proper ending. 6/10.

Comic Con Strikes Again!- Not the most cheerful of reads but an interesting look at how geek culture has changed and how big business is changing the fan experience. 7/10.

Crazy Stupid Money- Raw and honest this is an involving and well written book which sees the author shine an unflinching light on her own troubles. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO. 


Book Review: Twenty Tales from the War Zone by John Simpson

Like a lot of Brits, a lot of the major news stories of my life were delivered through my TV by John Simpson, the BBC’s foreign correspondent who always seemed to be in the most dangerous places. While he was often shown hunkering down as bullets and bombs flew, or engaged in a tense interview with a dictator, away from the news he seemed a affable, funny man. This book is a mix of both sides.

Each chapter is either based around a place or person, and it reads like a newer verse of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” dealing with the major stories of the last 40 years or so. The Troubles in Belfast, rebellion in Iran and Czechoslovakia, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, interviews with Gadaffi and Bin Laden and the fall of the Berlin Wall all appear.

They are quick accounts, but utterly fascinating all the same, with Simpson capturing the tension and peril, but also with little glimpses of wry humour and excitement. He enjoys the absurdity of sneaking into Afghanistan in a burqa or of meeting an old university friend at MI6 HQ. There’s an enthusiasm and focus on getting a story that runs throughout the book, and is obviously the driving force that made him go towards situations most would rather run from.

The tone shifts but the book flows well, and it works, capturing the scope of emotions he has experienced in his career. Simpson handles all of these well enough and his writing is involving.

This is a quick read, but it is a satisfying one. I will definitely check out the other books that Simpson has written.

Verdict: A good taster of Simpson’s stories and experiences as a reporter, the no frills writing is engaging and entertaining throughout. It’s an interesting glimpse of a life spent around historical momenta. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Dispatches from the Sofa by Frank Skinner

Frank Skinner is guaranteed a place in my heart because of “Three Lions” the anthemic song he wrote for the Euro ’96 championship. It’s one of those songs which is tied to my childhood and wrapped in emotions so tightly that even at 80 it’ll probably still stir the memory and feeling of being 11 and in love with football.

But even without this I think I’d be a Skinner fan. He’s just an incredibly funny and affable presence, I listened to his podcast for years and only my iPod dying stopped that. What I love about him is his ability to mix intelligence and silliness, his delight in cheesy puns and daft gags, and the fact that he can be crude but always with a slight wink to the audience.

This book, largely made up of his newspaper columns shows the same kind of mix. Taken from 2009-2011 the subjects are slightly dated, but the humour remains on point and Skinner is still on the mark about many things. Even when I disagreed with some of his ideas, they were still put forward well and with humour.

It’s a good book to dip in and out of and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope they do more collections as Skinner’s writing is well worth keeping going with.

Verdict: Witty throughout, Skinner has some good ideas and funny anecdotes and the columns make great reads for when you have five minutes to spare. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO. 


Book Review: The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla (Editor)

As a white British man my life is largely unaffected by race. I am the default, the traditional and the assumed. When people ask where I come from “Neath” will suffice, perhaps with more clarification for those not familiar with Wales (“Neath, it’s just by Swansea”), but that’s where it ends. A few of the writers in this collection of essays, and a friend, get more questions “No, where are you from, originially”. Their race differentiates them, and makes some view them as not entirely British. Which is bollocks of course, race and nationality not being the same thing.

Of course, I know that Britain has a diverse population, with Brits who have family history from all over the world. And I know that race is still a very big deal and effects people’s lives everyday. But these are superficial observations, and thankfully this book provided me with a more diverse, nuanced look at what life is like for BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) Brits.

The contributors discuss their family histories, the way they feel about how their culture is represented (or isn’t), how attitudes towards race effect their lives and our society. Issues like stereotyping, Western beauty standards, cultural appropriation and more are on show and the book is continually enlightening.

I learnt more about Cyprus and it’s history, something I previously knew about in vague terms, gleaned from half remembered news reports and the tactical voting of Eurovision. I had to reflect on how I am guilty of viewing my white experience as being the norm or universal British experience. 

It gave me pause when one contributor, Darren Chetty, discussed how few children’s stories feature diverse characters and how that effects the audience who don’t see themselves represented, to the point they don’t think stories about people like them are valid.

There are pieces that amused and others that moved me, with the different voices ensuring a variety of tones and styles. Of course, as with all collections, there are some you connect with more and favourites. 

It’s a book I found easy to read, dipping in and out over a few days, even if it raised difficult questions. How often do I stereotype people? What would I do if I witnessed someone being racially abused? Why is race still so divisive and can Britain improve how we integrate and deal with the complexities of a multicultural society?

It’s a book I strongly recommend, it’s always good to have a look at life from someone else’s perspective, and it prompts discussion that we need to have. The writers are a good mix of the serious and more light hearted in terms of tone, but every one is interesting and well worth a read.

Verdict: A very interesting book about an important subject, this gives the reader lots to think about and includes some fantastic writers. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

If you’re familiar with Bruce Springsteen’s music you’ll know that he’s a songwriter of great skill. He tells stories of everyday life, of characters and their desires and fears. Songs filled with empathy, compassion and insight.

Here he shows all the same talents, this time about his own life. It’s a glorious book, filled with keen observation, insight and moments of humour.

Springsteen captures his childhood in New Jersey, growing up poor and amidst a dysfunctional family. There are large characters here, but it’s his quieter father who looms largest. Tormented by mental health issues exacerbated by drink, his father is a distant figure, one that the young Bruce fears and loves at the same time. The small, scrawny kid feels like a disappointment, or worse an active cause for his father’s disatisfaction. Throughout the book the relationship with his father returns as does Springsteen’s fears that the same darkness lurks within him.

This is one of the things I feel he should be applauded for. There’s an honest assesment of his own mental state, an acknowledgement that it has led to poor relationships and decisions, yet some of it has contributed to his drive. Bouts of depression are relayed without hyperbole or shame, therapy is mentioned and thanked for helping him through his life.

Springsteen is aware of his faults and when things do sour owns his part in them. It’s not all gloomy, there are high points, the joy of love and family, of the contentment he finally finds. And of course there’s the music. 

He captures the excitement and joy of seeing Elvis for the first time, of the shot in the arm that rock ‘n roll provided him, a focus that he would never lose. When he talks about music Springsteen seems invigorated, humming with enthusiasm and energy. He talks about the bands who influenced him, of meeting his heroes and of creating his own place in music history.

There is pride here and references to success, but it never tips into arrogance, not a man boasting, rather a man satisfied with a job well done.

The prose is enthralling and I found myself easily reading for long stretches, happy in the company of the Boss. The writing is captivating, charming and utterly absorbing. It prompted reflection and smiles, and even tears as he discusses the passing of Clarence Clemons, his friend and bandmate.

Autobiographies don’t come much better than this.

Verdict: Fantastic. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.