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The pieces cover 2009-12 and so it’s a little out of date, although it is quite nice to look back at various controversies, news stories and events with hindsight.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


Book Review: The Empty Hours by Ed McBain

Next up from the out of order omnibus I bought is this book, actually a collection of three separate stories involving the men of the 87th Precinct. All are loaded with McBain’s usual hard boiled, fast flowing dialogue and knack for character.

While each story is shorter than the normal adventures, each is a well executed crime story, with an interesting, gripping case at the heart.

The book also works in that it gives McBain an opportunity to tell slightly different stories, and to bring other detectives forward. The lead of the series thus far has been Steve Carella, who is the lead detective in the majority of cases. The other detectives play their parts, but Carella is the major hero.

Here, Carella is the lead in the title story, where he uses a victim’s cheque book to piece together the woman’s life. There’s a neat twist in the story and as in many of their cases it hinges on a small detail dropped in early on.


In the second case, J, Carella is a supporting player. When a rabbi is killed during passover it leaves the squad’s joker Meyer reflecting on his own faith and place in his community. Meyer has before been on the sidelines offering quips and humour, but here the jokes are less frequent as he faces antisemitism and fanatacism. It works extremely well and there is some clever wrong footing on display. 

Carella is absent entirely in the third, Storm, where Cotton Hawes is embroiled in a murder investigation while on a ski trip. The story strips him of allies and forensic techniques, and relies on Hawes’ instincts and questioning.

It’s a thrilling read and the ending shows McBain’s writing at its best, bringing intelligence and something approaching poetry to a genre tale.

Verdict: Three great short stories which show McBain’s skill and each hooks the reader. Easy to plough through and entertaining on every page. 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: Lady, Lady I Did It! By Ed McBain 

This book was a bit of a pain to track down, for some reason while most of McBain’s 87th Precinct books are easy to find on Amazon, this one wasn’t and I had to find a second hand omnibus with it in. Thankfully, it was worth the effort.

While it’s shorter than a lot of the other adventures in the series this actually works in the story’s favour. The central crime is rather simple, a man walks into a bookshop and opens fire, killing four people. One of the victims turns out to be closely connected to one of the 87th Precinct’s detectives.

It’s this that drives much of the book, with the personal aspect colouring the approach towards the case and impacting on the characters in different ways. All of this is done with McBain’s usual skill of charcterisation and dialogue.

As they dig into the life and death of one of their own’s loved ones they find skeletons in the closet. Most interesting is the fact it leads them to an area where morality and the law don’t match up. It’s the first time I can remember that the men of the 87th question the laws they have to enforce.

Some of the covers

The book rattles along at a decent pace and while the crime at the heart isn’t the most nuanced, McBain writes cleverly, dropping in the clues along the way. The reader, or this reader at least, finds themself in the same position as the detectives, so intently focused on the personal connection that it’s not until the end that the other little signs all make sense.

A gripping and engaging read with more emotional clout than some of the other novels in the series. 

Verdict: Another sensational book in the series, with McBain writing a story that unfolds quickly but intelligently. Hooked me in from start to finish. 8/10. 

Any thoughts? You know what to do. 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: The Failed Coward by Chris Philbrook 

Having really enjoyed the third part of the Adrian’s Undead Diary series I added this to my Kindle and couldn’t resist cracking on with the fourth instalment.

With new allies and fresh sources of supplies, life should be good for Adrian and his little group of survivors, zombies aside. However, the undead are acting strangely and there are a few new faces in town who he can’t trust yet.

Philbrook does a great job of building and developing his undead apocalypse more and more with every book. Having introduced a supernatural background in part three it lends events here a new dimension of creepiness and raises questions for the reader and our narrator. What has raised the dead and why?

We get glimpses of life elsewhere, a group of besieged soldiers in the UK, a flashback to two dimwitted stoners as the world went to hell. There’s also a crazed loner, who revels in the apocalypse, selfishly and callously surviving, his ranting becoming increasingly unhinged and adding a fresh tension when his house is mentioned as a potential target for Adrian and his scavenging friends.

With winter coming to an end, Adrian faces fresh challenges and with human survivors returning to the town must wrestle with whether his scavenging and looting is defensible. 

A cracking read with some unsettling touches and some dark, crude humour, this series continues to be a treat.

Verdict: Philbrook expands his universe and also finds new ways to keep the story fresh, creating an uneasy feeling and a gripping story. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.