Families are…complicated. The hardest bit seems to be that no sooner have you worked out what all your relationships are with your parents, siblings and other family members as a child when, suddenly, you are an adult yourself. All those relationships change, subtly, as you gradually become older, get responsible jobs, vote, marry, leave home, become parents. You become responsible for others – work colleagues and clients, partners and offspring – and one day you may end up becoming the person who has to look after a parent. Yep, families are complicated and getting older can be scary. But, now I have read Stuart Heritage’s account of his childhood, family and forays into adulthood, I realise they can also be blooming hilarious.
Heritage tells the story of how he moves back to his hometown, Ashford, in Kent when he and his wife have their first child. They consider lots of places (because, let’s face it, almost anywhere is better value for money than living in London…) but finally have to admit that Ashford is their best option. We meet Heritage’s parents (in dramatic circumstances, when their house catches fire), his wife and son and, most importantly, his younger brother – the foul-mouthed, grumpy and almost unhealthily single-minded Pete. Stu is, in his own words, the perfect son: Pete is quite possible the worst son in the history of offspring. Of course, it isn’t as simple as that and, as the book progresses you realise that Pete has a lot of good qualities (although it would take a brave man – or a brother – to go on a stag night with him). By the end you feel that both brothers have moved on and become proper adults. Assuming proper adults love wrestling, competing in Iron Man races and shouting ‘tiddies’ with no warning of course…
This book is utterly hilarious and as full of profanities as a football terrace full of white-van drivers. It turns out that Stu isn’t the perfect son he reckons he is and Pete is a better one than you’d think but they are brothers and, even when they can’t agree on anything, they love each other.
P.S. In our house we have one rule. DBAD. Or Don’t Be A Dick. This book is so funny that I am going to forgive both brothers for breaking the rule…
Ah November! Season of fireworks, moustaches and complaining that Christmas has come too early! And, of course, the season when humour books breed faster than rumours on t’internet. Honestly, every time I have a day off I walk back in the shop and we’ve had to swap the stock onto a bigger table (and then a second table, and so on…). This year we’ve a whole new set of adult Ladybird titles (including Cats, Dogs and the Zombie Apocalypse), spoof Famous Five and I-Spy books and many perennial favourites. The Broons are back, as well as Viz and Private Eye annuals and, thank goodness, my personal favourite – a new QI fact book. Yes, those elves have been busy once again (because they have to have something to do between series, obviously).
The elves (Alex, Mandy, Andrew, Anna and Dan – not a Twinkletoes or a Snowflake amongst them) have done another great job. My head is now full of important facts about the word ‘Czech’*, the Tanzanian name for a roundabout** and the names of flies in the genus Pieza***. I have discovered the name for one of my phobias (the one about running out of something to read – which is abibliophobia) and that I share my other one (a fear of buttons) with Steve Jobs. For those who are counting the toll of 2016 we have the fact that the lifespan of a rock star is 25 years shorter than the average (which makes Keith Richards even more remarkable) and for those worried about inflation we discover that, for the last 70 years, the average price of a small car has maintained itself as being that of 20,000 Mars Bars. Although one of the facts that makes me happiest is knowing that the Statue of Liberty was designed as a Muslim woman guarding the Suez Canal.
As ever this is an amusing and informative volume. Something for the stocking of your favourite know-all, perhaps? (Although if I’m your favourite I already have a copy…)
*it is a Polish word
** a kipilefti
***Pieza kake, Pieza pie, Pieza rhea and Pieza deresistans – never say scientists don’t have a sense of humour!
The late (and very much lamented) Douglas Adams had this to say about deadlines: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by”. When said deadlines loomed it is alleged that his publisher would lock him into hotel rooms in an effort to get the book finished on time. I don’t know how true this is but it may be a tactic which Ben Aaronovitch’s publishers may want to consider since this, the sixth book in the Rivers of London series, has been promised for the best part of a year as far as I can see. In fact when we were told the publication date had been set for 3rd November there was an awful lot of scepticism. When I mentioned on Twitter that the date had been confirmed (and I had an e-proof from Netgalley to prove it) there was probably an equal amount of doubt and over-excited squeeing. The customers who have been in so far to actually collect their copies have generally shown a curious mixture of disbelief and elation. And I’m fairly certain that when they have read the latest outing of P.C. Peter Grant and his colleagues in that branch of the Met which investigates ‘weird b*llocks’ they will forgive Ben Aaronovitch for the delay.
The Hanging Tree has everything that you would expect from the series. Peter Grant does lots of the leg work for his boss, Nightingale, while also trying to compile a proper Operations Manual for the Falcon department. He is given back-up by Guleed, a kick-ass female, hijab-wearing DC, and tolerated by the rest of the force. Mostly because he deals with stuff so they don’t have to. There is plot aplenty – involving rich teens getting mixed up with drugs, collapsing buildings, mysterious shell companies who own some eye-wateringly pricey London real estate and general peril – but I don’t want to give too much away. Let’s just say there are a lot of familiar characters (the personifications of the Rivers of London themselves are still my favourites) and villains. The Faceless Man shows up (or rather doesn’t) as does Lesley May, Peter’s ex-colleague turned baddie, and there are interesting new faces who, I hope, we will see again in future novels.
I enjoyed the wit and pace of this book – as always they are like a normal police procedural story with added magic, humour and weirdness – and I really like Peter Grant as a character. Little comment is made about his race (and as a whole race is only mentioned to describe white characters – an interesting twist on how these things usually happen) but we do see some of the difficulties he faces. Much is made of the way that London itself plays a major role in this series but I am particularly struck by the way that the books reflect the city’s generally accepting attitude to diversity.
We all have favourite authors: writers whose books we eagerly await and then devour as if we were never going to see another book ever again. Sometimes we are part of a huge group of fans – this is pretty much the reaction of every admirer of George R R Martin or Sylvia Day – sometimes we feel like lone voices in a wilderness. I spent many years sad that I couldn’t recommend one of favourite authors because there were no UK editions of her books in print – but luckily publishers saw the light and Connie Willis (winner of multiple Hugo and Nebula awards among many other honours) is now on my ‘push books into customer’s hands’ list again. Be warned, I will suggest you read Domesday Book and/or To Say Nothing of the Dog if you hang around the sci-fi section…
Willis’ latest book is full of the stuff that makes me love her work so much. Fast-paced, almost slapstick, action with lots of confusion and a dollop of romance. Her books have been compared to the kind of comedic films that used to star Rock Hudson and Doris Day and, considering how much I enjoy those kind of films, I’m inclined to agree. They also have their sad moments and can make you spend time thinking about the ideas they raise. In Crosstalk these ideas are about privacy, connectivity and whether our smartphones are a wholly good thing.
Briddey is a young woman with a great job in a smallish telecoms company, with an attentive boyfriend and a large, interfering Irish-American family. The story opens with her engagement to the eminently eligible Trent and their decision to undergo a procedure which will enable them to bond to the extent that they will ‘feel’ each others emotions. Although Trent seems rather more concerned about beating Apple to new developments in mobile phone technology and her family would rather she settled down with a good Irish lad. Into this throw C.B., a reclusive geek who would rather develop technology to limit our connectivity than increase it, and Briddey’s sudden and unexpected ability to hear what everybody is thinking (and not just Trent) and the way is prepared for the comedy to begin. The darker side is not neglected as we also explore how hearing voices has been seen as a symptom of mental ill-health for centuries.
Sci-fi always seems a hard thing to make funny – as if the future were no laughing matter*. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen (I laughed like a drain at parts of The Martian and Douglas Adams is a genius) but it rarely turns out as well as it does in the hands of Connie Willis.
*Fantasy on the other hand is full of giggles. See the entire works of Sir Terry for a start…
I have written before about comedians turned novelists – and on the whole I have had positive experiences of the whole thing. I do really enjoy a story which can make me laugh out loud and comedians, with their years of experience of closely observing the people around them, seem to me to be well placed to write great characters. And, of course, it isn’t all about the laughs – the clown who laughs to hide an inner sorrow is virtually a cliché… I may be a bit shallow though and I tend to only read novels by comedians whose actual comedy work I enjoy. I can’t even imagine wanting to read fiction written by Jim Davidson or Bernard Manning. Shappi Khorsandi, however, is someone I have seen and enjoyed both on tv and live so I was looking forward to reading her first novel.
Given the plot outline – Nina is a 17-year-old who is sure she doesn’t have a drinking problem; even though she does things she regrets while drunk; even though her father was an alcoholic; even though she needs to carry drink around with her to make it through the day at college and even though she is lost and drifting after her boyfriend met somebody else on his gap year – I was expecting something bittersweet, with a lot of arguing with parents and, towards the end, a new romance to replace the shallow ex. Boy was I wrong…This book has laughs, it has totally believable teen characters (complete with teen reasoning) and it has, I think, a pretty good idea of what it is like to be young today. And then it has a scarily graphic depiction of what it is actually like to be an alcoholic before you are old enough to vote. We are not spared the vomit, the lost hours and the downright risky sexual behaviour. We suffer the slut-shaming, the gossip and the rigours of rehab along with Nina: we experience the love for a little sister which keeps Nina plugging away at her recovery and we feel the support of best friend Beth. This is pretty immersive stuff and I really loved it.
I think what impressed me most about this novel is just how well Khorsandi puts us in the place of such a young woman. I guess it should always be easier for an author in their forties to write about characters twenty or thirty years younger than for someone in their twenties to really know how it feels to get old. One is writing from remembered experience and the other from, at best, good research. But it is rarely as accurate as this – the best and, for sure, the worst of a very young woman learning how to live with her particular demons.
The eighties are my era. The music, the movies, the tv, the fashion….well, maybe not the fashion. But a decade spent listening to Wham and The Cure and watching Saturday Superstore (I was studying for most of the decade) was a glorious thing. And until 1984 we even had some pretty good Doctor Whos. And then, of course, in 1982 the world was gifted with The Young Ones. As I said the 1980s – the decade that kept on giving…
Most of the cast of The Young Ones went on to become huge stars but, when it first aired, the best known of them was Alexei Sayle. Thatcher Stole My Trousers is the second volume of Sayle’s autobiography and in it he covers the period between leaving the family home in Liverpool and finding fame as the Bolowski family. It is mostly an anarchically humorous view of the dark days before alternative comedy – days when sexist and racist jokes were considered suitable for prime-time viewing – but it also contains some genuine political musings (about the young men from various middle-eastern countries he meets while at art college in London among other things). I was particularly struck by Molly, Sayle’s mother: a woman who found that the communist party didn’t ‘offer enough of an excuse for hysterical carryings-on’. Which sort of turns the 70s mother-in-law jokes on their head. By half way through the book I realised that Alexei was the moderate liberal one in his family!
My personal highlight of the book came at around 150 pages in when the ICL building in Putney got namechecked. Well, it was more of a character assassination than anything else, but still – this was a building I actually worked in at one point (in the actual 1980s…). Add to this the fact that my brother and Alexei Sayle are beginning to look more and more as if they are related and, it’s fair to say, it starts to look as though this book is truly part of my life story as well as the author’s.
As I may have mentioned previously (I’d say stop me if I’m becoming a bore but that is a risky thing to say…) I do not have a religious faith. However, I’m a firm believer in understanding the faiths of others – and one of the best parts of living in Bradford is that I have lots of people to discuss these things with. Call me old-fashioned but I’d rather learn about Islam from talking to and reading the works of Muslims than trusting the tabloid press. Actually, to be fair, I’d probably not want to trust the tabloid press on much at all but I guess I’ll let them give me the football results…
In Zarqa Nawaz’s Laughing All The Way to the Mosque I think I have found a great introduction to the realities of being a Muslim woman in the twentieth century west. There isn’t a huge amount here about the practice of the Islamic faith – Nawaz is not proselytising and doesn’t expect to convert her readers – but there is a lot about practicalities. About why a wash-basin within reach of the loo is the ideal and whether leg-shaving is un-Islamic. You know, the normal stuff. In fact what a large part of the book is about is cultural rather than religious – and often the younger generation are as concerned about the culture they live in as in the one their parents came from. In Nawaz’s case she is more interested in how to fit into Canadian society than into that of Pakistan.
What really sealed the deal for me, however, was how funny the writing is. We rattle through the author’s childhood and education – she seems to have been like most kids the world over, interested in food, fitting in and feeling she knows better than her parents (especially in her teens) – and, once her future career as a doctor falls through after a nasty case of not passing any of the exams, we approach the subject of marriage. Again there is the clash between a modern girl wanting to fall in love (or at least make her own choice of husband) and parents who have had a happy arranged marriage so don’t see why an alternative is necessary. In all these areas, and into her career as a journalist and writer, we see that Zarqa Nawaz is a fast-talking, well-meaning but slightly accident prone woman.
The main part of this book is about Zarqa’s married life. She obviously loves her husband and adores her children but, like any modern woman, she still wants a career. This eventually develops into her work writing a sit-com called Little Mosque on the Prairie – which sounds as if it was everything Citizen Khan wanted to be (but never quite managed). We can see that some of the more conservative elements of Canadian Islam were not amused but, hopefully, this is the kind of writing which will show us the things which we all have in common no matter what our religious or cultural background. I wonder if I can find any episodes of Little Mosque online – it sounds like a sitcom which would travel well?