I’m really rubbish at quite a lot of modern entertainment. I hardly ever go to the cinema and we don’t use any streaming services. The only box-sets we have are in actual boxes (and mostly involve David Attenborough – because nothing improves the appetite like watching nature being red in tooth and claw while you eat your tea) and I think I’m the very last person in the world who watches tv in real time. And then only if it’s on Freeview. I know I’m missing out on loads of great series but, with all the books in the world to read, I just can’t commit. Give me a choice between a new book from a favourite (or potential new favourite) author and even the most critically acclaimed drama and I’ll plump for fiction every time. This isn’t to say that I sit and read in silence – I drive Rob distracted because I can read a book and watch Eastenders at the same time – but there are limits to my multitasking. I haven’t yet worked out how to read and listen to podcasts simultaneously and this means I’m missing out on some great stuff. There’s so many out there – covering history, politics, social issues and science among other things – I hardly know where I would start. Luckily, one of the funnier podcasts – No Such Thing As A Fish – has released a book so Luddites like me can find out what all the fuss is about!
My usual source for weird and wonderful facts is QI – in fact I’ve reviewed one or two of their recent books – so I was pleased to see that the people behind both podcast and book are QI Elves (researchers). This book is a collection of facts connected to events of 2017 arranged in an a-z format (which confused me at first – I somehow expected a book about a year to be in some kind of chronological order. After a few pages I realised that their way was right – what do I know!). They range from the amusing (with some great anagrams of political figures) to the mind-boggling and slightly scary (again, mostly to do with this year’s major political figures). I mean, I try not to think too seriously about Trump and Kim Jong Un – this book helped me to find them even more risible.
Christmas is the time of year when we sell a lot of humour books. Many of them are hilarious on the first reading but don’t really stand up to repeated perusal. This book, however, seems to be one which I could return to frequently. Even if only just to remember 2017 for more than just the scary parts of the news…
Before I moved to Yorkshire (and after my early years in darkest Essex) I lived for a dozen or so years in the North-East of England. I lived in a small pit village just outside Durham and worked in both Durham itself and Newcastle. They were very happy years and I still have many friends living around the area. I don’t get to visit very often so I miss them, I miss the charm of Durham, the bustle of Newcastle and the glorious countryside of the whole region. I’d say I miss the accents (Geordie, Mackem and Wearside, among others) but I’ve been hearing them a lot on tv recently – I got quite nostalgic watching Neighbourhood Blues from Sunderland the other week. And, of course, some of my favourite comedians from the North-East are on heavy rotation on both the BBC and Dave. I’ll never pine for the sounds of Tyne and Wear while I’m sure of finding either Ross Noble, Chris Ramsey or Vic and Bob as I channel surf. My favourite though is Sarah Millican: although I can’t tell if this is mostly for her potty-mouthed humour or because of how much she looks like my sister.
How to be Champion is Millican’s first book and is described as ‘part autobiography, part self-help, part confession, part celebration of being a common-or-garden woman, part collection of synonyms for nunny‘. For me this perfectly sums up what I love so much about this woman – she is refreshingly normal (complete with anxiety, weight issues and love-life traumas), a warm and nurturing human-being (she wants to help other women with their own anxiety, weight issues etc) and is hugely funny in a way that makes you wince at her honesty (as you also guffaw at her utterly filthy turn of phrase). She isn’t perfect (and the Geordie word ‘champion’ doesn’t mean being the best but rather it means being good enough…), and has never claimed to be, but she is learning to be happy in her own skin – this book is offering help to others in working out how to be happy in theirs.
I tend not to discuss my political beliefs (such as they are). If you were to ask me, outside the polling station, how I’d voted I’d probably say ‘in a secret ballot’. Aside from anything else I reckon it frustrates the trolls. Although I suppose anyone looking at my Facebook feed, the kind of posts I like and the comments I make would be fairly sure that I am unlikely to vote for Messrs Farage, Gove or Trump (were I entitled to). I’m not suggesting my way is better – I love the fact that so many of my friends are so politically engaged, particularly the younger ones – but it is the one I feel comfortable with. Of course, some people’s entire raison d’être is political and they still manage to be funny in almost everything they do – those are some serious skills, in my opinion…
John O’Farrell is one of those who are funny and also serious about their politics. Reading him means that you can laugh along with political figures (rather than just at them, which is the more usual but meaner way) but also get insights into how government actually works. This book is a follow on to an earlier book in which O’Farrell pondered on the fact that his first 20 years as a Labour supporter seemed to coincide with their two decades outside the corridors of power. He never actually claimed that the Thatcher years were all his fault but, well, surely it could be more than just a coincidence? In this book he discovers that being in opposition is often easier than being the people in charge and not just for politicians. As well as national and local politics we also get the story of O’Farrell’s involvement with local schools as he campaigns for a much-needed new secondary school and then finds himself a key member of the board of governors. The book covers Labour’s years in power, the Gulf War, Blair’s fall from popularity, Brown’s brief time as PM and then the resurgence of the Tories in 2010. And then, of course, the series of elections which have enlivened our lives in the past few years. Or at least given satirists plenty of material.
Reading this book I was impressed by O’Farrell’s commitment to his political party and to his community (partly in a self-interested way – his kids needed a school to go to which didn’t involve crossing half of London) and his ability to make me laugh. The biggest lesson I’m going to take away though is, probably, the one that he learned himself: the difference between his teen/twenties and his more mature years is his acceptance of the need for compromise. Compromise, in politics as in life in general, is not a sign of weakness but of maturity. It may be the best way forward for us all.
If I knew how to do those meme things there would be a picture here of a world-weary chap and the text saying ‘I don’t always act like a completist…but when I do it will involve Alice in Wonderland’. Feel free to do the technical stuff for me – or just imagine the image like I do – but be assured the words would be approximately 99.9% true. I do have a pretty extensive ‘Alice’ collection: different editions of the books (I’m especially interested in how illustrators interpret the story), biographies, critical works, foreign language editions and books written in an ‘Alice’ style. So far I’ve found lots of sci-fi versions, racy short stories and even an explanation of quantum physics – politics was only a matter of time…
Alice in Brexitland is a really good pastiche of Lewis Carroll’s writing style – both in the humour, the political commentary (check out Martin Gardiner’s Annotated Alice if you don’t think Carroll did politics) and in its poetry. Most of today’s best known (if not loved) political figures are featured and the Brexit plot is slotted ingeniously into the original. There are slightly more bottom-based gags than Carroll used but, to be fair, he didn’t have a politician with a name for passing wind to contend with… I’m not usually a fan of topical humour books – I like my funnies to have some staying power – but this one tickled me and has earned its place on my bookshelves for more than just its Alice credentials.
Talking of Alice credentials the beautiful new edition of Alice in Penguin’s new V&A Collector’s Edition is almost perfect. The cover design is based on a William Morris print and has a rather fetching White Rabbit (and Dormouse) illustration by Liz Catchpole. I stroked it for quite a while (humming happily) too, because the cloth cover feels great too, before opening it up to have little read. And that was my only problem – the illustrations available to Penguin are not from the original plates (many of which are still owned by Macmillan, Carroll’s original publisher) so they are a little less crisp and detailed. This is a lovely little book but to make it even better maybe Penguin could let Liz Catchpole do all the illustrations in the text as well as on the cover?
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.