Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Comedy (page 1 of 6)

The funniest crime novel I’ve read since I discovered Christopher Brookmyre…

Hack by Kieran Crowley

hackIf you love Christopher Brookmyre’s Jack Parlabane novels, you’re going to love this one too. Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning, which I read pre-blog,hooked me from the off – literally from it’s expletive first words! Hack begins in a dead-pan manner, but it is so tongue in cheek I was giggling by the end of the first paragraph.  As in Brookmyre’s debut, Hack features a journalist who gets sucked into a murder investigation.

F.X. Shepherd is no investigative journo though, it’s his third day at the New York Mail where he is the new pet reporter – writing a column called ‘Dog’s Breakfast’. It just so happens that the paper’s top crime reporter is on hols, and is also called Frank Shepherd (no X).  However, it’s the new Australian City Desk editor’s first day on the job, so the wrong Frank gets the call to cover a murder:

“What’s the story? What kind of animal is involved?”
“Damn. You’re bloody good. How did you know that?”
“Know what?”
“The pooch. Photo just heard over the cop radio a sec ago that some dog is guarding the body. Cops may have to shoot it. Top of the list right now, mate,” Bantock continued without a breath. “You know, ‘loyal pooch protecting slain master?’ Blah blah. Got a runner from the shack on the way with Photo but I need you on this right away. I want an exclusive break on this from you or I’ll know why not,” he concluded in a friendly, theatening tone.

He arrives at the scene on the Upper East Side and, identifying himself as an animal expert, “I’m Shepherd. I’m here about the dog.”, he is ushered up to the apartment by police eager to get the dog dealt with. There, he finds the naked body of a celebrity food critic’s husband with his throat slashed, a big chunk cut out of his bottom, and the corpse is garnished in parsley, garlic and Parmesan cheese. A husky dog, called Skippy, guards the body, and Frank is able to calm him down and take him away from the scene, instantly gaining Inspector Izzy Negron’s respect.

Aubrey Forsythe, the food critic, is known for his hatchet jobs, having put many restaurants out of business. When it turns out that his last meal was sauteed butt cheek steak (he vomits it up when he sees the scene), he is immediately arrested – but Frank who is still there and sees it all, isn’t convinced, thinking that however hated Aubrey is, he didn’t commit the murder.  Frank gets the scoop, ahead of rival reporter Ginny McElhone from the Daily Press whose job is on the line after that – and she will do anything to recover the kudos. They meet in court at Aubrey’s arraignment at which celebrity lawyer, Roland Arbusto acts for him.

The clerk read out the charge of First Degree Murder and Unlawfully Dealing with Human Remains.
“How do you plead?”
“Totally, completely, without a shadow of a doubt not guilty,” Arbusto bellowed.

I guffawed. Simon Cowell has a lot to answer for!

The jokes come thick and fast. Aubrey is let out of jail to attend his husband’s funeral at the cathedral.

Aubrey cried what seemed to be genuine tears, and the TV crews went live. The priest proceeded with the solemn service, during which they drank blood and ate flesh, at least symbolically. Food for thought.

Skippy the dog had been put into a vet’s holding centre, and Frank persuades the police that it would be better for the dog to go home with him. This is where he meets vet Jane, and they hit it off right away, but their fledgling relationship is immediately put under stress when things always happen to Frank when they’re out for dinner.

Underneath all the comedy is a cracking contemporary noir novel, grisly and violent with a brilliantly twisting plot that keeps you guessing all the way through. It’s also a sparkling satire on tabloid journalism of the Australian-owned kind. Frank has to wear out a lot of shoe-leather as he gets more and more involved due to his owner’s demands, and his own new-found desire to solve the crime. Izzy, the cop, was sympathetically portrayed, a good officer who accepts Frank’s different eye-view of the case as vital to its resolution. Frank soon stops being a fish out of water, and begins to relish his new-found confidence as an investigative reporter, and who couldn’t love Skippy!

Crowley writes from experience, no research needed; as a crime reporter and investigative journalist for the New York Post he covered hundreds of trials and murders, in some of which he uncovered missed evidence. He covered the second Zodiac Killer ‘Son of Sam’ cases – serial killers are his speciality and he has written several true crime books on them.

I enjoyed this book so much, it’s going straight into my end of the year Best of… If you like crime with a sense of humour, you’ll enjoy Hack, and the good news is there will be a second Shepherd book – Shoot – but we’ll have to wait until next autumn! (10/10)

* * * * *

Source: Publisher – Thank you.

Hack by Kieran Crowley (Titan Books, October 2015) paperback original, 320 pages.

Branagh at the Garrick – Rattigan double-bill

I went to see Kenneth Branagh’s new theatre company perform a double-bill of one-act plays by Terence Rattigan last night. The two plays, Harlequinade from the 1940s when Rattigan was at his critical peak, and All On Her Own, a twenty minute monologue originally produced as a radio play in 1968,  were performed back to back with no interval and lasted just 100 minutes – we were home well before 11pm!

My daughter and I spent the whole drizzly day in London, first going to Camden – where we ate street food for lunch followed by a nitro ice-cream from Chin Chin Labs (the smoothest ice-cream I’ve ever tasted, frozen on the spot with liquid nitrogen), then on to Oxford Street (meh!) and Covent Garden and the London Graphics Centre (yay, pen heaven!), before a pre-theatre burger at the original Ed’s Diner at the end of Old Compton St.  A quick view of the tree in Trafalgar Square and a brief foray into Waterstones there until the theatre doors opened saved waiting in the drizzle, but didn’t help our by now very tired feet.  And so, to the theatre…

All On Her Own – starring Zoe Wanamaker

It’s hard to believe, but Wanamaker is now 66, but still looks twenty years younger! She was the perfect casting to play Margaret Hodge, the middle-aged widow in her empty nest in Hampstead. This short play was very reminiscent in style of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads – some great comic one-lines, but underlined by tragedy and with a sting in the tale.

Margaret arrives home after a party, attacks the whisky decanter with obvious relish, before starting to talk to her dead husband, who had died on the sofa one night after she had gone to bed. She pretends to be her late husband, putting on a deeper Yorkshire-ish voice and a bit of a swagger to reply to her questions the way she thinks he would have.  Guilt and grief overwhelm her …

Photo Credit: Johan Persson

I hadn’t realised that this short play was such a serious piece, but Wanamaker pulled off this ‘duologue’ marvelously, movingly. At the end she was left staring into space when the curtain came down – taking her bows after the second play.

Harlequinade

HARLEQUINADE by Rattigan, , Writer - Terance Ratigan, Directors - Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford, Set and Costume - Christopher Oram, Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/

Kenneth Branagh and Miranda Raison. Credit: Johan Persson/

The play itself was preceded by a short film projected onto the safety curtain explaining the role of CEMA after the war. The forerunner of the Arts Council, CEMA was the ‘Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts’, bringing theatre to the masses after the war. Harlequinade follows one theatre company as they’re putting finishing touches on their production of Romeo & Juliet, opening later that night in a midlands theatre. The company actor-manager is Arthur Gosport (Branagh) who will play Romeo opposite his wife, Edna (Miranda Raison) – and the farce starts right from the outset, as the middle-aged Arthur decides, for the first time in seventeen years, to add a little jump up onto the bench to illustrate his youth as he spies Juliet (very Debbie McGee-like) on her balcony.

Branagh shows exquisite comic timing, and some truly excellent wig-work throughout, putting on his well-honed Gilderoy Lockhart luvvie persona. There are splendid supporting turns from John Shrapel, (also exhibiting outstanding wig-work), Hadley Fraser as the second halbardier, and Wanamaker again as tipsy Aunt Maud (Nurse) who keeps offering acting advice to Edna.

HARLEQUINADE by Rattigan, , Writer - Terance Ratigan, Directors - Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford, Set and Costume - Christopher Oram, Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/

Tom Bateman and Hadley Fraser, Credit: Johan Persson/

The glue that holds this play together though is the stage manager Jack Wakefield, played by Tom Bateman with an increasingly Basil Fawlty-like air of desperation as things go wrong.

This being a farce, there is mistaken identity, people bursting in in all the wrong places, ultimatums, shock revelations, not to mention a hilarious sword-fight with a Tybalt clearly modelled on Blackadder’s Lord Flasheart, not to mention Arthur’s ideas for improving Romeo’s death scene.  The set is suitably ramshackle for a provincial touring production and there’s great fun with the lighting too.

We were at the end of Row D and could see all the actors’ facial expressions writ-large. Branagh, Wanamaker, Shrapnel and their ilk make it seem effortless.

I laughed like a drain.

‘What has life got to do with the theatre?’  Rattigan shows us in this affectionate farce that life is theatre!!!

Catching up on reviewing…

My to be reviewed pile is larger than I like and I don’t want to forget the books – so here are some shorter reviews for you:

Daughters Unto Devils by Amy Lukavics

lukavicThis is one scary novel – published as a YA book but is definitely not for younger teenaged readers! The story is narrated by Amanda who is sixteen, and has been meeting the post-boy in secret for some time now. It gets her out of the house, away from her family and her deaf and blind baby sister, whose birth nearly killed her Ma. Amanda also has a secret, and doesn’t know what to do about it; her sister finds out what it is and tells her she must sort it out, or she’ll tell their parents.

There’s not room for the six of them in their tiny mountain cabin, even though Pa is often away trading. Suffering from cabin fever, he decides to move them all to the prairie, where they find a large abandoned home which will suit them down to the ground – only it’s steeped in blood! They clean, patch and mend and eventually move into the house, and that’s when strange things really start to happen.  Their neighbours are a doctor and his son, and the son tells bloodthirsty stories about tainted land and mad families – given the blood they found, are these stories true?

Gosh this was a disturbing book! It is as far from Little House on the Prairie as you could ever get – the only similarity being that the families are both pioneers/settlers. Despite her own secret, you know that Amanda can be relied upon, and her voice is authentic. I didn’t want to put the book down, but had to as I the train reached London, I had to wait for my return journey to get the full horrors of this brilliant debut. (9/10)

* * * * *

A Short Gentleman by Jon Canter

short gentlemanBy complete contrast, this book is a riotous comedy starring the most deluded yet successful (in part) gentleman you could hope to meet. This novel is barrister Robert Purcell’s life-story, told after his release from prison for an offense we will eventually find out about.

It is full of hilarious scenes – after a fight with his childhood arch-enemy Pilkington, Robert’s mother asks him why he didn’t hit back:

‘He’s bigger than me.’
‘Nonsense. You must hit back, Little Man. Hitler was short.’

All the way through, Robert’s prevarications are hilarious, as are his footnotes. He is an absolute square, a snob and aesthete, a very literal chap too, yet underneath there is a human lurking which makes all the situations and relationships he gets himself into all the funnier.

Jon Canter has a wonderful track record as a comedy writer – I loved his book inspired by the series ‘Rev’ last year.  A Short Gentleman was actually our book group choice for last month, chosen because we wanted to read a funny novel and I dragged it from my memory as one that Kim and some other bloggers had really enjoyed a few years ago.  It was a hit with our book group too and I’d love to read Canter’s other novels. (8.5/10)

* * * * *

Pretty Thing by Jennifer Nadel

nadelThis is a coming of age story set in the mid 1970s which explores the relationship between a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl and her older boyfriend, Bracken, but also between Becs and her best friend Mary-Jane.

Becs and Mary-Jane were meant to be sneaking off to the pub to meet friends together, but when Mary-Jane was late Becs went on her own.  A young man offers to buy her a drink – he introduces himself:

‘Bracken,’ he said. He was much taller than me and older. Old enough to have been a real hippy. I tipped my head back to meet his gaze. His eyes were brown. Not normal brown, but deep dark brown the colour of rain-soaked wiid,
‘Bracken,’ he said again, ‘as in fern.’
The skin around his eyes crinkled into a smile and it took me a moment to realize I was meant to tell him my name.
‘Rebecca,’ I said trying to sound grown-up. Becs was what everyone called me but it didn’t feel nearly sophisticated enough.

That same evening, Mary-Jane is sexually assaulted, when she was late. This event will resonate throughout the book and their friendship will suffer.

Meanwhile, Bracken turns up to meet Becs at the school gate in his van, and this becomes a regular thing. They don’t have sex immediately because Becs is underage. She’s convinced he’s her soulmate and that he’ll wait. She trusts him. Should she?

This was a tense and naturally unsettling drama that can be read in one sitting – you’ll want to find out who Bracken is and what happens to Becs and Mary-Jane.  I was 16 in 1976 when this book was set and it took me straight back to those times – I was glad that my own experiences of sneaking into the pub and so on didn’t go the same way.  Nadel captures the teenager’s voice really well, wanting independence but not knowing enough about trust, from naivety to growing up fast.  A good pacy read. (7.5/10)

* * * * *

Sources: Publisher, own copy and publisher respectively – Thank you.

Amy Lukavics – Daughters Unto Devils (Oct 2015, Simon & Schuster), paperback original, 240 pages. Buy from Amazon UK.

Jon Canter – A Short Gentleman (2008, Vintage), paperback 384 pages. Buy from Amazon UK.

Jennifer Nadel – Pretty Thing (Feb 2015, Corsair), paperback original, 256 pages. Buy from Amazon UK. 

A modern take on Jeeves & Wooster

Wake up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames

wake up sirJonathan Ames is apparently a bit of a cult author in the USA as novelist, essayist, columnist, storyteller and creator of a sitcom for HBO called Bored to Death. I’d not heard of him before, but was piqued by the premise of his 2004 novel Wake up, Sir! which has recently been published in the UK and is an unashamed contemporary tribute to Wodehouse.

Alan Blair is a thirty-year-old American writer with one book under his belt and is struggling to get started with his difficult second one. He is a drinker, single, Jewish and full of neuroses, sexual, mental – you name it he suffers from it. He lives in Manhattan sponging on his beloved Aunt and ghastly Uncle, but having come into some money via an inheritance, he employs a personal valet to look after him. Said valet just happens to be called Jeeves.

…I went into the kitchen and Jeeves was there, beaming in at the precise moment that I made my entrance, which he’s very good at. He’s always appearing and disintegrating and reappearing just when the stage directions call for him.

Now I come to think of it, given the Star Trek analogy, there is a Vulcan quality to Jeeves, matching the unemotional Mr Spock always looking after Jim Kirk isn’t there?

Even with the assistance of Jeeves, Alan can’t stop drinking and his relations have had enough. Tough love is required – they offer him rehab or eviction. Alan has already decided to take off for a writing retreat so chooses the latter option and goes to bed worrying.

I started rubbing the bony center of my nose, which I always rub when things have gone badly. Then midway through this nose massage, I heard a slight aspiration – Jeeves, like humidity, had accumulated on my left. Jeeves, I think, is closely related to water. They say we’re all 50 percent H2O but Jeeves is probably 90 percent. Jeeves and water seep in everywhere, no stopping them, like this underground lake that starts in Long Island, I’m told, and then pops up in Connecticut. So Jeeves spilled over from his lair, the bedroom next to mine, and was now standing alongside me, like mist on a mirror.

Blair and Jeeves set off for an upstate Jewish spa town Sharon Springs and arrive only to find it mostly boarded up, the bathhouse abandoned and ruined. Alan, drunk as usual, manages to get beaten up badly after a disastrous phone call to a number in a lavatory stall! However, they discover that in Saratoga nearby, there is a proper artist and writer’s retreat called the Rose Colony, and they have a vacancy. It would be the ideal place for Alan to dry out and get on with his writing …

We’re now halfway through the book, and so far it had been an entertaining slog with not enough happening, but once we’re through the gates of the Rose Colony the pace picks up and we finally meet a bunch of characters that are just as crazy as Blair himself. Blair is communing with novelist Alan Tinkle and his whisky bottle (falling off the wagon afresh each day). Tinkle is telling him all about his particular problem of overstimulation:

“Along with heavy drinking, I do preventative masturbation four or five times a day so that I can go out in public.”

This all sounded oddly familiar. Then I reassured myself: I might have shared some of his symptoms, but that can be said for most psychiatric illnesses.

“Why do you think this has happened to you?” I asked. “Maybe you should see Oliver Sacks. It could be neurological. Like the man who thought his wife was a cocktail waitress.”

“I don’t get any sex. That’s my problem. I’m thirty-one; I haven’t had sex in nine years.”

What could I say to comfort him? Nine years was a terribly long time. One hardly goes nine years without doing most things, except maybe trips to the Far East. …

It soon becomes clear that sex is high on everyone’s mind at the Rose Colony. Alan himself falls for an artist called Ava, who has a magnificent nose. They eventually succumb and there is a drawn out and often cringeworthy, but occasionally hilarious, sex scene:

The robe opened up. She was naked.
I put my hand on her full, fat breast. Then I put my hand under her breast. Nobody had enjoyed weighing something as much since Archimedes.

Alan manages to get into scrape after scrape, upsetting most of the residents and staff including the enigmatic giant Dr Hibben, the colony’s director. Thank goodness for Jeeves whose ubiquity will always save the day.

Jeeves-and-Wooster

Fry & Laurie as Jeeves & Wooster from the ITV adaptation

Although the character of Jeeves in this novel could have been lifted straight from Wodehouse, that of Alan Blair is, while remaining true to Bertie Wooster’s essential nature is a little different.  Like Bertie, he is the narrator of the tale, and he shares Wooster’s dandyish tendencies, and naive refusal to grow up for instance. However, he is pathetic in his alcoholism and you can’t help but feel sympathy for him in his desire to deal with his condition, which is something I have rarely felt for the buffoonish Wooster. I loved the way that Jeeves is able to insinuate himself into any situation without anyone noticing. Indeed, in another review of this book in Quadrapheme web magazine, the reviewer wonders whether Jeeves might be a figment of Blair’s imagination? Upon reflection, that seems entirely possible!  (It didn’t stop me picturing Stephen Fry as Jeeves all the way though).

I did feel that this book took far too long to get going, we don’t reach the Rose Colony, scene of most of the comedy and bawdiness, until halfway through it’s 334 pages – the Wodehouse inspired Charlie Mortdecai books (well the first two, see here) are at least as racy, consistently funny and all over inside 200 pages.  Although not actually as filthy as I’d imagined reading the publicity, I enjoyed Ames’s creation which is more polished than mere pastiche, I just wish the first half had been compressed. (8/10)

* * * * *
Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further at Amazon UK, please click below:
Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames (2004, pub Pushkin Press, 2015) paperback original, 334 pages.

It's Shiny linkiness time …

I haven’t told you about all the reviews I wrote for the latest edition of Shiny New Books yet… If you’ve not visited yet, there are around 80 new pages of reviews and articles and our editors’ picks competition on the front page as usual.

Back to me!  This time we’re concentrating on fiction reviews:

A Price to Pay by Alex Capus

a-price-to-pay1-190x300

Capus is a Swiss-French author writing in German. This novel, translated by John Brownjohn, opens in November 1924 at Zurich railway station with three people passing through it at the same time but they never meet. We follow these three through their lives into WWII, in which each will have a part to play and pay the price. Based on real lives, they will become the forger, the spy and the bombmaker. The book relates its history calmly and thoughtfully, giving us the space to appreciate the characters’ fates – and leaves us wondering what would have happened if these three people had actually met?

Read my review here.

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

hornby funny girl

You’ll probably know that I’m a big Hornby fan (see here and here for previous reviews).

Funny Girl is set during the golden age of the 1960s for TV comedy and concerns a northern lass who was nearly Miss Blackpool, but escapes to London to become a star in a TV comedy that follows the trials in the lives of a young couple.

The show itself is really the star of this book, and we get an inside view on it – from concept to finished article, and all the lives of those concerned in between. Hornby could have chosen an edgy show to feature, instead he went the cosy route. We have a charming heroine and everyone behaves as expected. To be honest, it’s not Hornby’s best, but it was still very enjoyable, nostalgic fun.

Read my review here.

The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick

ghosts-of-heavenIf I’m a big Hornby fan, I’m an even bigger fan of Marcus Sedgwick, one of the best authors of teen fiction that really does cross over to make satisfying adult reads. (see here, here and here for previous reviews).

His latest novel is a cycle of four novellas – each having a focus on spiral patterns. In the order published they move through from stone age to middle ages, to Victorian and then the future – but he says you can pick your order to read them in. I preferred the gradual reveal of the interlinking between them so stuck to the natural order, and it wasn’t until the last part that it clicked that the whole novel was a homage to a certain other story – and I loved that!

The hardback is also a lovely thing, with gold foiled covers and turquoise page edges – but in side is a fine novel too. I loved it.

Read my review here.

* * * * *
Sources: Top two – publishers – thank you. Bottom – my own copy.

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thank you):
The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, Orion books, 2014, hardback 448 pages, paperback coming March 5.
Funny Girl by Nick Hornby, Viking, 2014, 352 pages.
A Price to Pay by Alex Capus, Haus Publishing, 2014, Hardback, 240 pages.

 

My Books of the Year 2014 – Part One – the Shiny Edit…

hollyThis year for the first time, I’ve split my best of list in two. Having read around 130 books this year, there are too many to feature in just one post and there is an obvious split – today’s first part will feature those books that I’ve reviewed over at Shiny New Books

Forgive me for continually banging the drum, but I’m inordinately proud of Shiny and I am immensely grateful to all the lovely bloggers, friends, authors, translators, publishers who have written reviews and features for us. Special thanks to my three co-editors: Victoria, Simon and Harriet.

Tomorrow’s list will feature my favourite books this year reviewed on this blog, which includes many titles not published this year. 

But first over to the Shiny Edit! The links will take you over to my full reviews:

Best (Auto)biography

bedsit disco queen

Bedsit Disco Queen: How I grew up and tried to be a pop star by Tracey Thorn.

Tracey writes beautifully about life, love and the music business but does it quietly with warmth, wit and wonder at the good luck she’s had along the way. I loved this book so much, that sharing a maiden surname, I wish I was related to her!

– 

Best YA Read for Adults Too

picture me gonePicture me Gone by Meg Rosoff

This novel about a girl and her father who go on holiday to visit his best friend only to find him missing is an understated novel, with a teenager as its reliable narrator who discovers that it’s the adults who are unreliable. Gently told, there are no big shocks but it reveals a lot about how we learn to see the world in shades of grey rather than black and white.

– 

Best Coming of Age

american sycamoreAmerican Sycamore by Karen Fielding.

A tale of siblings growing up by the banks of the Suequehanna river in north-eastern USA. Billy Sycamore’s life may start off as a modern day Huck Finn but something terrible happens that affects his whole life and family. Narrated by his young sister, it is both funny and sad, and has some transcendant turns of phrase.  Loved it.

She was beautiful, our mother; an extrovert yet flammable, a walking can of gasoline just waiting for a match.

Best Woods

into the treesInto the Trees by Robert Williams

Forests play a huge part in mythology, yet can a modern family find their own enchanted life living in one?  The very first paragraph of this novel tells us that the forest may be a safe sanctuary one moment, a dangerous and lonely wild place the next. This is a powerful drama of families, finding a life-work balance, true friendship … and trees.

– 

Best Totally Un-PC Book

BonfiglioliDon’t Point That Thing At Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli

Imagine a 1970s Jeeves and Wooster crossed with James Bond, an upped double-entendres quotient and totally un-PC and you’ve got the Charlie Mortdecai books, of which this is the first. Written in the late 1970s, these capers narrated by the art-dealing aristo are great fun.

 

A Quick Mention for These Two

Mother Island by Bethan Roberts and Tigerman by Nick Harkaway.

The former a drama about child abduction and growing up on Anglesey in Wales, the latter an eco-thriller set on an island paradise that is ‘full of win’. Totally different, but both fab.

– 

… And Finally, My ‘Shiny’ Book of the Year

StationelevenUKHCStation Eleven
by Emily St.John Mandel.

I loved this elegant dystopian novel that takes place in the aftermath of a flu pandemic and following the links from former lives that persist between some of its survivors.

Awful things happen, yet seen through the journey of the Travelling Symphony – a collective of musicians and actors who struggle to keep the canon alive – there is positivity instead of despair for the fate of mankind.

Speculative fiction is possibly my favourite sub-genre of reading and this book is superb.

Read my review at SNBks.

 

 

 

Older posts
%d bloggers like this: