Having just missed one hundred books in the first year of The Book Challenge, in 2010, I made the full tonne. Still reading, but without the challenge, take a look at the reviews for the books that I have read this year.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Book 47 - Mock The Week: Next Year's Book

Book - Mock The Week: Next Year's Book
Author - Various
Year - 2010
Genre - Humour
Pages - 159
Bought for me by Annette Wickenden

I am a big comedy fan, and love most of the panel shows out there that seem to be a good launching ground for comedians to get some exposure.  Shows such as Have I Got News For You, Never Mind The Buzzcocks, QI, and They Think It's All Over... have proven to be incredibly funny shows, with some classic moments.  However, there is something about Mock The Week that I have never quite got on with.

There is an air of smugness to these shows sometimes, that is often easy to gloss over, but this show alone seems to be smug with no reason.  It is effectively a low brow version of HIGNFY but instead of having a genuine comedy genius like Paul Merton, they pull in people like Frankie Boyle and that short, bald one with the beard.  When Annette very kindly bought me this book however, I thought I may as well give it a shot.

Unfortunately, it lived up to expectations.  The book is basically one liners from different subjects such as 'Unlikely Things To Hear At An Awards Ceremony', 'Unlikely Health And Safety Advice' and 'Harry Potter Titles You'll Never See'.  And the overwhelming problem is that they are almost entirely not funny.

They fall into several broad categories.  The most common is 'Let's put some rude words or innuendo down because smut is funny'.  Alas, it isn't.  Then there's 'Let's be mildly sexist or racist because that is funny'.  Alas, this also isn't.  Add in some 'Funny obvious puns' (not funny), 'Let's laugh at celebrities' (still not funny) and some 'Sod it, let's just nick some things from our kids jokebooks' (did you ever think that that was going to be funny?) and you are left with something that not only didn't make me laugh very much, but didn't even raise a smile from me for about the first fifty pages.  I was going to put some examples on here, but really, just pick up the nearest item to you with some writing on - be it a cereal box or bank statement or bus ticket - and read it to get a similar level of hilarity.  Except with less swearing.

There were two jokes in here that I found genuinely funny.  However, this is a pretty poor return for a book of 159 pages with around fifteen jokes a page.  And the gloom bought on by the rest of the dross in the book meant that I forgot what they were immediately, so I can't even remember them.  Maybe I am overreacting to it and it is actually far funnier than I am giving it credit for.  Or maybe it's just a bit of a crap book that was rushed out to cash in on the inexplicable popularity of the TV show.  For their next book, I shall suggest the section 'Unlikely Things That I Will Recommend To Someone To Read'.  Guess what may make an appearance...

2/10 (because I am in a very good mood tonight, and I actually bought someone a copy of this last Christmas - sorry Jamie - and so should probably defend it in some way.  A bit)

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Book 46 - Sourcery

Book - Sourcery
Author - Terry Pratchett
Year - 1988
Genre - Fantasy
Pages - 270
Series - Discworld

This is the fifth book in the series of Discworld books, and the third of the Rincewind books, and continues a run of books that are great fantasy, whilst also being immensely funny.

Following his explusion from the Unseen University where wizards train, a disgruntled mage has eight sons.  However, if the eighth son of an eighth son becomes a wizard, then what does the eighth son of an eighth son of an eighth son become?  He becomes a sourcerer - a wizard so powerful that his existence threatens to destroy the whole of the Discworld.  Poor Rincewind, the inept wizard, is roped into trying to save the day - albeit somewhat reluctantly, and as ever, hilarity ensues.

With wizards, magical dimensions, flying carpets and levitation abound, Soucery adheres to so many of the standard tropes of fantasy writing, but by including an orang-utang librarian, a terrible poetic ruler, the four horsemen of the apocalypse getting smashed, and a dog called Wuffles, Pratchett churns out yet another fantasy book that will genuinely make you laugh.

Sourcery is not one of the books that I had heard of before in the series - the plaudits tend to go to more famous novels such as Mort, Hogfather and Making Magic but I was pleased to find that, whilst not quite as good as the previous book in the series, it is still a great read, and well worth a shot.


Thursday, 13 October 2011

Book 45 - Junk

Book - Junk
Author - Melvin Burgess
Year - 1996
Genre - 'Children's' (if you have children who mainly like books about heroin and prostitution)
Pages - 389
Given to me by Alinda Haynes-Hunte

A thought that I have often had is that the approach to educating children about drugs is wrong. Whenever we had talks about drugs at school, they were always so negative. Drugs kill you, and make you paranoid, and sick, and mad and so on and so forth. Now, I am someone who has never been tempted to even try drugs - I am too scared apart from anything else you will be pleased to hear, although maybe not as pleased as my mother - but even I when I was at school had the small thought of 'Well, if they are that terrible, then why do so many people take them?' Without pointing out the fact that drugs make people happy, and then contrasting that with the devastating effect that they can have upon people, there will always remain this element of doubt which encourages people to try dangerous drugs. Whilst this is a controversial idea I imagine, Junk is the perfect example of how this approach can work to make the idea of drugs less attractive.

It doesn't take too long until this book starts to become very uncomfortable.  Tar has run away from home because he has a father that beats him.  His girlfriend, Gemma, joins him soon after because her parents ground her.  Both of them are fourteen years old, and instantly you feel a sympathy for them both - Tar because of his horrible situation, and Gemma because she doesn't realise how good she actually has it.  The discomfort stems from the fact that you know that the book is called Junk, and so can have a pretty good idea of where it is going.

And go there it does.  Drugs - check.  Prostitution - check.  Police - check.  Theft - check.  Death - check.  If it is gritty and 'real' then you can bet that it is something that is going to come up in this book.  And this is where my problem sat.  Having done such a good job at establishing characters, Burgess managed to almost make me stop reading, because I knew that all of these horrible things were likely to happen.

But I persevered.  And managed to get through the entire 389 pages in one day as a result.  And I am very glad I did.  It is definitely a case of being one of those books that is 'written for teens' whilst being blatantly unsuitable for teens - it won the Carnegie Award the year after Northern Lights, another book that I feel is the same - but for the reasons above, I completely understand the reasoning behind it being a kids book.  Provided they can get through the beginning when the drugs all look pretty rosy, there is a message here that is not at all patronising or sanctimonious, and written in a style that is engaging enough to work, and telling teenagers that drugs ruin your life.

There is a part of me that wants to suggest that this is one of the most important books around - a concept that Carnegie promoted a few years ago, voting it as one of the most important children's books ever - and rate it with a full 10/10.  But that is tempered with the fact that it often made me feel uncomfortable, and I often found myself not enjoying it.  I am sure that this is Burgess' aim however, so I am instead going to give it a solid eight, but also suggest that you let your teenagers - or if you need to, make your teenagers - read this book.


Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Book 44 - The Wrestling

Book - The Wrestling
Author - Simon Garfield
Year - 1996
Genre - Wrestling/History
Pages - 215

'Kayfabe' is a term that is used behind the scenes in wrestling.  Loosely, it is a term to describe the presentation that wrestling is completely real.  Until the early 80s, pretty much all wrestling was kayfabe, and it wasn't until the Americans started to publicly suggest that wrestling was 'sports entertainment', that kayfabe was broken.

But for the dogged British wrestling scene, that admission didn't change too much about how the wrestlers felt, and this book explores that.  With interviews from all of the main players in British wrestling throughout World of Sport, as well as before and after - including Mick McManus, Jackie Pallo, Big Daddy, Robbie Brookside, Giant Haystacks and James Mason - this is as good an insight into the world of grappling in this country as you are ever likely to get.  And the main players still don't break kayfabe all that much.

In 1985, Jackie Pallo ostrisised himself from many other wrestlers by publishing an autobioghraphy exposing the staged nature of professional wrestling.  As obvious as it sounds now that wrestling is 'fake', this wasn't an altogether universal knowledge back then - with tabloids regularly running stories to debunk the myth of the sport of wrestling - and the damage was potentially huge.  Even eleven years later however, the likes of the people in this book tend to suggest that more was real than we know to be the case - and you have to have a certain amount of respect for that.

The amount of information in here is excellent, and just about all presented in the wrestlers own words.  Garlfield occasionally interjects in his own voice to clarify things, but generally everything is kept.  It is truly interesting for someone who was about ten years to late to see the impact of British wrestling, and has instead grown his fandom on the American product, to find out more about those who were just names before - be it Kendo Nagasaki's genuine strangeness, or the overwhelming view that Les Kellett was a horrible person - and buil up a picture of those who started things out here.

The amount of people for whom this book would appeal is probably not that huge - proper harcore wrestling fans such as myself, and people of a generation above mine who have fond memories of Kent Walton and the like - but for those who are interested in this kind of thing, this book is a real treat.

And if it isn't your cup of tea, then why not try one of Garfield's other books.  He has one on Radio One?  Or one on the rise of AIDS in the UK?  Or - most strangely of all - perhaps the one on the invention of dye?  Weird as it may sound, I think you'd find them interesting.


For more Simon Garfield books, see the Authors page above, or for more wrestling books, see the Wrestling page.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Book 43 - Mort

Book - Mort
Author - Terry Pratchett
Year - 1987
Genre - Fantasy
Pages - 316
Series - Discworld

The fourth in the Discworld series, Mort is generally considered one of the best of the lot, even appearing on the BBC's list of the hundred greatest books a few years back.  I have enjoyed the series so far, and have been looking forward to getting started on this one.

Death appears as a character in several of the books, and he is definitely one of the most interesting characters.  This book follows his adoption of an apprentice - the eponymous Mort - and how this affects their lives, and that of the Discworld.

All of the books of the series that I have read so far have been excellent and incredibly funny.  But I would definitely agree that this is the best of the bunch as of yet.  It sacrifices a few of the laughs in order to create a fantastic story, but still remains in Pratchett's trademark humourous style throughout.  Exploring the already brilliant character of Death is a great idea, and equally the other characters introduced here - particularly Mort - are great.

Discworld is a massive series, with so many books to it, and I am pleased that I still have plenty of reading ahead of me.  Roll on the next one.


Thursday, 6 October 2011

Book 42 - Endgame

Book - Endgame
Author - Samuel Beckett
Year - 1963
Genre - Play
Pages - 60

Samuel Beckett is one of the greatest playwrights of all time.  And he tends to write about... nothing.

Most famously he does this in Waiting For Godot where our two leading tramps spend their time waiting for the eponymous character to arrive.  Endgame is, if anything, slightly weirder than even that, following Hamm - who cannot stand up - and Clov - who cannot sit down - as they do... nothing.  Filling up the cast are Nagg and Nell, Hamm's parents who live in dustbins and have no legs.  Yes, it is an odd play.

And despite nothing happening - Clov looks out of the window, and Hamm strokes a dog, and this amounts to the vast majority of the play's action - it is totally engrossing.  We first looked at this play when I was doing A Level drama, and along with Godot it remains one of my very favourite plays of all time, although this is the first time I have read it in ten years.  The parts are all great - except for the poor sods who have to spend the play in bins - and it would be a wonderful thing to perform.

I am sure that I could go into some great detail about the deeper meanings behind everything in the play, but I don't really find that I want to.  I am sure that it is all there, but sometimes it is nice to enjoy a play simply for the sheer beauty of it - even if that beauty is based upon, well... nothing.


Book 41 - How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found

Book - How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found
Author - Fin Kennedy
Year - 2007
Genre - Play
Pages - 108

I rarely mention book publishers here on my Book Challenge blog, but I think I am going to make a little exception for Nick Hern Books.  I don't have a lot to say about them, except they make some cracking theatre books, and the layout and actual books themselves are always brilliantly easy to use.  If you like theatre, and like reading, and like to combine the two, then they are worth looking out for.

The unnecessarily long title of How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found comes from the title of an American book about how to get rid of your current identity and start a completely new life.  Fin Kennedy used this - along with some alarming statistics about the rate of people that go missing in the UK - to form the basis of this play.

Written for five actors, playing around thirty odd parts, the play tells the story of a man who is having a bit of a breakdown.  We follow his thought processes far more than we follow his actions, and not everything makes sense at first, but through some clever techniques, we find out exactly what has happened to him.

The plot is great, and I ate it up as quickly as I could.  The play also leaves a lot of scope to do things, and should appeal to those directors who like to play around with what happens on stage.  It is also great to read - a complaint about reading plays is that you often lose a lot in the reading instead of the watching - making this a good play to add to your database of plays - should there be anyone else out there attempting to do such a thing.

A good book, worth reading.  And if you hear of any productions taking place, be sure to let me know.


Book 40 - Guys and Dolls

Book - Guys and Dolls
Author - Damon Runyon
Year - 1956 (this collection)
Genre - Short Stories
Pages - 285

So, why am I reading the original series of stories that form the basis of the musical Guys and Dolls?  Well, obviously, because it is the next show I am in.  Might as well get the plug out of the way immediately before you all leave me.  19th -22nd October at the Orchard Theatre in Dartford, we will be performing, and I am playing the part of Benny Southstreet.  Check out our society's website.

Damon Runyon is famous for having created a world which shows the seedy underbelly of New York in the early 1900s, using a very distinctive writing style that has influenced gangster movies for many years since.  The show Guys and Dolls is based upon two of his short stories - The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown and Blood Pressure - and as I am a bit tragic and like to do a bit of research into the shows that I am doing, I decided to set upon reading the book.

The first, and easily most, disappointing thing that I found, is that only the first of the two short stories is in this collection.  There are dozens of variations in how the short stories are published, and despite the fact that you would expect them both to appear in a book with the show's title on, Blood Pressure is in fact in another collection.  Just to make it worse, my character - Benny Southstreet - is not even mentioned in this collection!  The very cheek.

This is where the disappointments end however, as this is a truly special set of short stories.  If anything seems gangster cliched, or derivative, it tends to be because the books have influenced so much over the years, and many of the stories have been adapted for stage and screen.

Each of the stories - be they telling of a murdering femme fatale, or a drunk finding true love - are incredibly charming, and Runyon's strictly present tense way of writing - including no contractions, and some rather outrageous slang and turns of phrases - makes much of the book even more charming, and often laugh out loud funny.

It took me a while to get through it - without a through line, I tend to get sidetracked on many goods - but it was thoroughly worth it.  Come and see my show before you read it though - we don't want any spoilers now, do we?


PS - as an aside, I have - as ever - used the front cover that I actually had to my copy here.  Seems fine, but when I have been reading it on the way to work in the morning, and I pass the primary school around the corner, the parents dropping off their kids stare at me, presumably thinking that the scantily clad women on the front denote my book as being top shelf stuff, as opposed to classic literature with a Marlon Brando film adaptation.  Heathens.