“Nothing But Blue Skies” by Tom Holt (2001)

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“Four men in dark grey suits and black sunglasses climbed out of a black, fat-wheeled Transit and slammed the doors.”

Last week the weather did something strange on my home island. It got hot. Really hot. Tarmac-meltingly, skin-peelingly, eating-a-Twister-every-hour hot. The British are not equipped for this sort of weather, so it was almost a welcome relief when, four days later, we had a loud thunderstorm and the rain, drizzle and grey clouds returned en masse. Naturally, we’ve done nothing but complain since. (The British are a fickle bunch, especially when it comes to the weather.) I’m therefore a little late with a book of this title, but somehow that makes it even more fitting, as this book is here to explain why British summers are non-existent (or, alternatively, held on a Thursday).

The truth behind the perpetual rain of the British Isles is pissed-off Chinese water dragons, and why would it be anything else? One of these dragons, Karen, is currently working as an estate agent in London after falling in love with a human called Paul and taking a human form herself to be closer to him. Her efforts to make him notice her, however, are ruined when it turns out her father, the Adjutant General to the Dragon King of the North-West is missing, leading to an unprecedented spell of dry weather (seventy-four hours and counting).

But there’s much more going on than that. The Adjutant General has been kidnapped by a furious weatherman who knows its the dragons causing all the rain and is convinced that they’re doing it to spite him and make his predictions go wrong. He tries to convince another weatherman, the alcoholic Gordon Smelt, and the two are soon up to their necks in it. Elsewhere, a secret section of the British government is planning to use the dragons to increase British rainfall, under the impression that the only reason Britain had such a great empire was that they simply needed to colonise somewhere hot and dry. With even more rain bucketing down in the homeland, it would inspire the people to raise up and invade Australia. And that’s all before we get onto the suspicious-looking men in dark suits who are collecting up two of every creature, just in preparation for a worst case scenario…

I’ve only read Tom Holt once before, and at the time I remember thinking that he must be a bit mad to come up with some of the ideas he did. Frustratingly, while he probably is mad, the ideas are so solidly good that you can’t help grumbling that you didn’t think of them first as they all seem so obvious and easy. The gag-to-page ratio is matched only by Douglas Adams and surpasses even Jasper Fforde, meaning you are bombarded with really, truly hilarious lines, wacky similes, utterly preposterous metaphors and passages that are downright rude in the amount of comic timing they have. And yet still beneath it all is an incredibly smart story that plays with several old tropes, but also introduces a whole bunch of new twists and really seems to be enjoying itself.

I have a habit of sticking an impromptu bookmark in a page where I find a quote I like, but if I’d stopped to do it here, the book would be more train ticket than novel. A few of the lines that did stick with me however, include…

“This is a funny old country. You need to have all kinds of licences and stuff before they let you own dynamite, and yet there’s women walking around with long red hair, green eyes and freckles, and nobody seems to give a damn. But when you think of all the damage one green-eyed freckled redhead can do in just one afternoon–”

“Imagine Manchester. Sorry, had you just eaten? Let’s try a gentler approach.”

“Paul’s face suddenly solidified […] leaving him with that death-by-embarrassment stuffed stare that’s unique to the English during romantic interludes.”

“If you hadn’t noticed, I’m the pub loony around here. This is my turf, and if there’s any gibbering to be done, I’m the one who does it. You want to gibber, find another bar.”

They probably don’t rank high in good quality jokes out of context, but they work so wonderfully well within the story. Holt is economical with certain details – we get good descriptions of what several of the dragons look like, but humans are rarely if ever given a physical description, presumably to acknowledge how we are seen to immortal beings – but he enjoys realistic dialogue that doesn’t go anywhere, and conversations that no one understands.

It’s a world that feels real enough, because all the humans are incompetent, even (or especially) the ones running the world behind the curtain. There are so many ideas in here that the book almost spills over with joy. I think it’s quite safe to say that it won’t be five years before I make my return to Tom Holt’s jottings. The man is a certified lunatic, and I can’t think of many lunatics I’d rather spend time swimming around in the brain of.

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“Catch-22” by Joseph Heller (1961)

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What’s the catch?

“It was love at first sight.”

In my ongoing mission to see if reading the classics makes me a better person, I come roaring down the runway to meet Catch-22, said to be, along with To Kill A Mockingbird, one of the greatest American novels of the last century. Despite knowing it spawned a phrase from its title and that it featured army pilots, much else of the detail had escaped me.

Captain Yossarian is a pilot assigned to the Mediterranean island of Pianosa. He’s furious because people keep trying to kill him, which may have something to do with the fact it’s the height of the Second World War. He is desperate that he should return home alive but his officers keep upping the number of missions he has to complete before he can go. The only way out is to declare he’s crazy, but there’s a catch. Catch-22 in fact.

If he refuses to fly the missions, then he must be sane, so he has to fly them. If he accepts the missions, he’s obviously crazy because only a madman would want to fly during a war, and he doesn’t have to do them. That’s one hell of a catch. Surrounded by friends and enemies – some of whom are on the same side – Yossarian must find a way to keep his head while losing it and make it out of the war alive, without sacrificing another friend. But it’s not going to be as easy as that, as everyone is plotting to keep themselves safe too.

28-year-old Captain Yossarian is the main character and is determined to survive the war, eventually refusing to fly anymore, but it’s hard to say that there are any minor characters. Most chapters take the name of a character and show their involvement in the unfolding drama. The list of characters is enormous but includes: Colonel Cathcart (who continually raises the number of missions the men have to fly), Doc Daneeka (self-obsessed medical man), Milo Minderbinder (who is running a syndicate and only does things if they gain him a profit), Nately (who has fallen in love with a prostitute), Scheisskopf (who is obsessed with parades), Clevinger (who disappears on a flight one day), Major —— de Coverley (who is feared but rarely seen), Major Major (who can only be visited while he’s out of his office), General Dreedle (who is apathetic towards war unless the men fight and die on demand), Nurse Duckett (who sleeps with Yossarian), Hungry Joe (a pervert and photographer), Orr (a bomber pilot who always crashes), McWatt (who seems crazy because he has remained sane), Sergeant Towser (de facto head of the squadron),  and Chief White Halfoat (a Native American whose family had to keep moving because they always settled where oil was found). That’s barely half of them. It’s an amazing cast and everyone feels nicely sketched out and there aren’t any superfluous cast members. It’s just a task remembering who’s who and who outranks who else. I need a diagram.

The confusion of characters is compounded by the fact that the story doesn’t follow a strictly linear path, and jumps about in the timeline showing the same events from different angles. Personally, my favourite characters are Yossarian, Major Major and Chaplain Shipman, and would happily have taken a story just about those three.

A primary theme of the novel is paradox. Aside from the central one of being too mad to fly, every other page seems to contain someone making a statement and then saying the opposite immediately afterwards, either forming a joke or sometimes to highlight the insanity of the world they inhabit. Early on we see a character described as, “good-natured, generous and likeable. In three days no one could stand him.” Nately at one point declares, “Anything worth living for is worth dying for”, only to be told in return, “Everything worth dying for is certainly worth living for.” People adopt one another’s personas and illnesses in hospital to confound doctors and keep themselves in there longer and away from the planes they have to fly. The world here is a complicated mess where people are brought up against their superiors for not doing things, mediocrity is applauded and dead people are thought to be alive and the living are considered dead.

Frankly, my biggest issue comes down to the novel’s length. Yes, it definitely is funny, but I’d got the joke by about 150 pages in, and my edition clocks in at over 500. That’s a lot of extra time spent on something I thought we’d already covered. However, in saying that, it needs the ending it has. Towards the end, the jokes and lighthearted mood is stripped away and we see the true horror of war for what it really is. War is, after all, not a joke, and the stark reality of it hits you in the face like Orr being hit in the head with a woman’s shoe.

I’m not a bit sorry I read it, and I can see why it’s lingered. Heller has done something pretty cool here, but rather unlike anything I’ve read before.

“Free-Range Chickens” by Simon Rich (2009)

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chickens“Got your nose!”

As the news becomes more and more farcical, and I steadily lose the ability to comprehend what’s going on, I find that it’s better (in the short term, at least) so hide inside books. With this in mind, I now joyfully return to the mad mind of Simon Rich. One of the finest, silliest writers working today, my blog is already liberally sprinkled with his work – Ant Farm and Spoiled Brats to name two – and every time I dip into one of his collections, I come out smiling.

In this collection, we are treated to over fifty examples of sparkling flash fiction divided into the categories of “Growing Up”, “Going to Work”, “Daily Life”, “Relationships”, “Animals” and “God”. Rarely is a story more than two pages long, some are merely three or four lines, but each one is a perfectly crafted joke and tells so much more than what is revealed. A lot of them are simply lines of dialogue, but they’re all wonderfully smart and punchy.

Among others you have a young Simon learning about the tooth fairy for the first time and wondering whether there is a face fairy too; two frogs discussing the fact that they are killed and dissected for appalling crap science reports; Batman arguing with the mayor of Gotham City for better prisons to stop the Joker escaping; Count Dracula’s dating profile in which he attempts to prove he is a normal human; God forgetting exactly what his big plan is; what happens in the four years at acupuncture school; and the horrific truth behind logic problems. Two of the funniest – “Time Machine” and “Actor’s Nightmare” – are also among the shortest, but you’ll have to read them yourselves to see what I mean.

There’s not a whole lot else to say about this book, really. The stories are cleverly crafted and terribly funny, epitomising the adage that “brevity is wit”. There’s not a single wasted word and I can guarantee that this book will make you feel a whole lot better and perhaps a bit less alone.

“The Diary Of A Nobody” by George & Weedon Grossmith (1888)

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nobody-diary“We settle down in our new home, and I resolve to keep a diary.”

There are always debates about what the funniest book ever is. For my sins, I feel it’s probably The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, though undoubtedly there are many others I’m forgetting. Still, that’s definitely one of them. A couple of years ago I read Lucky Jim, which is often declared one of the funniest books ever written, but I didn’t especially agree. However, I embarked on The Diary of a Nobody and came to the conclusion that this is definitely a strong contender, and I understand why it’s never been out of print in over 120 years.

This short book is extracts from the diary of Mr Charles Pooter, a clerk in Victorian London who has high hopes of being considered as good a diarist as Samuel Pepys. He is frustratingly middle-class, but like many people of the time (the book having first been serialised between 1888 and 1889), he is obsessed with his status in society, taking great pride in his work, enjoying the company of people he believes to be his betters and treating them with a reverence they probably don’t deserve, and becoming very excited by invitations to posh balls and parties.

His daily life is interrupted when his son Lupin returns home to live with him and his wife, Carrie. Lupin’s love life now becomes something to worry about, and Pooter must balance his son’s louche behaviour with his ever-present friends Gowing and Cummings, his money troubles and his desire to be considered a great man.

For a book so old, it feels startlingly modern. I don’t pretend to be any sort of expert on Victorian literature – I’ve rather avoided the time period as a whole, due to an unfortunate incident with Dickens – so maybe this is common of the time, but it’s properly funny and the Grossmith brothers are fully aware of what an idiot Pooter is, although the man himself has a high opinion of his own position and status, and sees nothing ridiculous about it. He admits early on that he rarely tells jokes, but at least once a chapter he comes out with some little bit of wordplay or a pun, which are rather sweet in their way, but seem to make the characters roar with laughter almost every time. Still, I suppose things were simpler then – they were still waiting for the Playstation to be invented.

Still, the jokes are delightful, but the true humour comes from that most English of issues – class. Pooter feels like a very early example of characters like Basil Fawlty and David Brent, men who are desperate to be recognised but consider society to be ignoring them and not letting them progress as they would like. Pooter is charmingly innocent, always tries to see the best in things and hates causing a fuss if he doesn’t have to. Is he aware that he has no authority and people don’t take him seriously? Probably not.

It’s a great little cast of characters too. We know almost nothing of any of them physically, but their personalities leap off the page. His friends, Cummings and Gowing (at one point he quips that in their house, Cummings always seems to be going, and Gowing always seems to be coming) are strange and don’t treat him with respect always, but he seems to still adore them well enough. The greatest relationship in the book though is that between Pooter and his wife, Carrie. They have been together a long time and yet still seem utterly besotted with one another. Carrie finds her husband ridiculous at times too, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind, but she obviously loves her foolish husband, and it’s rather sweet to witness.

Utterly charming, very funny and an engaging little read. Pooter will certainly never be a Nobody to me – he will always stand out as one of literature’s great Somebodies.

“The Woman Who Died A Lot” by Jasper Fforde (2012)

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woman-who-died“Everything comes to an end.”

Despite this novel’s opening line, this isn’t quite the end. However, it feels like it some days. This is the seventh book in the Thursday Next series, and there hasn’t been a new one in four years now, although it ends on a cliffhanger and reports that she will return. All I say to you now though is, if you haven’t read the ones before, then this is going to make even less sense to you than if you had. On we go.

Thursday Next has been forced into semi-retirement. Now in her early fifties, she has survived the kidnapping attempt of the previous book, but now she walks with a stick, has double vision a lot of the time, and is addicted to painkiller patches. With the news that SpecOps is about to be reinstated in an effort to use up as much of the country’s excess money in stupid ways as possible, she is sure that she’s in line to be the new head of SO-27, the Literary Detectives. After all, having worked for them for a long time, as well as spending several years inside literature, surely she’s the ideal person for the job. That is, if it wasn’t for Phoebe Smalls, who is younger, fitter and perhaps even more tenacious than Thursday.

Thursday is instead offered the job of heading up Swindon Library, a task that is somewhat more relaxed but still doesn’t come without its problems, such as the impending budget cuts, the Blyton fundamentalists who want all the racism put back into their novels to better represent their “perfect England”, and the fact that Goliath, everyone’s least-favourite multinational are after some specific and unusual antique books.

But, being a Thursday Next book, that’s not all.

Thursday’s son Friday has lost the job he never had with the Chronoguard and has been told he’s going to commit a murder at the end of the week; an angry god is planning on smiting Swindon on the same day, unless Thursday’s genius daughter Tuesday can find a way to prevent it; memories keep going astray and Thursday doesn’t understand the tattoo that’s appeared on her hand; there seems to be something going on within the Dark Reading Matter that contains all the stories that never got written; and Thursday herself keeps getting replaced by very lifelike synthetic versions of herself which is proving to be very annoying.

In the last book, we spent the vast majority of the time inside the BookWorld, emerging once to learn a little bit about what was going on in the Outland, and this time it’s the other way around. Because of Thursday’s injuries, she can no longer jump into fiction and instead must make do on this side of the page. This lets us explore more of the strange world of Fforde’s Swindon, bringing back Joffy Next, Jack Schitt and Daisy Mutlar, to name some of the characters. By this point in the series, you better have a firm grip on what’s come before as Fforde enjoys dropping in references to names and events from previous books without explanation.

He’s as funny as ever too, turning librarians into a task force of the military elite, who are regularly shot at by angry patrons and perform raids on private houses to get back the books that rightfully belong in their hallowed buildings. Despite writing off time travel as impossible two books ago, he’s obviously had a change of heart and it’s back and even stranger than ever, paradoxically working and not at the same time.

There are also some deeply dark moments in here, such as the Letters of Destiny which tell would-have-been members of the Chronoguard about the life they would have had and the one they now will. All the scenes involving Aornis Hades and her memory-altering powers are also incredibly powerful and actually quite terrifying. Thursday is an amazing protagonist, and seems almost unique in the canon of female heroes as being a mother, over fifty, highly intelligent, and still able to kick butt when necessary (or in a synthetic body).

I could languish in this world forever, if only for the puns, wordplay and beautifully constructed nonsensical sentences. Every scene is utter bliss, from Thursday’s father who until recently didn’t exist but now has memories of his family that they don’t share, to the Manchild, who has half of his body aging in reverse.

If you’re new to this world, get reading The Eyre Affair. You’ll thank me later.

“One Of Our Thursdays Is Missing” by Jasper Fforde (2011)

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thursdays-missing“Everyone remembers where they were when the BookWorld was remade.”

Where does one even begin on this week? Fearing, and later seeing, the worst news of 2016 so far – and it was up against some pretty stiff competition – meant that I had to take refuge inside fiction, and where better than back inside Jasper Fforde. Continuing on the Thursday Next series, this is the sixth installment, possibly my favourite one, so be prepared for spoilers out the wazoo and to not understand anything if you’ve not read the others in the series. Though, in fairness, even if you have read them this still might not make much sense.

First up, the BookWorld doesn’t look like it used to. In the previous novels it’s been just the Great Library and characters jump from book to book. Now it’s been remade, and Fiction Island is just one of hundreds. The island is divided up into genres with the Metaphoric River running through them all, from Dogma in the north to Adventure in the south. This alone makes the book far more enjoyable and funny, as the books are now neighbours and people get around by public transport. There are a lot more jokes and concepts to mine from this, and mine them Fforde does. Anyway, the plot.

This book isn’t narrated by the Thursday Next we’ve grown to love over the last five books, but instead by the written version. Although she failed her Jurisfiction entrance exam, when not being read in her own series and dealing with the troublesome cast there, she works for JAID, the Jurisfiction Accident Investigation Division under Commander James “Red” Herring. When a self-published book, The Murders on the Hareng Rouge, comes down over Thriller, Thursday discovers that all the ISBN numbers have been scrubbed from the remains. Realising though that she’s just there to declare the case closed, she does so. However, she discovers soon after that the real Thursday Next is missing, and suddenly the downed book seems a bit more suspicious.

Accompanied by her clockwork butler Sprockett, whom she has recently saved from inside Conspiracy, and somehow equipped with the real Thursday’s Jurisfiction badge, written Thursday sets about finding out what has happened to her real self. But this is a Fforde book so we also have to contend with a brewing war between the genres of Women’s Fiction and Racy Novel, a lack of raw metaphor, a brief jaunt into the real world to find out more about Thursday’s absence from her husband Landen and the never-ending party on Fanfiction Island.

The idea of a geographical BookWorld is perhaps my favourite idea in here, as it entirely alters the way things work and, as I said, allows for all new jokes. The book also now contains a map of the new island, which is itself crammed with jokes. The genres of Racy Novel and Comedy border one another with the sub-genre of Bawdy Romp as a buffer zone; the Streams of Consciousness are literal; and there’s even a tiny island dedicated to MPs Expenses, a fiction if ever there was one. Another excellent joke scene is a minor one but features a support group for literary siblings who can’t live up to the popularity of their more famous brothers and sisters. They include the Mediocre Gatsby, who makes a living driving taxis, Rupert Bond who remains a virgin, Sharon Eyre, Tracey Capulet and Nancy Potter. You can work them out for yourselves.

Fforde also seems oddly prescient here, as if he knew something we didn’t. A major plot point is that the Racy Novel genre, on the banks of the Innuendo River, is trying to make itself more respected and gain a bigger readership. The following year, Fifty Shades of Grey was published, followed by hundreds of copycats trying to ride the coattails of its success. Seems that he knew something was going on. Because the book, like First Among Sequels, is set considerably later than the earlier books, we also get many more Harry Potter jokes, as well as a dig at the popularity of sexy vampires.

It’s also great to see a fictional character drop into the RealWorld for the first time and have to deal with such troublesome things as breathing, gravity, and conversations that serve no purpose to the plot. It’s also a chance to meet Square from Flatland, and learn a bit of what’s going on out there, which continues some gags from the last books and sets up some more ideas that will return in the next. This book is mostly set in the BookWorld, as indeed the next will focus primarily on the RealWorld.

As ever, Fforde weaves magic and I can’t believe I’m nearly done with Thursday again. But it’s a wonderful reminder that even in times of utter turmoil and trouble, books will be there to see us through the worst of it. Have faith.

“Good Omens” by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman (1990)

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good-omens“It was a nice day.”

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Now there’s a team and a half. Although I’ve devoured most of Gaiman’s work, I’ve only read a few Pratchett novels and never been especially taken by them. I’ve discussed this before. As such, embarking on this book that is continually held up as one of the best and funniest of the nineties was done with trepidation. I shouldn’t have worried so much. Here’s the situation…

Eleven years before the main story starts, Crowley, a angel-now-demon who “didn’t so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards” has an important job to do involving the Antichrist. It’s not a job he wants to be doing, mind, but you don’t argue with the big boys downstairs. Once the kid has grown up a bit, there are rumblings. Crowley and Aziraphale, an angel and part-time bookseller, realise that the end of the world is due this Saturday and neither of them particularly want it to happen. They’ve come to like Earth and it’s many trinkets. They decide to try and stop it.

Elsewhere, the four Bikers of the Apocalypse have received a message to gather. A young man called Newt Pulsifer gets gainful employment as a witchfinder, only to befriend one a short while later. She’s Anathema Device and has been for years studying the only book that means anything to her: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. Anathema is the distant descendant of Agnes and has noticed that the prophecies go no further than this coming Saturday. Add to the mix a Satanic hellhound who discovers he’d rather roll in cow shit than do evil, a bogus medium who does extras on Thursdays, two other demons who are trying to make life worse for Crowley, and a former Satanist nun, and things are about to become more complicated than algebraic long division.

And everyone’s lost track of where the Antichrist even is…

That plot summary feels short for what’s actually going on in this book, but it’s one of those ones that is best read in full. So much happens and in such a short space of time that you find yourself tearing through the pages, desperate to find out how it’s all going to get sorted out. It’s immensely funny, and I really mean that. Some books start out funny but then tail off towards the middle and lose it by the end. This one is full of throwaway gags, stupid imagery, witty asides and the most beautiful surrealism. Frankly, I’m jealous. The concepts packed into here are amazing and I’m in awe of them, as well as being pissed off that I will never be this good and wish I’d come up with some of these ideas first.

The main characters arguably are Crowley and Arizaphale, and I adore them both. Crowley may be a demon, but there’s a hint of angel in him somewhere, and while Arizaphale may be an angel, there’s a sliver of darkness in him. Crowley in particular seems keen to cause havoc wherever he goes, simply because that’s what demons do. He drives a beautiful Bentley which only keeps running because he wills it to, and has much to say about the fact that all cassette tapes left in cars for more than two weeks turn into Best of Queen albums. (It’s that sort of insanity I love – it’s nonsense, and yet it feels like that it could be real.)

My favourite characters though are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. who are now the Four Bikers. War, Famine, and Pollution (who replaced Pestilence when he resigned after getting pissed off about the advent of penicillin) are fully fleshed out. Death remains Death, though speaks in the same manner and seems to share a similar appearance to the Death of the Discworld novels. Pollution is a young man who leaves mess in his wake; everything he touches breaks, leaks or becomes toxic. Famine is a food scientist and dietitian who has basically worked out how to produce food that has zero nutritional value (his fast food fries have never even seen a potato) and peddles diet plans that cause people to waste away. He’s incredibly famous among the celebrity world. War is a stunningly beautiful war correspondent who always seems to be in the right place just before the action kicks off. I am in love with War, continuing my obsession with redheads and women who look like they could kill me.

If you’re a fan of Pratchett or Gaiman, come and nestle among these pages. They are magicians, and putting them together creates something particularly wonderful. Indeed, this could be the book that turns me into a Pratchett fan. Perhaps I shall return to the Discworld after all. What an utterly charming, hilarious and at times deeply poignant novel.

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