“Cold Comfort Farm” by Stella Gibbons (1932)

1 Comment

“The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged…”

As a native Sussexian, I have a deep fondness for the county. Sussex, historically, has always seemed a slightly different place to the rest of England, although these differences have certainly become less pronounced in recent years. Nonetheless, the unofficial county motto remains “We wunt be druv“, and it’s a pleasure to meet some characters, however scruffy, who live up to the axiom.

Flora Poste has just returned from the funeral of her distant parents and is now seeking a method of making her way in the world. With little money and few prospects, she decides to rely on the kindness of distant relatives, writing to several who all insist that she come and stay. The one she is most intrigued by, however, is the reply from her cousin, Judith Starkadder, at Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex. Judith suggests she always knew this day would come, when Flora would seek out her “rights”, and invites her to stay, despite warning that they are not like other people.

Fascinated, Flora heads off to meet the extended Starkadder family, each of whom has an emotional problem of some kind, be it fear, hatred, anger or plain insanity. Being a level-headed, modern woman with more than a dash of common sense and a mind for solving problems, Flora descends on the filthy farm to find her relatives a strange group who will have their lives irreversibly changed by her interference. Urk is determined to marry young Elfine, who is less keen on the idea. Amos preaches damnation at the local church. Rueben wants nothing more than to own the farm. And then there’s old Aunt Ada Doom, stuck in her bedroom, insisting that as a child she saw something nasty in the woodshed…

Cold Comfort Farm is one of those titles that crops up occasionally on lists of the greatest books of all time, and I must say this was probably the main reason I’d avoided it. I’m always wary of the classics, and had assumed this would be something dull and rural about farming, but it turned out I’d been entirely wrong. It’s an out-and-out comedy, provoking actual laughs in places as Flora bustles through the Starkadders’ lives, determined to improve them whether they want them improved or not. It’s joyful and a bit silly, melodramatic and an absolute send-up of the kind of book I thought it would be. Flora is a fun character, and there’s something magnetic about Ada Doom, even though she spends so little time on the page. I also was hugely amused by the writer Mr Mybug, determined to woo Flora while writing a book about how Branwell Bronte was the real genius of the family.

Something I did find a little incongruous was the occasional mentions of this being set in the future. A note at the novel’s opening mentions that it takes place slightly in the future, which doesn’t seem relevant for the most part but then it catches you off guard when a story that, for the most part seems to be set in the bucolic countryside of a Thomas Hardy novel suddenly acknowledges that there are videophones, personal air travel and that Lambeth has become the fashionable area of London. None of really impacts on the story, to be honest, but it’s a fascinating little twist on the genre.

A funny little gem of a novel that did well to avoid slipping into complete obscurity.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Constant Rabbit” by Jasper Fforde (2020)

1 Comment

“Still on the Westerns, Baroness Thatcher?”

The world stops when a new Jasper Fforde book comes out – or at least it should. Why he isn’t talking about with the regularity and reverence of the likes of Hilary Mantel, Ian McEwan and Margaret Atwood is beyond me. Anyway, while it’s unfortunately not a continuation of a previous book, a new standalone is nevertheless nothing to sniff at. Especially when he’s gone hard for small-minded England.

In 1965, an Anthropomorphising Event occured in Britain, turning eighteen ordinary rabbits into intelligent, talking, human-sized rabbits. Now fifty-five years on, there are over a million of them, and small-minded Brits are concerned that they’re going to take over. Peter Knox lives in the very right-wing village of Much Hemlock, where the residents are keen on village pride and keeping the neighbourhood entirely human. Unfortunately, a family of rabbits has just moved in next door to Peter, and it turns out that one of them was at university with him.

When the village turns on them, Peter is employed as a spy to befriend them and try and pay them to leave, but he doesn’t want to do so, especially as he’s delighted and flustered to be reunited with Constance, a rabbit he had quite a crush on in his youth. There is one small complication however – Peter works for the Rabbit Compliance Taskforce, spotting criminal rabbits so that they can be “dealt with”, and one of his past jobs directly led to the death of Constance’s husband. With pressure mounting from all sides to do something, Peter and his daughter Pippa are about to learn that being a human with rabbit friends is far more complicated and controversial than they could ever have imagined.

Without question, Fforde’s most overtly political novel, the allegorical premise is unarguably quite heavy-handed. The parallels with the current news cycle talking about “foreigners coming over here and taking all the jobs, leaving no rights for the native Brit” are blatant and harsh, but somewhat necessary. Particularly in a week where we’ve seen dozens of people fleeing across the English Channel for a better life in Britain, only to be derided by the press and many of the public, it feels particularly poignant. Nonetheless, it works. Make the situation ridiculous, and suddenly the real life examples seem just as mad. Fforde keeps up his tradition of making the insane seem entirely logical, and as ever you are entirely sucked into his world, not really knowing quite how you ended up there but entirely part of it.

As ever, there are loads of silly jokes and clever research bound up in the whole thing. Rabbits have names including Harvey, Rupert and Dylan, and their way of living and morals are vastly different to that of humans. They are plain-speaking, kind, always watching, and very open about their frantic sex lives. Fforde also manages to still cram in some extra jokes, such as the fact that the government has cut public services so much that, while libraries still exist, there are only twelve left and each can only be open for six minutes every two weeks. Whenever there’s space of a gag, he will fill it. I mean, in a book about rabbits, the main human character is called Peter. There’s no way that’s not intentional.

Fforde’s unbridled brillance, however, comes from the way he uses the written word. No one has ever before managed to use it in quite the way he does, making you realise that while you think you’ve got the entire picture, you don’t know what the author has left out. Despite the brazen tongue-in-cheek nature of some of his jokes and situations, his characterisation remains beautifully nuanced and he allows you to properly fall for the characters by focusing on who they are, rather than what they are. I already feel I’ve said too much by saying that, but I don’t think I’ve ruined anything. As ever with Fforde, just jump along for the ride and be grateful for his mind.

Fforde continues to hold a special place in my heart – and if he could ever get around to finishing one of the series’ that he has started, that place may become even more special.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” by Douglas Adams (1987)

Leave a comment

“This time there would be no witnesses.”

I’m an enormous fan of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. It’s probably the best series in the world about an Englishman travelling the universe in his dressing gown. Somehow, though, I had entirely bypassed Douglas Adams’s other series about holistic detective Dirk Gently. I did watch the Netflix series a couple of years ago which, it turns out, bears absolutely no relation to the novel, but I thought it was time to finally fall into a new world.

Richard MacDuff is attending a dinner at his old Cambridge college, where his ancient tutor Professor Chronotis performs a staggering magic trick that leaves everyone else confused. Richard’s boss, software mogul Gordon Way, has just been shot while driving home and is finding his new status as a ghost rather inconvenient. Gordon’s sister (and Richard’s girlfriend) Susan has grown tired of listening to her brother’s long-winded voicemails and waiting for Richard to take her out to dinner, and so instead goes on a date with Michael Wenton-Weakes. On another planet, an Electric Monk and his horse find a door to Earth, leaving the horse stranded in a bathroom and the Monk trying to work out what he’s doing there.

And among all of this, there’s Dirk Gently, the holistic detective who believes in the interconnectedness of all things. If everything is truly linked, then what does all of this have to do with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a dead cat, and pizza?

It comes as little surprise that many aspects of the novel come from a Doctor Who story that was written by Douglas Adams but never completed or aired. The time travel element in particular is key here, but it seems that some of the characters, including Professor Chronotis, have been lifted entirely from one story to the other. Like a really good episode of Doctor Who, it pings around the timeline, deals with paradoxes, is steeped in clever jokes, and leaves you feeling satisfied at the end. Unfortunately, as I’ve noted before, Doctor Who as a concept doesn’t always work in a novelisation. It’s something that seems to work best on screen. Similarly, while the Dirk Gently series worked on TV (even though the story is entirely different and the only thing the two have in common is a desire to believe in the interconnectedness of all things and the main character’s name), somehow is lacking on the page.

Adams also uses it as an excuse to share his love of computers. Notable for being the first person in the UK to buy a Macintosh computer, Adams was fascinated by technology and one of the first people to really get excited about the Internet. It’s a crying shame that he never lived to see the invention of smartphones, tablet computers and the true potential of the Internet – he would’ve loved it. Although he’s also famous for hating writing, you also get the impression he loves creating, as he’s got some interesting stuff in here, and is having to do the most remarkable back flips to ensure that everything truly is connected.

It all makes sense by the end (well, as much as anything Adams did ever made sense) and I’m a little curious to continue, although I’d advise a hard hat and not to read while imbibing alcohol.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“This Body’s Not Big Enough For Both Of Us” by Edgar Cantero (2019)

Leave a comment

“Elmore Leonard said it’s bad style to open a novel with the weather.”

It’s hard being trapped, isn’t it? At the moment, there is definitely that vibe over my island home, as the Prime Minister has locked down the nation to limit the spread of coronavirus. (I’ll try not to keep bringing this up, but it is all that’s on my mind of late.) Nonetheless, not all traps are physical, or maybe you don’t mind the location but it’s the company that is problematic. Now imagine having to share a body. How would you cope with that?

Adrian and Zooey Kimrean are private investigators unlike any others in the world. Born into the same body, they are basically conjoined twins but joined at a very base level. It’s his liver and her heart, one arm and leg each, and while Adrian controls one half of the brain, meaning he’s pure logic, Zooey controls the other that longs for a hedonistic lifestyle. Their androgynous appearance and apparent split personality is therefore confusing to many others, but there’s no denying the two of them are among the finest detectives in California.

When the sons of drug cartel boss Victor Lyon start getting killed in the seedy town of San Carnal, A. Z. Kimrean (as the duo are collectively known) are hired to find out who is responsible. No one wants it to be the yakuza, and yet it just might be, and that would be bad news for everyone. Kimrean has to work out who is really behind it, all the while saving the youngest of the Lyon clan, saving an undercover police officer, and, as the book itself puts it, “face every plot device and break every rule Elmore Leonard wrote” to solve the case.

What a riot. Never mind the madcap plot, even, but as I learnt from the last of his books I read, no one writes like Edgar Cantero. The whole thing knows it’s a novel, and the characters do too, and he’s not afraid to mention a room as being the same on “from Chapter 3” instead of describing it again, or not giving a character a name because “he’ll probably be dead by the end of the next page”. In places, it’s hugely cinematic, others very meta. While none of us may know exactly what Cantero is doing, he does, and thank goodness for that. There are laugh out loud lines on every page, and no one has had a mastery over metaphor and allusion like this since the days of Douglas Adams. At one point, a punchline references a Vine video, something that many readers – and particularly those who don’t spend all their time on social media – would have no idea about, and yet it’s a bonus for anyone who gets it.

Kimrean themselves is a miracle of a creation. Imagine if Sherlock Holmes and Dirk Gently were inhabiting the same body and you get the kind of level of detection work that’s going on here. The grammar is, at times, confusing, but both parts of Kimrean’s personality get their own time to shine and you see how they work together in harmony. Well, almost. At least once do the two personalities come to physical blows, and it takes a great deal of skill to write a character fighting their own body. Is the premise a bit silly? Certainly, but it’s fun, and you don’t care. Even the plot is really quite nondescript, and I won’t be able to tell you much about what actually happened a few months down the line, but the real drama in here is Adrian and Zooey and their relationship with each other and the world. If you like your murders gory and silly in equal measure, here is where to come.

The next book on my list is complete escapism. It’s what we need most.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“I’ll Be There For You” by Kelsey Miller (2018)

Leave a comment

“On September 22, 1994, NBC aired the pilot episode of a half-hour comedy now titled Friends.”

As the world gets weirder and scarier, it is time for people to retreat into something comfortable. A good book, a beloved album, a funny film. Some things are just comforting, and I can bet you anything that with all that’s going on right now, there’s a surge in people turning on Friends and hiding in that familiar coffee shop for a while. I haven’t reached that point yet, but I’ve dipped my toe in with this book about the history of the TV show that became a global phenomenon.

I’ll Be There For You is a potted history of Friends, the ten-season behemoth of a sitcom that made household names out of six rising comedy actors. There are few people left (especially of a certain generation) who haven’t seen at least one episode, and its effect on global society was unprecedented, influencing fashion, language and even the rise of the coffee culture. (It may not have invented coffee shops, but in 1994 when the show first aired, they were still uncommon.) The book runs from the writers, Kauffman, Crane and Bright meeting and the show’s tricky beginnings with casting, to a few years ago where it was undergoing a pop culture resurgence and the cast couldn’t go anywhere without being asked about a reunion.

Some of the focus is a bit odd. There is a lot of talk about how much the stars were earning, their salary negotiations, and what the network was paying for the show. I assume this is all there because, in my experience, the Americans are far more comfortable and willing to talk about money than the British. They’re details that, for me, take the shine off the magic of the show. It feels odd to spend so long focusing on that but then not tell us how they acquired some of the guest stars, or talking about audience reaction to some of the smaller plots. Indeed, in 240 pages there isn’t a single mention of Gunther, which seems odd as surely his increased role in the show would merit some kind of inclusion.

There is, however, an awful long of hand-wringing to justify the problematic aspects of the show. I’m someone who believes you have to judge things in the time that they were made, and there’s no point looking at Friends through the eyes of someone living in 2020 because attitudes have changed an awful lot in this century already, so you can’t expect characters (and it’s important to remember that these people are fictional) to have the same values as us now. There is no denying that, by today’s standards, there are more gay jokes in the show than we’d be comfortable with now, not to mention the problematic treatment of both Chandler’s transgender father or “Fat Monica”. Miller interviews people from minority backgrounds and they don’t seem too bothered, on the whole, by these jokes, adding that at least there was a transgender character. When you’re a minority, you take what you can get. It’s hard to know where to fall on some of these issues. After all, the show did like making gay jokes, but it did also include a gay wedding (even if it didn’t let the two brides kiss on screen).

However, it’s still interesting and a great insight into how a TV show gets made and then stays on the air for a decade. While Miller seems to have just combed through interviews from other people to pull her quotes, she has original research as well, which saves it from just being a long Buzzfeed article full of copy-pasted tweets. If you’re a fan of the show, it’s worth a read, but don’t expect to come away with too many new reveals about it.

Whatever problems the show had, it remains one of the most beloved series of all time and still has a lot of heart, giving us all something to share in. We’ve all had that time when our friends become our family and sadly it eventually disappears. It’s still important. And if nothing else, we can all get behind the one burning question the show left us with: How did Monica afford that apartment?

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Mr Lonely” by Eric Morecambe (1981)

Leave a comment

“It was Tuesday morning.”

Following the recent news that Simon Cowell is due to “write” a series of children’s books with his son, it’s stirred up feelings among the literati on Twitter regarding celebrities getting publishing contracts. Some of them can write, you can’t deny that, but it’s pretty rich when there are so many people out there who want nothing but to write getting looked over in favour of celebrities who have never publicly mentioned that desire before. Plus, the cynic in me has immediately assumed that the closest Cowell will get to doing any of the physical writing and story crafting is cashing the cheques. This is not a new phenomenon, however, and many celebrities have turned their hand to writing fiction when contemplating a career change. Eric Morecambe is, without question, one of my comedy heroes, but one does wonder if this venture into the page was necessary.

Sid Lewis is a stand-up comedian who earns low wages peddling his jokes in dingy smoky clubs. When not on stage, he’s busy chasing the dancing girls and singers who share his bill, even when he marries the sensible and stable Carrie who just wishes he’d get a proper job and doesn’t understand this desire to be the centre of attention. One night, Sid tries out a new character, the titular Mr Lonely, and when someone from the BBC sees it and offers him an opportunity of a lifetime, Sid’s life changes overnight.

Now one of the most famous comics in the country, Sid finds his appetites for women as strong as ever, but in this new life of champagne and limousines, things begin to catch up with him and it seems his excesses might finally have come back to haunt him. He may have finally got everything he wanted – but is he really happy?

You can tell it’s Morecambe, certainly. Despite the show having been written by Eddie Braben – among many others – he was a brilliant comic nonetheless and the book is sprinkled liberally with jokes, daft asides and silly characters that you can hear him saying to Ernie. Unfortunately, as many other people have said, it is “of it’s time”. I became worried that the book would ruin my view of Eric (a case of not only never meeting your heroes, but also never reading their fiction) but I’ve hoped for the best that the staggering number of sexist, racist and homophobic comments within the text are the views of Sid rather than Eric. It’s hard to read through those parts, and I’m not even sure the excuse of saying it is of its time is valid, as it was published in 1981, and the world was already making some steps towards sanity on those issues by then.

The biggest mystery surrounding the whole thing is that we never actually find out what Sid’s Mr Lonely character involves. Despite giving us the title, the character doesn’t show up until over halfway through the book, and then is given more as a throwaway line. He does the character, it goes well, is immediately seen by a man from the BBC and he’s got his own television show within months. The rise to fame is meteoric, but entirely unexplained. It’s almost like Morecambe couldn’t be bothered to come up with a concept, despite having shown us Sid on stage prior to this, complete with jokes. It seems an odd choice.

A second odd choice, but one that works, is the inclusion of Eric Morecambe as a character in his own right. It’s subtle, with the book being in third person for a long time until suddenly it slips into first and you realise that it’s Eric himself telling the story of Sid’s life, as if he really knew him and this was part of true comedy history. For a couple of chapters in the middle, then, Eric becomes the main character, talking about his relationship with Sid and his own career. This is an odd juxtaposition to include something that seems weirdly post-modern in a book where racism is taken as standard. Another highlight of the book is Morecambe’s references to other comedians of the day, sometimes revealing more than perhaps he means to regarding his feelings about them.

An interesting foray into literature from one of Britain’s best comics, but I can’t help thinking he should have kept to the stage.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Wimbledon Poisoner” by Nigel Williams (1990)

Leave a comment

“Henry Farr did not, precisely, decide to murder his wife.”

Wimbledon, to most people around the world, is simply the place where the tennis happens. If you’re of a certain age, you may also associate it with the Wombles, the rodent rubbish collectors of the common. This fairly affluent area of south London became central to three of Nigel Williams’ books, known as The Wimbledon Trilogy. This suburban murder mystery is the first.

Forty-year-old solicitor Henry Farr is having something of a mid-life crisis. He has realised that his life has devolved to containing nothing but an unhappy marriage, a demanding daughter, an unfulfilling job, and weekend visits to Waitrose. The only thing that makes him happy is writing his magnum opus, The Complete History of Wimbledon, and even that has lost some of its lustre after it was rejected by a publisher. He manages to put most of the fault on his wife, Elinor, and decides that he needs to kill her. He debates strangling, electrocution and pushing her off a cliff before realising that his method should be poison, and before he knows what’s happened, he’s bought some thallium from the chemist and is smearing it onto that evening’s chicken.

However, Elinor is in one of her “moods”, and rejects dinner after all, much to the annoyance of Henry. Unfortunately, friend and local doctor Donald has popped in for dinner and eats the chicken instead, which proves to be his last act. Furious that his murder attempt has failed – and saddened by the death of his friend – Henry decides to make a second attempt. Soon, his friends and neighbours begin falling like dominoes and things begin to get out of control as he continues to fail in killing his wife. He needs to stop, not least because DI Rush from over the road has begun hanging around more often than usual, and Henry is sure that his taciturn nature is just a front for what he really suspects is happening in their quiet neighbourhood…

Suburbia is broadly assumed to be a very boring place indeed. It is a place between the city and the country where people have gone to raise families and absolutely nothing exciting happens at all. Therefore, in fiction, the suburbs are incredibly thrilling places, with all sorts of things going on in them, from wizards and vampires hiding among the normal people, to every other resident being a murderer. Williams really plays up the smallness of the situation, with Henry knowing everyone in the street and discussing them only in terms of their nickname and house number. We all have people in the street that we don’t really know the names of, but refer to as things like Jungian Analyst with the Winebox or Unpublished Magical Realist. Some of the names are brilliantly obscure and make little sense, their reasoning lost to time which feels very real. I think all of the action takes place in Wimbledon and it becomes the key focus of the novel in many ways.

Henry isn’t especially unlikable, but then again, not many of the characters are. You don’t wish any of them dead, sure, so you still have some empathy as the list of the dead grows, but you’d also be hard-pushed to find a solid reason to bring them back again. Of their time, while some of the characters have embraced feminism and environmentalism, most of the others are still small-minded, racist, sexist and unwilling to engage with modern society. I’ve recently binge-watched the entire series of Ever Decreasing Circles, and you get the same feeling of a “little England”, where everyone should be obliged to be white, straight, in steady employment and part of the local cricket team. Of course, at least there none of them were trying to kill each other (as far as we know).

The ongoing madness and the escalation of murders is done very well, and in some ways the book is a classic farce. Yet, as it becomes more objectively ridiculous, it stays engaging and still feels real. It’s effortlessly funny and it doesn’t need to reach far for the jokes, simply relying on observation and the interaction between the characters. We definitely need more comedy novels these days and while the likes of Jasper Fforde and Stevyn Colgan are doing their best, the wider publishing world seems to have little interest. The British are obsessed with murder and we pride ourselves on our humour – why are books like this not held in higher esteem or considered “worthy”? A mystery for the ages.

In the meantime, I recommend this delightfully dark and silly comedy of manners.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2019

1 Comment

I’ve just had the enormous pleasure to spend four days at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I have long-adored the city, but had never visited the world-famous festival before, so this was quite literally a dream holiday. The city remained as beautiful as ever, with the added bonus that everywhere you turned, there was a remarkable talent (or a shameless exhibitionist) on display. As my friend said, “There’s not a single room in Edinburgh they’ve not crammed something into, is there?” And she’s right. We plodded around theatres, pubs, comedy clubs, spare rooms in bar basements and even the Student’s Union building in search of entertainment, and boy, did the city deliver. Since this is a blog all about reviews, it seems only fair to then discuss, if only briefly, every show I saw on my whistle stop visit, starting with…

Best of the Fest: Daytime

We decided to open with a show that would give us a taster of the sort of thing to expect from the week. With a rotating cast of comedy and music acts, you never know who you’ll be seeing in the spiegeltent on the day. Our MC was drag act Reuben Kaye who burst onto the stage with great energy and introduced us to comedian Marlon Davis, comedy troupe Pamela’s Palace, sketch-performing duo Max and Ivan, and dancers Noise Boys. All great fun, the middle two involving audience interaction (important tip for Edinburgh: unless you’re a confident sort, don’t sit in the front row or on an end), but probably it was Reuben who stole the show. His flyer contained a review saying he was like a hybrid of Liza Minnelli and Jim Carrey, and it’s very hard to dispute that. I’d recommend a “Best of the Fest” to anyone, like me, who is new to it and wants to get a taste of the thing.

Cordelia and Dimple: Buffet

In the spirit of there not being a single empty room during the Festival, we dived into a tiny room beneath the City Cafe, around the size of my bedroom, where maybe fifteen people were sat for Dimple Pau and Cordelia Graham. Due to the smallness of the room, it was an intensely intimate gig where I was sat but a foot from the performers. Had they not been funny, this would have been very awkward, but fortunately they were. Dimple shared stories of her home life, where her parents strict adherence to veganism has meant she has to lie about her own lifestyle, and Cordelia points out the struggles of having a mother who quotes Shakespeare all the time. When Cordelia, however, complained that she wanted to write a book but would never get round to it, she asked the audience if any of them had ever published a book. Basically, what I’m saying is, thanks for letting me plug my novel in a very minor way at the Fringe!

The Daily Ceilidh

This was not so much a show as an experience, but it’s worth mentioning because it still appears in the brochure and was enormous fun. Held in the awesome Stramash bar, throughout the Fringe the bar hosts a new band and a ceilidh every evening. For those who don’t know, a ceilidh (pronounced “kay-lee”) is a traditional Scottish folk dance and is fast, frantic and, I discovered to my immense pleasure, fun. Had I been alone, there was no way I would have taken part, but after watching a few dances, my friend and I joined the crowd and got stuck in. I don’t think I’d realised that “dance in a ceilidh” was on my bucket list until it happened.

Zoe Lyons: Entry Level Human

I’ve been a big fan of Brighton-based comedian Zoe Lyons since she first started appearing on TV, so she was high on my list of people I wanted to see. As a big fan of comedy, I was also aware of the Gilded Balloon as a big Edinburgh location, and it was a thrill to be in there, too. Zoe’s set was fast and enormously witty, with talk on why computer experts all sound a bit adenoidal, why we all become a bit more “Brexit-y” as we get older, what makes flies able to get into a window but not out of one, the problem with Deliveroo, and the dangers of travelling to very conservative Muslim countries as a lesbian. (Spoiler: the problem isn’t what you think.) I love her even more than I did before – an absolutely stellar show and one of my favourites.

Mark Watson: I Appreciate You Coming to This and Let’s Hope For the Best

When he appeared on Taskmaster, Greg Davies insisted repeatedly that Mark looks like a heron. Having now seen him in person, I can only agree. His terrible posture is made up for by his absolutely incredible material, made all the more impressive that this show is a “work in progress”, meaning it’s not actually finished yet and he’s just testing jokes and routines to see how they work for a final show to go on tour later in the year. Mark manages to be wonderfully self-deprecating but also comes across as a genuinely nice man who is just a bit wound up and only thin because he lives life at a level of anxiety that his body can’t keep up with. There was talk of his recent divorce, why he’s a bad parent, his attempts at learning to drive, and how to deal with the responsibility of being in the exit row of a plane. But given the nature of the show, what he talks about another night might be entirely different.

Ben Van der Velde: Fablemaker

Speaking of a different show every night, we come to Ben Van der Velde. I’m already a big fan as the podcast he co-hosts, Worst Foot Forward, is one of my absolute favourites, so I was determined to catch him at the Fringe. Based entirely around crowd work, of which he is surely one of the masters, he finds out about his audience and weaves their stories into a single narrative with an astounding memory of names and details. Because of this reliance on the crowd, every show is entirely different, but Ben manages to keep the audience on-side and any digs at them are tongue-in-cheek and he never oversteps the line to direct offence, no matter what he’s actually saying. And, as a bonus, we had a nice chat after the show as well and he was just as charming off stage as on.

The Thinking Drinkers: Heroes of Hooch

If a show is advertised where you get given drinks while you watch it, you know I’m going to be there. The Thinking Drinkers are Tom and Ben, two alcohol experts who have the mantra, “Drink less, drink better”, which is solid advice. The show takes the form of both a set of comedy skits and a Ted Talk about the history of alcohol, as we explore how it came to be and who has loved it since. Focusing on “heroes of hooch”, the pair touch on the alcohol-fuelled exploits of the likes of Buzz Aldrin, Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, and even God. Throughout, the audience are handed drinks and taught how to taste them. We knocked back beer, gin, rum, whisky and Gran Marnier as the show became more hysterical. It’s kind of like QI, but down the pub.

Shit-Faced Shakespeare

Is this a pint I see before me? The opposite of the previous show, here the audience aren’t given alcohol, but we instead see a performance of Macbeth where one of the cast has been drinking for hours before the performance begins. This time round it was Banquo who had been on the lash (six beers and quarter of a bottle of gin) and thus began one of the most anarchic performances of Shakespeare I’ve ever encountered. While the rest of the five-person cast gamely tries to complete the play, our Banquo (who also took on the role of Lady Macduff and one of the witches) stumbled through her words, was encouraged to drink further by the audience, and at one point even kicked Macbeth in the face. The rest of the cast hilariously incorporate any mistakes into the play, and it was one of the maddest things I’ve ever seen. It’s what William would have wanted.

Are we not drawn onward to new erA?

We decided we had to get something highbrow in, and the reviews of this show from Belgian troupe Ontroerend Goed were amazing, so we decided to snatch up some tickets. Experimental theatre at its most experimental, this show sees a first act take place entirely in reverse with even the dialogue happening backwards, making it sound like you’re watching The Sims on stage. The actors destroy a tree, litter the stage with plastic bags and build a statue. At the halfway point, they realise that they have destroyed their world, and the second act sees exactly what happened the first time but forwards instead. How do they achieve this? That’s not my place to say, but it blows the mind, and things take on a different take when seen the other way around. A haunting and intelligent piece about climate change and environmental disaster.

Agatha is Missing

You thought I’d manage to get through the whole experience without somehow involving Agatha Christie, did you? Please, I’m not an amateur. In this one-woman show, we meet Miss Clarissa Marbles of Scotland Yard, who is attempting to solve the mystery of Agatha Christie’s disappearance. Everyone in the room is a suspect, but we also get a chance to submit our own solutions and see if we can work it out. Relying heavily on audience participation, suspects and witnesses are called up out of the crowd, sometimes selected by Marbles, but sometimes simply by previous players. Shows like this only work if the audience are into it, and while most people gave it a good go, others were clearly dazzled by the lights and couldn’t handle the pressure. I’m not saying I could do any better, but when there’s nothing for the host to bounce off of, it means some lines fall a bit flat. Prudence Wright Holmes, however, the single performer, is absolutely wonderful and fully embodied the hilarious role, from her abhorrence regarding anything modern or immoral, to her tuneless singing of the national anthem.

Geeks, Stand Up

This was another free show we decided to pop in on and give a chance to as the concept seemed interesting. The premise is simple enough: four geeky comedians get to come on and talk about things they are passionate about but are a bit too niche to include in their usual set. I was a bit worried this might mean an hour of Star Wars or Avengers talk that I didn’t understand, but the spread was wide, with the MC taking on the superhero stuff (and finding the audience taking the opposite point of view for almost everything he said), and the other four joking about basketball, online homophobia, archaeology and professional wrestling. A decidedly mixed bag, the absolute stand out was 19-year-old Andrew White who tackled homophobia and did jokes about being the only single person in his hometown and not being a stereotype because he can’t dress well. He also included some of his “failed” observational comedy, including the bizarre but honest question, “Why do you never see a little branch of Asda?” Very true, and funny simply by the conceit of not being funny at all. Fortunately, he knows this, and he’s very much in on the joke.

Phil Wang: Philly Philly Wang Wang

Phil’s rise to the top of the comedy pile seems to have been meteoric, but we sure are glad to have him. In his highly-polished show at the Pleasance (another one of those fabled Fringe institutions), he discusses getting older and how this has impacted his farting habits, when it’s OK to impersonate another race’s accent, male contraception, and how Tinder is the quickest way to gain friends but not actually have any sex. Sweet and very endearing, he is great at balancing egotism and self-deprecation. I particularly enjoyed the quip, “People try to call me a minority, but I’m half English and half Chinese. I’m both majorities.” This, he explains, means that whichever side of the world ends up taking over, he’ll be fine.

Alex Love: How to Win a Pub Quiz (British Edition)

Hosted by Alex Love, this one saw the first half of the performance involve a stand-up set, and the second half contained a pub quiz, mostly based on things that Alex had discussed. It was a nice concept, and Alex had a few good moments, but the show unfortunately stalled a couple of times, particularly when team names were recorded and points were added up. Alex did his best to fill the gaps, and some of the questions were very clever, relying on red herrings and trip-ups from his earlier stories, such as talking about Tim Peake or Loch Ness, but then asking questions on similar topics where the answers were actually Helen Sharman or Lough Neagh. A good quiz, but could have benefited from being hosted more like one, rather than with the audience in rows.

Stuart Goldsmith: Primer

Another show I went to because of a podcast, and another work in progress. Stuart Goldsmith hosts The Comedian’s Comedian Podcast, in which he interviews other comics about their careers and processes, and whenever he’s released a stand-up set alongside it, they are also hysterical. His new work in progress show was similarly brilliant. His notes were up on the side of the stage alongside him, and it was charming to see him work through them, as well as leave audio notes for himself on his recording of the show. Topics included how you change as you get to know your romantic partner better, how to perform acts of terrorism on the cheap, the large population of fairies in his nearby park, and the incredible story of the time his family stole a car. Incredible stuff, and I hope I get to hear the final show at some point.

And that’s it! Fourteen in four days is pretty heavy going. I already plan on going back for next year, for longer hopefully, but I think a day of rest in the middle would be very necessary. If you’re in Edinburgh and are looking for suggestions, I hope some of these have helped. And if there is anything you saw that you think I should know about, please let me know! It’s astonishing how many thousands of performances there are and I wish there was time to do them all. As it is, my first Fringe experience was absolutely wonderful and I consider myself very lucky to have seen such great shows.

For those uninterested in this stuff, don’t worry. Book reviews will continue again in the next few days.

“Meddling Kids” by Edgar Cantero (2018)


“It starts when you pull the lamp chain and light doesn’t come.”

Didn’t we all want to solve crimes as a child? Television and literature alike have always been full of precocious children and teenagers who are able to solve mysteries that leave those who are meant to be solving them stumped. The villains always get their comeuppance and time and again spooky and supernatural premises are shown to have entirely mundane backgrounds. In Edgar Cantero’s second novel, he takes on the genre and wonders: what if it wasn’t quite that easy?

In 1977, the Blyton Summer Detective Club – a group of teenagers made up of Peter, Nate, Andy, Kerri and their dog Sean – stopped the Sleepy Lake monster, who turned out to be yet another greedy, desperate lowlife in a rubber mask who would have gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids. Thirteen years later, the young detectives have grown up but not forgotten their adventures. And the more they try not to think about them, they realise that maybe it wasn’t as simple as it seemed. The events can’t be explained away by a guy in a mask. Something weirder was going on.

The group have changed, however. Tomboy Andy is wanted in two states after she broke out of prison. Kerri was once a child genius but now drinks away her problems in New York, accompanied by Tim, a direct descendant of the original dog. Nate is locked up in an asylum, but still has contact with Peter, which is probably a bit troublesome as he died two years ago. The surviving members of the detective club decide that they can’t hide from their demons any longer and head back to Blyton Hills to finally put to rest the trauma that has haunted them for half their lives. The town has changed and so have they, but the danger remains as real as ever, and they are soon once again meddling in things that no man or beast should ever meddle with.

Although I’m painfully averse to Scooby Doo (it’s entirely irrational, I just never liked the series), I was always a fan of Enid Blyton’s young detectives, and upon reading this you realise who close the two teams were. Both featured two male and two female characters, alongside a dog, and solved crimes that the authorities could never deal with. Here, Cantero updates the concept by throwing the amateur detectives right into an H. P. Lovecraft novel and letting them fight their own way out. The characters are rich and funny, particularly Tim, the dog, who has an enormous amount of personality without ever being overtly anthropomorphised. The humans feel real, despite the unreality of the plot, and are as likeable as they are broken.

Although already very funny despite the horror, the greatest stylistic device is that the book is very self-aware, pointing out its own construction and breaking the fourth wall so naturally that you completely buy into it. Cantero slips in stage directions, title cards, references to the very paragraphs and sentences he’s writing, and at one point even ends a chapter, only to have one of the characters refuse to let it end there and carrying on regardless. He’s also got an absolutely sublime way with words and can turn absolutely anything into a verb or adverb. A character doesn’t “tell” a story, they “once-upon-a-time” it. Jar lids marimba when there’s a tremble underground, and at one point characters see books “lemminging” off the shelf. It’s a masterful grasp of language made all the more impressive when you learn that his first language is Spanish. Like Douglas Adams, he makes you realise what words are actually capable of. I’m jealous.

If you grew up on The Famous Five, Scooby Doo or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this is the book for you.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Right Ho, Jeeves” by P. G. Wodehouse (1934)


“‘Jeeves,’ I said, ‘may I speak frankly?'”

In 2015, I read my first Jeeves and Wooster novel, and said at the time that I’d be back soon to bathe in this ridiculous, silly and charming world. It’s only taken four years, but we’re here at last. Heading back much earlier into the canon, I alighted in 1934 at the doorstep of Right Ho, Jeeves, hoping to find it as endearing as last time. Naturally, it was a success.

Bertie Wooster is convinced that Jeeves’ mind is starting to go. This has come about firstly because his valet has taken against Wooster’s white mess jacket and declares that it needs to be got rid of, and also because he’s given questionable dating advice to Gussie Fink-Nottle, who is now stood in Bertie’s sitting room dressed as Mephistopheles. Things don’t get any simpler when Bertie gets a sudden telegram from his Aunt Dahlia summoning him to Brinkley Court immediately to chair a prize-giving at a local school. Sensing he can reunite Gussie with his girl and foist the task off onto him as well, Bertie sends Gussie in his place.

Aunt Dahlia, however, is not amused and Bertie and Jeeves find they have to head to Brinkley Court anyway when Dahlia’s daughter Angela calls off her engagement to Tuppy Glossop. Certain that Jeeves is not up to solving the problems of the heart that now face the duo, Bertie instead comes up with some plans of his own that will restore peace and order to his friends and relatives. Unfortunately, of course, Bertie is an ass, and he really should just leave things to the ever-capable Jeeves…

As last time, I’m staggered that these books are not more prominent on my radar, which is entirely my own fault. Jeeves as a name has entered the global vocabulary as the last word in butlerdom (which is unfortunate given he’s a valet, not a butler), and while the vast majority of his dialogue is simply repeats of “Indeed, sir?”, “Yes, sir” or “Most agreeable, sir”, somehow every single one appears to have its own nuance and the beauty is in the subtext. Jeeves is far too professional to ever openly admonish or disagree with his master, but you know exactly what he’s thinking at any time. Perhaps he is vastly intelligent, but I actually would wager that he’s of just a slightly above average intelligence, heightened by the fact that everyone around him is an idiot.

Wooster is naturally one of the biggest idiots in literature. He’s a well-meaning idiot, kind and thoughtful and always concerned with doing the right thing and making everyone around him happy, there’s no question on that. It’s just that he’s not terribly good at it, prone to speaking without thinking, jumping to the wrong conclusions, and saying things without any real acknowledgement that he might not be speaking as plainly as he thinks. His style is unique, funny and his unstoppable use of abbreviations is hilarious, and I particularly loved: “Old Pop Kipling never said a truer word than when he made that crack about the f. of the s. being more d. than the m.” Is this simply an English embarrassment at mentioning sex and gender, or is Bertie’s head so full of idle thoughts all rolling over one another, he simply doesn’t have time to complete each one?

The secondary characters shine, too. Gussie Fink-Nottle is basically Boris Johnson, just with an obsession with newts, and Aunt Dahlia is fiesty and full of energy, despite her advancing years and not afraid to threaten Bertie with physical violence, while at the same time letting him know that she does love him. The book as a whole is just a pure joy from start to finish, with a daft plot that gets wrapped up perfectly once Bertie is out of the way, and I loved it. I’ll try not to leave it another four years before I come back to Wodehouse.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

Older Entries