20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, satire, Setting, UK

‘Diary of a Somebody’ by Brian Bilston

Fiction – Kindle edition; Picador; 384 pages; 2019. 

If you like wordplay, puns and funny poetry, put Brian Bilston’s Diary of a Somebody on your wishlist. I laughed all the way through it; the perfect antidote to the strange and anxious times we are living through.

The story follows (the fictional) Brian Bilston’s resolution to write a poem every day for an entire year, a way of distracting himself from the pain of a broken marriage, an unsatisfactory relationship with his teenage son and an office job at which he’s failing.

His poems are dotted throughout the narrative, and each one is laugh-out-loud funny.

you are so groovet,
I’d like to stay under you
all of Tuesdet.


Poetry Club
The first rule of Poetry Club
is that we meet each month in the pub.
The second rule of Poetry Club
is that not all poems have to rhyme.

But it’s the constant wordplay that gave me the best giggles. This is a good example of what to expect:

How to Avoid Mixing Your Metaphors It’s not rocket surgery. First, get all your ducks on the same page. After all, you can’t make an omelette without breaking stride. Be sure to watch what you write with a fine-tuned comb. Check and re-check until the cows turn blue. It’s as easy as falling off a piece of cake. Don’t worry about opening up a whole hill of beans: you can always burn that bridge when you come to it, if you follow where I’m coming from. Concentrate! Keep your door closed and your enemies closer. Finally, don’t take the moral high horse: if the metaphor fits, walk a mile in it.

Along with witty one-liners:

She put the phone down on me and I was left alone with the silence. It was a mute point.

Dear Diary

Written in diary format, it charts 45-year-old Brian’s attempt to make sense of his falling-apart world. He’s slightly self-absorbed, lacks self-awareness and is obsessed with custard creams.

There are times when there is simply no substitute for a custard cream. These times are typically from 7am to 10pm, at the following intervals: 00, 15, 30, 45. There is something about their vanilla-custard filling and the baroque carving of the outer sandwich layers which lends itself to the practice of contemplation and study.

His working life is full of management jargon and missed deadlines. And his home life isn’t much better. He doesn’t seem able to commit to anything. He can’t even finish a book despite starting a new one every month for his book club:

 In other news, I began to read Wuthering Heights this evening. I’m on page 12 already. It’s rather moorish.

He attends a regular poetry club but each meeting is somewhat disastrous as he tries to compete with the dastardly Toby Salt, who is a much better poet, attracts the ladies (including someone Brian has his eye on) and has a loyal and ever-increasing Twitter following.

I noted that on Twitter, I have now optimised myself for twenty-three people. Toby Salt has somehow managed 174 followers. I clearly need to deepen my digital footprint and I have made a vow, with the cat as my witness, to share more of my poems with my foolhardy followers as a next tentative digital baby step.

But when Toby mysteriously disappears not long after his first book is published, Brian unwittingly attracts the attention of the police: did he bump off his rival in a pique of jealous rage? The fun of this book is reading it to find out!

Original and inventive

There’s no doubting that Diary of a Somebody is wholly original and inventive. It’s a wonderful blend of satire and black comedy.

The jokes and the constant refrains — helping his neighbour remember when it is bin day, putting up with self-help mumbo-jumbo from his ex-wife’s new man, never finishing a novel, eating too many custard creams and so on — do begin to wear thin after a while.

Perhaps 12 months in the life of Brian Bilston is a bit too much and six months could have been chopped from his diary, but on the whole, this is an enjoyable novel about a man who doesn’t quite realise how funny (if somewhat pathetic) he really is! More, please.

This is my 9th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I picked up a proof copy of this in early 2019 when I went to a Picador Showcase in London and the author did a reading, which had me in minor hysterics. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my copy with me when I moved back to Australia but when I saw it on Kindle for 99p earlier this year I couldn’t resist buying it.

Australia, Author, Book review, Elliot Perlman, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, satire, Setting, TBR2020, Vintage Australia

‘Maybe the Horse Will Talk’ by Elliot Perlman

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Australia; 352 pages; 2019.

Elliot Perlman is one of my favourite authors. I have read and much admired his trio of novels — Three Dollars (1998), Seven Types of Ambiguity (2003) and The Street Sweeper (2012) — so was looking forward to his new novel, Maybe the Horse Will Talk, published in Australia at the end of last year. (The title refers to a children’s fable that suggests anything is possible.)

A satire about corporate greed, it’s set in Melbourne’s cut-throat legal world and addresses all kinds of relevant, contemporary issues including misogyny, sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace.

But for all its humour and clever, witty dialogue, the novel has a serious underbelly. It could, in fact, be seen as one of the first (or certainly the first I know about) that explores the #metoo movement, possibly before that became a “thing”.

Struggling to stay afloat

The tale centres on a mature age second-year lawyer and former high school English teacher, Stephen Maserov, who works for a big legal firm — hilariously called Freely Savage Carter Blanche — that specialises in construction law.

Stephen is hanging on by his fingertips. His wife has booted him out of the family home but he returns every night to tuck his two young boys in to bed, and at work he’s at risk of losing his job — a job that he hates but  needs to pay the mortgage.

One day, struck by inspiration, desperation and daring, he finds a solution to his problem: he offers to help a client make a series of sexual harassment claims go away. This sounds morally dubious and completely unethical, but Stephen has a cunning plan that he hopes will provide a win-win situation for both the client and the women making the claims. And along the way it will allow him to make a name for himself at the law firm, thereby saving his job and perhaps even salvaging his marriage.

Satire with a serious edge

The story has a relatively convoluted plot, is peopled by a series of loathsome characters with wonderful names — Mike Crispin “Crispy” Hamilton, for instance — and much of its momentum relies heavily on dialogue to propel things forward. The dialogue is smart and snappy and often laugh out loud funny.

But lest anyone think Stephen — or the author for that matter — is making light of sexual harassment, the story hammers home some salient points about who holds power in the workplace and the ways in which women are sometimes viewed by their male counterparts.

As one female character explains it, in the corporate world men fear “being frozen out, passed over, overworked, under-utilised, humiliated, being fired and ultimately unemployed”. Women fear this too. But women also have to contend with so much more in the workplace. She has…

…her clothes discussed by her male colleagues, her appearance, her body shape, changes in her body shape, her reaction to sexual innuendo, to off-colour jokes about sex, unwanted, unasked-for flirting and her reaction to that, fear of casual bodily contact all the way along the continuum, offers to trade sexual favours for career advancement and the consequences of rejecting them, blackmail and every conceivable permutation of sexual harassment and assault all the way down the line to rape.  There’s no overtime, no salary, no perks of the job that make any of that worthwhile.

The details of one particular sexual harassment case are stomach-churningly gruesome. Perlman doesn’t pull his punches.

But there’s another important point he’s making here, too, because Stephen’s unhappiness is also the unforeseen byproduct of inequality between the sexes. He works around the clock and sees so little of his family that his wife no longer wants to see him at all. His love for his children is superseded by his “need” to put work before family; to do anything else would be seen as a weakness.

Too long?

Admittedly, I didn’t really fall in love with this book. Yes, the plot is a bit far-fetched and it relies too much on coincidence to make work, but that didn’t really bother me. The issues covered appealed to me and I like reading books about office life as so few seem to be written about this topic.

And yet I just couldn’t properly engage with the characters. I struggled to properly immerse myself in the story and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was overly long and the pace wasn’t fast enough for me.

Whatever the case, Maybe the Horse Will Talk remains a fine satire about important issues. It has some funny comic moments, is deftly plotted and features some sparkling dialogue. It’s a good book, but not a great one.

For other reviews of this novel, please see Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers and Tony’s at Tony’s Reading List. Note, I can’t find a UK publication date for this book, but a Kindle edition seems to be available in the US.

This is my 1st book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR over the next 6 months. Any books in my ownership that were purchased before the end of 2019 are eligible.


Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, satire

‘The Field of the Cloth of Gold’ by Magnus Mills


Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury Publishing; 224 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s no secret that I am a Magnus Mills fan, so I was naturally keen to read his latest book, The Field of the Cloth of Gold, as soon as it came thudding through the door. It’s been almost four years since his last novel, but it turned out to be worth the wait, for this is another profound story characterised by Mills’ typical bare-boned prose, tongue-in-cheek humour and incisive commentary on the foibles of human beings.

A tented village

The story revolves around a large irregularly-shaped field — known as The Great Field — situated in the bend of a “broad, meandering river”.

Dotted across this lush, green field are several tents of various size, shape and description, but over time more and more tents appear as people arrive to take advantage of the beautiful views, fresh air and quietude. But as the population of this quiet backwater steadily increases, disputes over territory, views and resources arise.

When a trench is created under the guise of drainage control for the (always damp) south-east corner, it doesn’t take long for some inhabitants to realise it’s actually a wall — or a defensive rampart, depending on your point of view — designed to secure the best corner of the field for a select group: everyone else must simply move north.

If you think this sounds a little like a metaphor for Britain you’d probably be right. I read this surreal story trying to figure out its meaning — was it a fable about community? immigration? British history? — before I decided it could almost be anything you want it to be: it’s charm lies in its ability to be interpreted in a myriad of ways. It’s clever and smart and even if you don’t want to have to think about the points Mills might be making you can simply read the novel for what it is: a delightfully quirky and eccentric tale about a bunch of people living in a field and trying to get by the best they know how. I really loved it.

More reviews of Mills’ work

I’ve reviewed all of Mills’ previous novels on the site — simply click on the book titles to read the review: The Restraint of Beasts (1998), All Quiet on the Orient Express (1999), Three to See the King (2001), The Scheme for Full Employment (2003), Explorers of the New Century (2005), The Maintenance of Headway (2009) and A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In (2011).

Author, Book review, Chuck Palahniuk, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, satire, Setting, Vintage Digital

‘Beautiful You’ by Chuck Palahniuk


Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 242 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Reading a Chuck Palahniuk novel is like stepping into a parallel universe: everything seems familiar but it feels more edgy, more surreal, more over-the-top. I should know: I’ve read quite a few over the years.

His latest novel, Beautiful You, is no exception. This is a bold, brash, completely filthy, X-rated tale — definitely not one for the prudish — which blends science fiction with eroticism and throws in a smattering of fairy tale and myth into the bargain. It’s a bit like Cinderella — if Cinderella discovered pornography and had a really potty mouth.

Obviously, this isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea and some of you may not even want to read this review, so let me keep it relatively brief — and as G-rated as I can.

The world’s richest man

Basically, the story is about the world’s richest man who has made his fortune from sex toys — specifically a bestselling product range for women known under the brand name Beautiful You.  He’s called C Linux Maxwell, but most people refer to him as Climax Well (geddit?)

Maxwell has had a string of high-profile girlfriends, including an Oscar-winning French actress and the current female president of the United States, but all his relationships end badly after just 136 days and his “cast offs” become ill and begin behaving in wholly inappropriate ways for unexplained reasons. When he chooses a new girlfriend, a “plain Jane” type, called Penny Harrigan, she has no idea that she is going to become his next lab rat, “conned” into testing products that promise ultimate sexual fulfilment for women.

What ensues is a rather hilarious (bedroom) romp that catapults Penny into the world’s spotlight and allows her to reach untold heights of erotic pleasure. Meanwhile, thanks to Penny’s testing and feedback, the products become so successful that society basically falls apart as women lock themselves away to use the toys in a frenzy of “arousal addiction”.

But where will it all end? Will the human population die out now that men are no longer needed? Will Penny’s relationship with Maxwell last beyond his usual 136-day limit? And if not, will she succumb to the illness that has plagued his former lovers? What is the secret behind Maxwell’s success and his multi-billionaire status? Is he a philanthropist genuinely interested in helping women to discover sensual pleasure, or is he a megalomaniac with evil intentions on his mind?

X-rated and absurd

Despite the X-rated content and the absurd story at its heart, there’s a moral message here, too — that women are enslaved as consumers and society conditions them to put other people’s needs (sexual or otherwise) before their own.

However, this isn’t the kind of book you would normally read for what it might tell you about our modern-day consumer society. You read it for the laughs — and the sheer absurd escapism it offers.

Beautiful You is ultimately a fantastically funny tale told in a fantastically funny way. I laughed a lot while reading it — at the sex scenes, which are cheesy (and dirty), at the behaviour of the ridiculous over-the-top characters, at the bad science that underpins the novel’s premise and at the whole preposterous nature of the tale. At times it is genuinely shocking and a bit juvenile, but the storytelling is so compelling it’s like witnessing a car accident: you know you really shouldn’t look but you just can’t tear your eyes away…

Author, Book review, Fiction, Kevin Smith, literary fiction, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Sandstone Press, satire, Setting

‘Jammy Dodger’ by Kevin Smith


Fiction – Kindle edition; Sandstone Press; 320 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Tomorrow, the shortlist for the 2013 Desmond Elliot Prize — an award for new writers — will be announced, so what better time to review Kevin Smith’s Jammy Dodger, which is on the longlist?

Black comedy

Set in 198os Belfast, this debut novel is a darkly comic tale about an audacious literary hoax that goes awry.

The narrator is bohemian slacker Artie Conville, who is joint-editor of a poetry magazine called Lyre — and subtitled “A Supplement for the Imagination” — which is funded by quarterly grants from the government aimed at “normalising life in the province”. Most of the money goes on booze and long lunches and it allows the pair to drift along without ever having to worry about the usual 9 to 5 regime of normal adult life.

But when the grant money looks like drying up, Artie and his co-editor Oliver Sweeney dream up a rather bold and cheeky way to keep the money coming in — they fill the magazine with poetry they have penned themselves but publish it under a pseudonym. This cunning plan looks to be a success until the powers that be want to meet this new exciting poet in person and have him go on a literary tour around Northern Ireland…

An Irish twist

If you think this sounds strangely like the Ern Malley affair, you’d be right. The book does pretty much mirror the events of a real life literary hoax in 1940s Australia.

But Jammy Dodger gives it an Irish twist and the way that Smith cleverly contrasts the beauty of poetry with the godawful violence of The Troubles — which are only ever mentioned in passing — shows a real flare for black comedy.

Sandwich boards on the pavement outside the newsagent’s proclaimed the day’s headlines: Six Soldiers Killed in Lisburn Bombing, (Long, long the
death …), Provos Claim Fun-Run Slaughter, (… Lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace / And that high-builded cloud …), Ten Civilians Injured In No
Warning Blast, (… Moving at summer’s pace.)

Peopled with quirky characters who get dangerously embroiled in a series of strange events, Jammy Dodger is one of those books that is a joy to read.

It’s not just the one-liners, of which there are plenty — “‘How’s the wine? Is it amusing?’ he asked, slapping my shoulder. ‘Oh, it’s hilarious. Just don’t get any in your mouth’” — nor the succession of very funny set pieces throughout, but the way it sends up the art world and pokes fun at the whole pretentiousness of literary circles and egotistical writers, including the ways in which certain people are fawned over while talentless wannabes think they are god’s gift to literature.

That said, it also reveres and celebrates literature. It name-checks so many classic authors and poets, it’s enough to warm the very cockles of your heart. Indeed, if you love poetry and poets, then I doubt you’ll find a better novel that celebrates this particular art form. But for me (who doesn’t know very much about poetry) I loved the James Joyce references:

After lunch (beans on toast), I continued with Ulysses. God it was
intense! Hallucinatory almost. The detail. The energy. The flow. The
colours. Paris rawly waking, crude sunlight on her lemon streets … Moist
pith of farls … the froggreen wormwood … mouths yellowed with the pus
of flan Breton … rolls gunpowder cigarettes through fingers smeared with
printer’s ink … sanguineflowered … Old hag with the yellow teeth …
Green eyes … the blue fuse burns deadly … orangeblossoms … breeches of
silk of whiterose ivory … a dryingline with two crucified shirts … Pure
poetry. Every page. Totally absorbed, I read until I realised the
afternoon had gone and then feeling thoroughly Bloomish strolled round
to Kavanagh’s for a pint and a plate of stew.

The book isn’t just a comedy, however. A gentle romance is interwoven into the narrative, which sounds soppy written down like this, but is actually quite touching, because it makes Artie feel like a proper flesh-and-blood character.

On the whole, Jammy Dodger is the kind of novel that might normally have slipped under the radar had it not been for its Desmond Elliot Prize nomination, of which it’s a very worthy contender. It’s a laugh-out-loud funny satire, sharp and witty one moment, tender and painfully honest the next, all delivered with a lightness of touch that marks Smith as a writer to watch.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Quercus, satire, Setting, Wayne Macauley

‘The Cook’ by Wayne Macauley


Fiction – hardcover; Quercus; 304 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I thought the Brits were obsessed with cooking shows and celebrity chefs, until I got sucked into watching MasterChef Australia on satellite TV last year.  The series, which is based on the original British MasterChef but is 100 times more sensational and loud and bombastic, was screened six nights a week for several months and turned cooking into an Olympic-like sport. It was so over-the-top ridiculous (and puffed-up) that most of the time I watched it so that I could take the mickey out of the contestants rather than because I wanted to learn about fine dining.

So it’s no surprise that it took an Australian author to prick the bubble of pretentiousness which surrounds “celebrity” cooking and the entire “foodie” industry. But Wayne Macauley‘s The Cook is more than just a brilliant satire, it’s a viciously funny black comedy with an oh-my-goodness-I-didn’t-see-that-coming shock ending.

Learning to become a chef

The story is narrated by 17-year-old Zac, a young criminal who is given a choice: he can go to a young offender’s institute or enrol in a rehabilitation scheme that teaches teenagers how to cook. (Think Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen apprentice programme, which was turned into a television show about ten years ago.)

Zac chooses to go to the cooking school, which is presided over by a rich and glamorous Head Chef, who is rarely seen (if this book was turned into a film, Head Chef would probably be played by Gordon Ramsay). The students are taught to “do restaurant food top-class top-shelf” by Sous Chef Fabian, a hard-working but rather stressed out character, with a heavy emphasis on provenance (they grow their own fruit, vegetables and meat) and French gastronomy.

Zac discovers that he is rather natural cook and becomes slightly obsessive about food and goes to extraordinary lengths to raise lambs (and later ducks) that taste exceptionally delicious based on the kinds of food that they are fed and the ways in which they are slaughtered. He becomes so good at cooking that he is offered a job as a private chef before he finishes the course — and so that is how he ends up working for a rather rich family “in one of the best suburbs of Melbourne”.

The Cook is essentially a book of two halves: the first is all about Zac’s time at cooking school; the second follows his exploits living with and working for middle-aged housewife Deidre Fletcher — “but you must call me Mistress” — her rich husband and their two spoilt teenage daughters, Melody and Jade. It is while working as the Fletcher’s private chef that Zac begins to dream big — all his experience, hard work, passion and drive is one route towards getting his own restaurant sometime in the future.

A compelling voice

The most interesting thing about this novel is the narrator’s voice, which is honest and intimate. It’s also semi-literate, because the book is written without the use of commas. This can take some getting used to, but once you find the rhythm this is an exceptionally clever literary device because you immediately assume that Zac’s not the sharpest tool in the box and feel some empathy towards him. And because he is prepared to work hard to get what he wants, this endears him to you even more. It’s only later that you begin to wonder if he might not have taken his obsession just a step too far.

Much of the book is laugh out loud funny. I really loved the way it pokes fun, tongue-in-cheek style at the way restaurant food is described grandiose-style on TV and in the press. And Macauley’s commentary on the restaurant business, in which the chefs are there merely to serve rich people who can afford expensive gourmet meals, seems to be exceptionally biting — and probably accurate.

I found the entire tale deliciously dark and subversive and on more than one occasion I was reminded of Michel Faber’s Under the Skin, which treads similar territory. The Cook is a deeply unsettling read but it’s a thrilling one, too, and the ending came as quite a shock. I know that I will be thinking about it for a long time to come — and I’ll probably never look at an episode of MasterChef in quite the same way again.

For another take on this novel, please visit Jackie’s review at Farmlane Books.

Note that this book is yet to be published in the USA, although an ebook version is available.

Andrew Martin, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, satire, Setting

‘Bilton’ by Andrew Martin


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 245 pages; 1999.

Just as Rupert Murdoch’s print media empire was going into freefall — the phone-hacking revelations, the News of the World closure, the BSkyB takeover bid being scuppered, the arrests of past editors, the public enquiries into News International’s behaviour, resignations of two top MET Police officers (need I go on?) — I was mid-way through Andrew Martin’s Bilton, a novel about journalism.

In some ways the novel suffered by its comparison to events unfolding in London’s “Fleet Street” — and seemed, somehow, the poorer for it, probably because it just seemed so damn tame. And yet this is a book that is often laugh-out-loud funny — preposterously so, I might add.

At the time of publication, in 1999, it must have seemed a little inventive, because surely star-hungry politicians would never manipulate the media in such an uncouth, underhand manner and journalists would never turn themselves into news stories, would they?

Because that’s what happens to Bilton, a miserable but successful “comment and analysis” journalist, who accidentally throws a cup of coffee in the face of the prime minister and becomes headline news.

The prime minister, Lazenby, is well into his second term and is “veering from ambivalent support to definite hostility”. His new policy of Social Dynamics — which is alarmingly similar to present prime minister David Cameron’s Big Society idea — has been exposed as a sham; it pretends to be egalitarian but is actually about making money for a select few.

The incident couldn’t happen at a better time for Bilton, who is sick of his job and feels like he’s been passed over for promotion once too often. Overnight he becomes a hero and is transformed into a media sensation.

The story is told through the eyes of lifestyle journalist Adrian Day, who befriends Bilton before the incident occurs and is present when it happens. He knows the truth — that Bilton was incredibly drunk and “threw” the coffee when he slipped on the floor. It was not a “political act” planned in advance, which is the way that Bilton and the media spin it.

As Bilton’s stardom increases, he begins to lose his integrity. Somewhere along the line you know that the truth will out, and it isn’t going to be pleasant — for anyone.

The novel is billed as the funniest fiction about journalism since Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, and I agree that there are some very funny moments in it. It also shares Waugh’s sense of the ridiculous, when a war breaks out between Britain and Russia that no one quite knows how to cover properly. Indeed, our narrator is called into the office on the day that Russia attempts to fire the first of three nuclear weapons at the heart of London, and is told by his boss that he wants him to edit a new Sunday supplement.

“…and we’ve decided to call it ‘Easy Like a Sunday Morning’, after the Lionel Richie song. Before I go any further, what do you think of the name?”
“Well,” I said, “it’s…”
“The beauty of the whole idea,” Piper ploughed on, “is that ‘Easy Like a Sunday Morning’ will never, and I mean never—” he banged the table ferociously — “mention the war. It’ll be consumer-oriented, lively, funny, irreverent and, above all, irrelevant, and we think you’re just the man to edit it.”

The book pokes fun at the relationship between the press and politicians, and shows how one feeds the other in a weird interdependent but cannibalistic fashion. It cuts very close to the bone. And dare I suggest the following: it should be required reading for anyone naive enough to think that the current News International scandal is the first time that the media and Downing Street have formed “inappropriate” relationships with each other.

Sadly, Bilton appears to be out of print, but you can pick up very cheap second-hand copies from Amazon marketplace and elsewhere.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Penguin Ireland, Publisher, Ross O'Carroll-Kelly, satire, Setting

‘The Oh My God Delusion’ by Ross O’Carroll-Kelly


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Ireland; 432 pages; 2010.

Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, the alter-ego of journalist Paul Howard, is Ireland’s best kept secret.

I first discovered him when I attended DublinSwell earlier in the year. Howard was on the bill in the second half, and during his reading from his novel Mr S. and the Secrets of Andorra’s Box, done in the posh voice of Ross, he had the crowd of 2,000 people roaring with laughter, myself included. The next day I promptly went out and bought his latest book, The Oh My God Delusion, the tenth in a series following Ross O’CK, a stuck-up lad from the south side of Dublin, who’s into women, rugby and scrounging off his parents, not necessarily in that order.

But before I even got to read the book, I discovered his weekly column in the Irish Times, and then promptly bought myself a ticket to his stage play, Between Foxrock and a Hard Place, which I saw at The Gaiety Theatre on my trip to Dublin in April. A fan had been made — and I hadn’t even read the novel yet.

Fast forward to last week, and looking for some light relief in between reading Ulysses and Edward St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk, I extracted The Oh My God Delusion from the pile and settled down for what amounted to one giant giggling fit. Indeed, there are many sequences in this novel which will make me want to laugh out loud when I recall them at a later date (especially the one where Ross draws a moustache on his four-year-old’s face using a semi-permanent black marker, only to be accused of child abuse by agitated onlookers).

The story is essentially a preposterous one, but it couldn’t be more contemporary if it tried. It’s tongue-in-cheek, but Howard paints a pretty realistic picture of Dublin circa 2009: the property bubble has burst, the banks have gone bust, big name brands are going into receivership, people are losing jobs and no one has any money (read credit) to spend.

Even Ross, with his privileged background, is feeling the effects of the recession. Now that his job at the estate agents Hook, Lyon and Sinker no longer exists (the company went belly up, to be replaced by an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet), he helps his mate repossess people’s flatscreen TVs, jacuzzis and the like when they default on the payments.

Then, when his wife’s upmarket fashion boutique looks to be on the brink of financial ruin, he does something radical. He buys an apartment on a ghost estate as a kind of insurance against losing the family home in any bankruptcy proceedings. He is told that the remaining vacant apartments on the Rosa Parks (yes, that Rosa Parks) Estate will be acquired by UCD (University College Dublin) as student dormitories (Ross looks forward to the parties), only to discover that social services are using it to house people on welfare.

Cue many hilarious — and edgy — moments between Ross and his neighbours, Terry and Larry, who turn out to be from another class entirely: they are gun-toting, drug-pushing Dublin gangsters, and Ross’s 12-year-old son, Ro, has taken a shine to them.

There are loads of subsidiary storylines involving characters grappling with the sudden change in Ireland’s economic climate.

Ross’s mother, for instance, is holding out against pressure to accept a revised pay deal for the cookery programme she hosts on RTE — and the scenes in which she presents her show, which has been “dumbed down” to only include ingredients that the average person can afford, are very funny.

I’m in the sack, roysh, watching the latest episode of her show since it was renamed FO’CK on a Budget and it’s possibly the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. She’s showing the camera, like, an ordinary corn on the cob?

‘Now,’ she’s going, ‘when I want to eat sweetcorn — like most people — it simply has to be Fallon & Byrne, with their wonderful, wonderful vegetable range, all fresh, all organic and all locally produced. However, if you’ve ever been made redundant — or you’ve been shamed by the media into accepting an arbitrary cut in your standard of living — a cheaper alternative is now available…’

The next thing, roysh, she puts down the corn on the cob and picks up what looks very much to me like a tin of sweetcorn, except from the way she’s holding it, it might as well be white dog shit.

‘Now, this is what’s known as processed food — and, if certain people in this very building are to be believed, it’s going to be all in for the next few years. Now, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be staring at this rather odd-looking, ribbed-aluminium can, thinking, “But how do I get the food — and I use that word advisedly — out of there?” Well, don’t panic — you do it using one of these…’

I don’t actually believe it. She’s about to show the nation how to use a focking tin opener.

‘As recently as the 1980s,’ she goes, and you can tell she’s struggling to even say the words, ‘you would have found one of these items in most household kitchen drawers, although they became obsolete with the advent of farmers markets and the drive towards fresh, agrichemical-free produce with fewer food miles…’

Part of the reason why the humour in this book works so well is that Ross, his mother, and pretty much the entire cast of characters in it, have no real sense of what it is like to truly suffer. There’s a real disconnect in their reality with the reality of so many others who are really struggling to make ends meet. Ross, for instance, thinks his world is coming to an end when he is told to hand over a much-beloved prize possession — a rugby medal he won when he was 18 — while all around him his contemporaries are downsizing their homes, buying their groceries on credit or getting married on a very tight budget.

And while I suspect some of the humour — the “in” jokes, the rhyming slang, the play on accents — might not translate across the Irish Sea (or the Atlantic), most everyone will understand the satire on the class divide, between the haves and the have nots, between the snobs and, to use a Ross term, the skangers.

The book is a comedy, but, as the saying goes, there’s many a true word spoken in jest.


Finally, my edition comes with some terrific black and white illustrations by Alan Clarke, which are just as funny as the text they accompany. I really love the picture above, showing Ross being “romantically attacked” by a Rottweiler while his gangland neighbours piss themselves laughing.

Oh how I’m looking forward to reading the rest in the series!

Author, Book review, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Publisher, Quercus, satire, Setting, Tom Rachman

‘The Imperfectionists’ by Tom Rachman


Fiction – hardcover; Quercus; 336 pages; 2010.

In recent years I’ve read several short story collections masquerading as novels. For example, both Alaa As Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building and Nicholas Rinaldi’s Between Two Rivers told the individual and interconnected stories of residents living in the same building, the former in Cairo, the latter in Manhattan.

Colum McCann did something similar in last year’s prize-winning novel Let The Great World Spin, using Philippe Petit’s daring high-wire act between the Twin Towers in New York City on August 7, 1974 as a kind of bridging link to tell the stories of a diverse range of characters living in the city at that time. Even Christos Tsiolkas has got in on the act: his Commonwealth Prize-winning novel, The Slap, looks at the lives and loves of various residents in the Melbourne suburbs, using a controversial slap at a family barbecue as the particular incident that links all the short stories together.

Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists uses this structure too, but this time the link is a busy newspaper office in downtown Rome where each of the characters is employed. The unnamed paper is an English-language publication with a global readership and is largely staffed by expat Americans. There are 11 characters all told, so that means there are 11 short stories, each of which are roughly 25 pages in length. That’s plenty of space to flesh out their eccentricities and foibles, and to develop them into fully-rounded human beings. But not enough that you get more than a brief snap shot of their present day lives circa 2007.

In between each chapter (short story) Rachman provides a brief update on the newspaper’s progress, moving from its establishment in 1960 at a time “when nobody’s making real money out of something like this”, through to its peak in the early 1980s when circulation hit 25,000 and journalistic standards were high, and then charting its slow decline as circulations and revenues got hit, first by television then the internet, until the present day in which circulation is down, the paper lacks a website and closure looks imminent. It’s a fascinating potted history of the newspaper game, some of which cuts very close to the bone for this particular reader!

The newspaper theme is borne out by the chapter headings, which are all headlines — “Global warming good for ice creams”, “Markets crash over fears of China slowdown”, “Bush slumps to new low in polls” — under which the relevant job title of the particular character is also listed  — everyone from corrections editor, to news editor, editor-in-chief to publisher are represented.

And while much of the content is tongue-in-cheek satire of journalism (think Evelyn Waugh’s delightfully funny Scoop and Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning), there’s an undercurrent of despair running through it, too: the highly experienced Paris correspondent, who has been replaced by “freelancers selling jaw-dropping stuff”, is so desperate to earn a commission he fabricates a lead story; the 30-something business editor who works long, hard hours is so lonely and starved of companionship she becomes involved with the dodgy Irish chap who burgles her flat; the obituary writer has been so sidelined in his career it takes the death of someone close to him to spur him on to achieve better things.

But, typically, the chapter I most enjoyed — “The sex lives of Islamic extremists” — was the stand-out funny one. It tells the story of Winston Cheung, a hapless graduate, who moves to Egypt in order to apply for the job of Cairo stringer despite the fact he doesn’t have a clue about journalism (“Every day in Cairo news events take place. But where? At what time?”). He is led astray by a highly experienced foreign correspondent, Rich Snyder, who is competing for the same job. Rich wears combat trousers, never stops boasting about his scoops and awards (“It’s so dumb – I hate getting awards. And journalism is not a competition. It’s not about that, you know. But, whatever.”) and is an expert freeloader. When he runs off with Winston’s house key and laptop, it looks like Winston’s chance at getting the job is over…

As a novel, I’m not sure this is a great one, but it’s definitely an entertaining one and provides a humorous and realistic look at the rise and fall of the newspaper business. I have KevinfromCanada to thank for tipping me off about The Imperfectionists and would urge you to read his review for another take on the same book.

Alternatively, you can wait for the film: apparently Brad Pitt’s production company has snapped up the rights to it.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, satire

‘The Maintenance of Headway’ by Magnus Mills


Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 152 pages; 2009.

You know you’ve really enjoyed a book when you titter your way through it, which is exactly what I did when I eagerly devoured Magnus Mills‘ latest novel, The Maintenance of Headway.

Mills, who is one of my favourite authors, is, admittedly, not for everyone. He writes in a deliberately understated way, with an almost childlike naivety. He doesn’t bother with extraneous detail, because everything moves forward chiefly through dialogue. This allows him to really get to the heart of the matter, which, in most of his novels, is this simple premise: English life is plagued by bureaucracy and officialdom for no other reason than it keeps people in employment.

In The Maintenance of Headway, Mills turns his scornful eye towards the running of the London bus network. (Mills himself was a bus driver when his first novel, The Restraint of Beasts, was published.) Well, I suspect it’s London for the city isn’t named, but the description of the street system — “The streets are higgledy-piggledy and narrow; there are countless squares and circuses, zebra crossings and pelicans. Go east from the arch and you’ve got twenty-three sets of traffic lights in a row” — is unmistakable. I’m also convinced that the “bejewelled thoroughfare” (“a great canyon of flagship stores stretching side by side for nearly a mile”) mentioned in the text is actually London’s Oxford Street.

As to the story, there’s not really much to it. In fact, it’s pretty much devoid of plot. The book is essentially a satire that pokes fun at the overly regimented (and somewhat unsuccessful) way in which the Board of Transport runs its buses, where “there’s no excuse for being early” and everyone bemoans the loss of the Venerable Platform Bus (which can only be another way of describing the now defunct but rather iconic Routemaster) with its conductors and no doors. It covers the running battle between the bus drivers, who just want to drive buses to their required destinations with a minimum of fuss, and the inspectors, who meddle with the timetables and routes under the guise of “maintaining headway” .

Much of it is laugh-out-loud funny, particularly if you have a dry sense of humour. The wit comes chiefly through the conversations held between drivers on their tea-breaks. I was rather partial to the rogue driver, Jason, with his reckless attitude to passenger safety. In a discussion about passenger’s who deliberately ring the bell with no intention of getting off, Jason says:

‘If they keep doing it on my bus I give them some treatment with the brake and the accelerator. Rough them up a bit:  teach them a lesson.’
‘What about all the innocent people?’ I asked. ‘The ones who haven’t touched the bell?’
‘Tough, isn’t it?’ said Jason.

If you’ve ever experienced the joys of being a bus passenger, there’s a lot in this funny little novel you’ll recognise. And next time you wait ages for a bus and then three come along at once, you’ll know exactly who to blame.