10 books, Book lists

10 books about journalists

10-booksIn response to yesterday’s tragic events in Paris, where two terrorists stormed the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, shooting dead 12 people — eight of them journalists — and injuring 11 others, I thought I would republish this list, which first appeared on my old Reading Matters blog in 2011.

I am a trained journalist and have spent my career working in news rooms and magazine offices, so freedom of speech is a value I hold very dear. Perhaps it’s no surprise that some of my favourite novels are about journalists working on newspapers and magazines. I call these “newspaper novels” but they could equally be called “journalism novels”, “print media novels” or “novels about journalists”.

Because the newspaper game is a funny old lark, these novels lend themselves very well to humour and satire. And typically they’re peopled with rich and intriguing characters, because the business seems to attract oddballs and eccentrics, the likes of which you don’t see anywhere else.

Here’s my top 10 novels about journalists (arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name) — hyperlinks will take you to my full reviews:

KeepersofTruth The Keepers of Truth’ by Michael Collins (2000)

This is an interesting look at what it is like to be a journalist on a small town newspaper. Shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize, Collins’ novel is part thriller, part crime mystery. Set in midwest America in the late 1970s, the novel charts the social disintegration of an industrial town in decline — and examines the difficulties that confront reporters when they must write about the people they know. The narrator, Bill, is a young misfit journalist working at The Daily Truth who finds himself becoming increasingly obsessed by a local murder. The story takes a dark turn when Bill becomes a suspect. This is a dark, brooding story, written with passion and fury.

MyTurnToMakeTheTea ‘My Turn to Make the Tea’ by Monica Dickens (1951)

Set during an era in which journalists carried out all their reporting in person — not by telephone or email — and then typed up their stories on clunky typewriters, this is a revealing insight in to life on a provincial newspaper. It’s also a fascinating account of the petty dramas that occur when working in a newsroom. There isn’t much of a plot, instead it reads very much like the diary of a young reporter, called Poppy, learning the ropes on the Downingham Post. The book largely works by showing how Poppy’s misconceptions about journalism fall by the wayside as the practicalities of producing a weekly newspaper fall into place. It’s a terrific read and peopled by a cast of wonderful characters, including a sexist editor who poo-poohs Poppy’s idea to introduce a woman’s column and publish letters to the editor that would be of interest to a female readership.

TowardsTheEnd Towards the end of the Morning’ by Michael Frayn (1967)

This is a hilarious account of what it was like to work on an unspecified newspaper during the declining years of Fleet Street. At the heart of the story are two journalists — the older, more uptight and ambitious John Dyson, who is anxious to find an easy route out of his mundane job, and the younger, more laid back and directionless Bob Bell, who doesn’t have the courage to dump his girlfriend. The two of them work in the crossword and nature notes department but spend most of their time in the local drinking establishments complaining about their jobs and their workloads. While it’s a story about journalism and its struggle with changing work practises and the emerging “glitterati” of television broadcasting, it’s essentially a comedy of manners. I laughed out loud a lot while reading this one!

Slab-rat ‘Slab Rat’ by Ted Heller (2001)

I read this long before I began blogging, so I can’t link to a review, but this is a wickedly funny — and very realistic — look at what it’s like for a cynic to work on a glitzy magazine filled with fake, career-climbing people. Zac Post is so desperate to be promoted that he’ll resort to pretty much anything to be noticed by his bosses. If that means doing underhand, morally dubious things, then so be it. This is a story as much about office politics as it is about journalism. And it’s a scathing satire on what people will do to get ahead in life, love and business. Highly recommended.

Russell-wiley-is-out-to-lunch ‘Russell Wiley is Out to Lunch’ by Richard Hine (2010)

This is a newspaper novel with a twist: instead of focusing on the editorial side it looks at the advertising and publishing side. The story is told in the first person by Russell Wiley, the sales development director on the Daily Business Chronicle, whose objective is to sell more advertising pages. But it is an uphill battle. The industry is in terminal decline. There’s not enough new readers to replace the ones that are dying off. While the book is essentially an insightful look at what happens when traditional media fails to adapt to the digital age, you don’t need to know anything about the way in which newspapers are run to enjoy it. Anyone who has worked in any kind of corporate environment will find much that is familiar here.

Bilton‘Bilton’ by Andrew Martin (1997)

This is a deliciously funny read about Bilton, a grumpy journalist, who inadvertently becomes a media sensation when he throws a cup of coffee in the face of the British Prime Minister. Bilton’s action is billed as heroic, but what no one quite realises is that it wasn’t preplanned or motivated by politics — Bilton was simply drunk and “threw” the coffee when he slipped on the floor. As his stardom increases, and the prime minister’s popularity continues to slide, Bilton begins to lose his integrity — and the shocking truth threatens to come out. The strength of the book is the clever way in which it pokes fun at the relationship between the press and politicians, showing how one feeds the other in a weird interdependent but cannibalistic fashion.

The-Spoiler ‘The Spoiler’ by Annalena McAfee (2011)

This highly accomplished debut novel, set in 1997, tells the story of two female journalists who are poles apart in age, experience and outlook. Honor Tait is a highly regarded veteran war correspondent whose career in journalism has drawn to a close. Tamara Sim is young and tenacious, struggling to make a name for herself in an industry that is on the verge of drastic change. When the younger has to interview the older, a culture clash ensue — not only are they worlds apart in age and experience, the way in which they ply their journalistic trade is radically different. By pitting the two women against each other, McAfee is able to demonstrate the changing face of newspaper journalism in an original, adroit and hugely humorous way.

Shipping_news ‘The Shipping News’ by Annie Proulx (1993)

Following the untimely death of his wife, Quoyle moves from New York to Newfoundland. He takes his two young daughters with him and tries to start afresh in the town of his forebears. He finds work on the local newspaper, The Gammy Bird, where he’s employed to write the shipping news — hence the book’s title — and report on local car accidents. While this isn’t a strictly newspaper novel — it’s more of a heartwarming story about rebuilding your life after a tragedy and finding friendship in unexpected places — it does include many journalistic insights, such as Quoyle’s penchant for viewing his life in headlines and the paper’s tendency towards plagiarism and typographical howlers. I read it not long after it won the Pulitzer Prize (hence no review — this was a decade before I began the blog) and still have fond memories of it.

The-Imperfectionists ‘The Imperfectionists’ by Tom Rachman (2010)

A fascinating potted history of the newspaper game, this hugely popular debut “novel” is actually 11 interlinked short stories focusing on the employees of an English-language newspaper in Rome. In between each chapter, Rachman charts the newspaper’s progress, moving from its establishment in 1960 through to its peak in the early 1980s — when circulation hit 25,000 and journalistic standards were high — and then describes its slow decline as circulations and revenues decrease and closure looks imminent. And while much of the content is a tongue-in-cheek satire of journalism, 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; while the obituary writer, who has been sidelined in his career, doesn’t recover his motivation until someone close to him dies. This is an entertaining read, one that provides a humorous and realistic look at the rise and fall of the newspaper business.

Scoop ‘Scoop’ by Evelyn Waugh (1938)

Scoop is billed as the funniest novel ever written about journalism — in fact, it’s safe to say it is the standard bearer for newspaper novels. It follows the escapades of William Boot, who is mistaken for an eminent writer, and is sent off to the African Republic of Ishmaelia to report on a little known war for the Daily Beast. With no journalistic training and far out of his depth, Boot struggles to comprehend what it is he is being paid to do and makes one blunder after another all in the pursuit of hot news. One word: hilarious.

So, what did you think of my choices? Are there any particular novels about journalists that you’d recommend? What is missing from my list?

10 books, Book lists

10 books to make you laugh

10-booksFor this list of 10 Books I’m looking at those that tickle the funny bone. Admittedly, I generally prefer my fiction a little on the darker side, but every now and then it’s refreshing to read something a bit more light-hearted, and if it gives me a belly laugh or two, then all the better.

Plus, readers constantly ask me to recommend books that will make them laugh — and these are the humorous novels that immediately spring to mind.

Here’s my top 10 funny novels (arranged in alphabetical order by book title):

EnglishPassengers ‘English Passengers’ by Matthew Kneale

This isn’t your typical funny novel. In fact, it’s probably best classed as historical fiction. But there are aspects of it that are incredibly witty. Told through the eyes of more than 20 diverse characters, it plunges the reader into a wonderful boys’ own adventure tale turned comical farce in which a Manx smuggling vessel inadvertently flees British Customs by sailing half way around the world to Australia. To make the journey legitimate the crew, headed by Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, carry on board a small expedition team, comprising a spiritually crazed reverend, a sinister racial-theorist doctor and a wayward botanist, intent on finding the lost Garden of Eden in Tasmania. It’s a wonderful romp and, in my opinion, is one of the best books published in the past 10 years.

AFarCryFromKensington ‘A Far Cry from Kensington’ by Muriel Spark

I suspect I could have chosen any of the late Muriel Spark’s novels to be included in this list, but I’ve gone for this one purely because I remember enjoying it so much when I read it last year. It’s set in 1954 and tells the story of Mrs Hawkins, who works in publishing, and finds herself in deep water when she’s just a little too frank with a client. There’s a dual narrative involving a death threat against a lodger with whom Mrs Hawkins resides, which adds a rather sinister twist to the story.

GingerMan‘The Ginger Man’ by J.P. Donleavy

Ask me to name the funniest story I’d ever read and I would not hesitate to name this one. First published in Paris in 1955, the book was banned in Ireland — where it is set — and the USA for obscenity. It follows the adventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, an American Protestant of Irish descent, who does everything a married man should not do: he spends the couple’s rent money on alcohol; staggers home drunk and acts violently towards his wife; and conducts numerous adulterous affairs. He’s thoroughly unlikable and completely selfish, and everything he does is outrageous. And while the book treads a whisper-thin line between comedy and tragedy, it’s the comic elements which really makes this story a great one to chortle along with.

MaintenanceOfHeadway‘Maintenance of Headway’ by Magnus Mills

Magnus Mills is one of my all-time favourite authors, but he is an acquired taste. I’ve read his entire back catalogue and enjoyed them all. This is his latest book, but I could have easily named one of his others, as they’re all hugely funny stories. Maintenance of Headway is pretty much devoid of plot; it’s basically a series of vignettes about the running of the London bus network. 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. It’s the perfect read if you are looking for something that little bit different…

Scoop‘Scoop’ by Evelyn Waugh

First published in 1938, Scoop is billed as one of the funniest novel ever written about journalism. It follows the escapades of William Boot, who is mistaken for an eminent writer, and is sent off to the African Republic of Ishmaelia to report on a little known war for the Daily Beast. With no journalistic training and far out of his depth, Boot struggles to comprehend what it is he is being paid to do and makes one blunder after another all in the pursuit of hot news. One word: hilarious.

AShortGentleman‘A Short Gentleman’ by Jon Canter

This novel pokes fun at the British upper classes. The story is narrated by Robert Purcell, a distinguished barrister who finds himself on the wrong side of the law. The book is essentially a confession of his downfall told in a very long-winded but brilliantly witty way. We don’t know what crime it is that Robert committed, and part of the joy of reading this book is trying to figure it out as you go along.

Snuff‘Snuff’ by Chuck Palahniuk

A novel about the pornographic industry might not sound like a barrel of laughs, but in the very capable hands of Chuck Palahniuk it takes on a rather surreal, laugh-out-loud dimension. Instead of glorifying pornography, he pokes fun at it, and, in doing so, he highlights the absurdity, warped mentality and crudity of it all. But if I can offer a caveat, it would be this: don’t bother reading if you are easily offended. There’s plenty of bad language and crude scenes to last a life time in this one!

SomethingFresh‘Something Fresh’ by P.G. Wodehouse

I couldn’t put together a list of funny novels without including some Wodehouse. In this book, the first in the Blandings series, a retired American millionaire, Mr Peters, tries to get back his incredibly rare and valuable scarab which has been absent-mindedly pocketed by Lord Emsworth. What follows is a complete farce in which two rivals — Ashe Marson, a poorly paid writer of detective stories, and Joan Valentine, a magazine correspondent — try to get the scarab back in exchange for a rather generous reward from Mr Peters. Throw in an overweight private detective, a rich “idiot child”, a fussy butler and an efficient private secretary, among others, and the comic world of P.G. Wodehouse comes truly alive.

TimeAfterTime_small‘Time After Time’ by Molly Keane

This is a delicious black comedy that seems frothy and lighthearted on the surface, but has a very dark heart beating at its centre. It’s not immediately obvious but this is a story about the nasty things people do to each other. It’s set in a beautiful but crumbling mansion in Southern Ireland where four elderly siblings reside. Each of them is eccentric, fiercely independent and set in their own ways. When their cousin Leda arrives unannounced for a short stay little do they know the ructions she is about to cause… More please.

TowardsTheEnd‘Towards the End of the Morning’ by Michael Frayn

Novels about journalism and newspapers are particular favourites of mine (see Scoop above), and this one, written in 1967, harks back to the days when Fleet Street began to experience terminal decline. While it’s set in an unspecified newspaper and focuses on print journalists fearing for their futures, it’s essentially a comedy of manners. I laughed out loud a lot while reading this one.

So, what did you think of my choices? Are there any particular books or authors you’d recommend as a funny read? What is missing from my list?