Book Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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The first thing that struck me about this book was the quirky and excellent writing. The second thing was that on a technical point it made me realise how badly proofread The House On The Hill was as it was full of typos. This book however was not and so I praise the proofreaders in the present case to high heaven. Well done you.

The story is narrated by Rose who is a college student at the beginning of the book, and the middle of her story as the book jumps about in time, at first between her early life and her college days. It is clear from the start that she feels somewhat of an outsider and that there is something indefinable about her family life that is not quite the norm, and I found the reveal of that fact a wonderful moment where I really became involved in the story and knew that I was going to love this book.

The book is really well written and the prose is quirky and funny and I couldn’t help but become fascinated by Rose’s story and her awkward character who felt just a little outside of things. It is wonderful in a novel to get to know a character as they reveal more facts about themselves that just draw you into their experience more and more.

As always with these reviews I try not to give anything away about the stories as they are not really reviews but more just recommendations about books I’ve really enjoyed, but I found We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves one of the best books I’ve read in a long time as the bulk of it is about a young person trying to understand who she is and come to terms with her unusual upbringing. It is a really well-written, funny, involving and moving novel. It is also brilliantly proofread.

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Book Review: The House On The Hill by Judy Smith

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What first drew me to this novel was the great cover art and the categories of ghost story and mystery story. The story is told from the point of view of Jenna who is trying to hold together her family following the revelation of her husband’s affair. The family move away from the London to escape the bad memories and relocate to an old cottage. Jenna soon senses that all is not what it seems at the cottage and begins to dig deeper into the history of the place and uncovers more than she bargained for.

The story skips from the present to a year previously when the affair first came to light and there is a sense of tension in the relationship between Jenna and her husband with him trying to set things right and her wondering how she can ever trust him again, but the uncovered story from the cottage’s former inhabitants informs upon Jenna’s present circumstances in unexpected ways.

The story is very engaging and I had a few moments of genuine goosebumps when I came across some of its more ghostly elements. The ending however was a little inconclusive as I was left wondering whether Jenna had learned anything from what she had discovered as there was still so much tension and uncertainty left in her situation, but that certainly didn’t detract from how enjoyable the story was and I suppose it emphasises that rarely in life is there a doubt-free happy ever after.

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Book Review: How I Escaped My Certain Fate by Stewart Lee

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I am ashamed to say I didn’t really follow the wonderful work of the comedian Stewart Lee and Richard Herring back in the 90s. It was my fault entirely, I wasn’t paying attention. So when Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle appeared many years later I wondered how I had managed not to realise what a brilliant comedian he is. I had fallen out of love with stand-up for many years but over the past few years there have been some great comedians who have managed to get on TV for those of us who didn’t get to as many comedy gigs as we would have liked.

The comedian Stewart Lee’s book tells of him falling out of love with stand-up too, due to the apathy of audiences and the sheer expense of the Edinburgh Festival. Many creative people sometimes feel like they’re on a hiding to nothing and need to go away and take stock of the parts of what they’re doing that they like and what works best financially and figure out some kind of compromise or soul-search until a subtle shift in their approach through life experience gives them their answer. I hope that makes some kind of sense.

The book goes into what inspired the comedian Stewart Lee to start out in stand-up and then what made him give up. What follows are the years in-between involving Jerry Springer: The Opera and his realisation of the sheer creative potential of stand-up to be one person on a stage with complete freedom to do anything. The bulk of the book is taken up by transcripts of three of his shows from his comeback show ‘Stand-Up Comedian’ through the follow-up ’90s Comedian’ and ’41st Best Stand-up Ever’.

I think this book has caused me more laughing-out-loud on public transport moments than any other as not only are the transcripts hilarious but the footnotes and comments about other comedians are truly hysterical. There are some appendices featuring some articles the comedian Stewart Lee has written and an interview he did with Johnny Vegas.

The book puts across the comedian Stewart Lee’s passion for his art form and gives more wonderful insights into the world of stand-up comedy. I think I am so fascinated by comedy, not just because I am performing comedy songs, but also because there isn’t much reason to get excited about music these days. So with fantastic writers and performers like the comedian Stewart Lee, Josie Long and others who are doing fascinating and brilliant work it’s hard not to be excited by comedy these days.

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Book Review: Where Do Comedians Go When They Die by Milton Jones

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I find stand-up comedians fascinating. It amazes me how someone can stand in front of an audience for an hour-plus and entertain them just by saying words. It sometimes looks such an easy thing to do but I’m sure the many people who have tried and died have proved how false an assumption that is, like the Britain’s Got Talent contestant who expected to get a laugh by shouting “garlic bread” at a bewildered audience.

After enjoying a great gig by Gary Delaney at the Leicester Comedy Festival I decided to check out some comedy books and the one that really stood out was Milton Jones’ semi-autobiographical novel ‘Where Do Comedians Go When They Die? Journey of a Stand-Up’.

The story records the experiences of the fictional Jerome Stevens at various points of his stand-up career which includes (the preface reveals) events that have happened to the author himself, to other comics he knows, and also some happenings that are entirely fictional.

There are both funny and serious points throughout the book and what comes across is just what an unusual personality make-up you have to have to be a stand-up: a mixture of tenacity, vulnerability, bravery and, most importantly, the ability to look at everyday life from unusual angles.

Stand-up is not something I could do but to experience a world I am so interested in through Jerome Stevens’ eyes is a real delight. Just as Shane Spall’s ‘…Princess Matilda’ book enabled me to experience an epic sea voyage without getting wet, so Milton Jones’ novel provides some of the excitement and quirky characters of stand-up comedy without all the late nights and hecklers.

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Book Review: The Voyages of the Princess Matilda by Shane Spall

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I have enjoyed watching the adventures of Tim and Shane Spall on BBC4 as they circumnavigated the British Isles in their barge The Princess Matilda but this book is not the book of the TV series one might expect. Shane’s book covers the first part of their journey from London to Cardiff in amusing and exciting detail including encounters with new and old friends as well as eccentric characters and vivid descriptions of the places they visit. It is a wonderfully entertaining travelogue whether you are interested in boats or not.

But the counterpoint to the adventure around the coast are the parts which show the reason why the Spalls set out on this voyage in the first place. These sections written by Shane when Tim was ill with leukaemia are very moving as she goes through all the extreme emotions of someone in the situation of dealing with a serious illness in the family and describing Tim’s battle with the disease. This is what makes the book so powerful as it is clear why a couple who have come through such an awful experience would want to embark on such a fantastic adventure.

The other wonderful thing about the book is that it gives a far better insight into Tim and Shane’s personalities, particularly seeing Tim through Shane’s eyes. The other main character is of course The Princess Matilda herself who has a personality all of her own as she ploughs indefatigably through rough waves with skipper Tim at the helm.

A funny, moving and inspiring book.

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