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August hardback book reviews

Simon Evans reviews the latest hardbacks. 

Different_Times_a_history_of_British_comedy front coverDifferent Times, by David Stubbs

Pop has Bob Stanley’s Yeah, Yeah, Yeah and Let’s Do It, punk has Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming, folk has Rob Young’s Electric Eden, and television has The Magic Box (Rob Young again). All these books were written by music journalists, and all have provided insightful, entertaining, historical overviews of their chosen genres.

David Stubbs, another one-time music journo, has himself written excellent studies of German experimental rock and electronic music, so this history of British comedy promised much – but what a joyless affair it has turned out to be. When someone starts off a book about comedy with a lengthy diatribe against Boris Johnson and goes on to tell you they find Stewart Lee funny you know you’re in trouble.

Stubbs is a good writer, and has much that is interesting to say about everything from the Ealing Comedies and Dad’s Army to Hancock, Spike Milligan and the Monty Python team, but round every corner there’s a bout of finger-wagging prissiness.

In an otherwise enjoyable section on Fawlty Towers, which Stubbs rightly praises as one of the greatest ever sit-coms ever made, we are brought down to earth by this teacher-knows-best remark on the Major’s infamous rant on racial nicknames: “It should have been cut. If you wouldn’t do it now, you shouldn’t have done it then.”

But surely, by retro-fitting comedy into a wokeist strait-jacket – as Stubbs does throughout the book – you condemn a lot of great comic moments to the dustbin of history, leaving such laughter-free zones as modern-day Private Eye, Have I Got News to You and all those desperately unfunny Radio 4 6.30pm comedy shows you switch off after the news.

In one particularly jaw-dropping section Stubbs claims that political correctness, wokeism, whatever you want to call it, has been the saviour of comedy – the funniest thing he has to say throughout the book’s 400 pages. And that’s before you get to the notable omissions, such TV comedy greats as Friday Night Dinner and One Foot In The Grave. Stubbs apologises for not including them but offers no explanation; perhaps they just didn’t fit his social justice agenda.

So British comedy must continue to wait for its Yeah, Yeah, Yeah or England’s Dreaming; this book, despite its many merits, is both too partial and too prejudiced to provide the kind of historical overview it deserves. The only book that comes close, Ben Thompson’s Sunshine on Putty, was published nearly 20 years ago – and that says much, not just about this yawning gap in the market, but also the decline of British comedy in the last decade or so. And for that we have people like Stubbs to thank.

Published by Faber Price £20 Pages 416 ISBN 9780571353460

Bogie_and_bacall_William_J-Mann front coverBogie and Bacall, by William Mann

According to William Mann, an expert chronicler of Hollywood’s golden age, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart were Tinseltown’s greatest love story. They met in 1944, on the set of To Have and Have Not, when the then unknown Betty Bacal was 19 and Bogarde, already a major star, was 45. The attraction was instant and obvious and they married a year later, collaborating on four enduring films, including The Big Sleep, before Bogarde’s death in 1957. In the years since his death, their sometimes stormy relationship has been the subject of much mythologising, some of it orchestrated by Bacall herself – no stranger to reinvention when it suited her – and Mann’s task here is to untangle the truth about the relationship, which he does, admirably, without lapsing into sensationalism. His book manages to be both gossipy and respectful and the truth about both stars’ early lives, marriage, and Bacall’s life after her husband’s death turns out to be much more interesting than the legend.

Published by Harper Price £35 Pages 556 ISBN 9780063026391

The_Bone_Hacker_front_cover_bookThe Bone Hacker, by Kathy Reichs

There’s trouble in paradise when forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan is called in to investigate a series of mysterious deaths on the islands of Turks and Calcos. Things take an even darker turn when a police officer is murdered and Tempe herself is threatened by an intruder. There are suspicions the deaths could be gang-related, or is there a serial killer at large, but the truth turns out to be far stranger, with potentially global implications. This is the 22nd novel in the Temperance Brennan series, based on Kathy’s own work as a forensic anthropologist, and it boasts the usual combination of verisimilitude, great characters and a genuinely gripping plot full of twists and surprises.

Published by Simon and Schuster Price £20 Pages 335 ISBN 9781398510838

 The_Stirrings_a_memoir_in_Northern_time_book_coverThe Stirrings, by Catherine Taylor

The past may be a foreign country but it’s a place we often find ourselves returning to, whatever our memories of it may be. Catherine Taylor’s wonderful, evocative memoir is honest and unsentimental about the city of Sheffield she grew up in during the Seventies and Eighties but it’s clear that, although she now lives in London, it still looms large in her life.

The title refers to the notorious Sheffield Outrages of the 1860s – known in local folklore as The Stirrings – a series of explosions and murders by trade union militants protesting at working conditions and poor wages in a city where the average age of mortality was just 24. The city Catherine moved to as a child, having been born in New Zealand, had moved on in the 100 years since The Stirrings but it was still a drab, polluted and dangerous place for a young girl to grow up in, especially one going through her own personal ‘stirrings’. For, just as the Yorkshire Ripper (who was arrested at the back of Catherine’s school) was striking fear into women across Yorkshire in the late Seventies, and families and communities were torn apart by the Miner’s Strike, Catherine was having to cope with her parents’ divorce, a fractured relationship with her father, a debilitating illness, the first sexual fumblings of late adolescence and a shocking tragedy.

Although the author’s anti-nuclear, feminist and socialist politics are front and centre, important aspects of her personal awakening, they do not detract from her easily relatable, sympathetic and moving story. And while many of the landmarks of Catherine’s Sheffield youth are now long gone the city’s renewal in recent times seems to go hand in hand with her own personal journey. Perhaps not such a foreign country after all.

Published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson Price £16.99 Pages 225 ISBN 9781474625302

Good_bad_Girl_book_coverGood Bad Girl, by Alice Feeney

The lives of four women intersect in this engrossing new mystery from the author of Daisy Darker and Rock Paper Scissors. The story is told from the viewpoints of three of them, a young woman working in a care home who befriends Edith, one of its residents; Edith’s daughter Clio; and Frankie, who works in a prison library and whose daughter has run away from home. It’s like looking through a child’s kaleidoscope, with each twist revealing a new point of view and a new angle on a plot that gradually, tantalisingly, reveals itself. It’s a brilliant read.

Published by Macmillan Price £16.99 Pages 320 ISBN ‎ 9781529090260



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