A Tiny Bit Marvellous – Dawn French (2010)

dawnfrench1Now, before I start, I consider Dawn French to be a National Treasure.  She has kept me laughing for more years than I care to remember. I’ve watched every episode of “French & Saunders”, and some many times over and there is no doubt that their peak as a comedy partnership came quite a few years ago.  There has been a tendency from both Dawn and Jennifer to try too hard to get us to laugh and not all the projects that they have worked on, both separately and together have always been successful as far as I am concerned.  For Dawn, there can be both a darkness and a lack of subtlety which can creep in to the detriment of her work.

This was her first novel published in 2010 and which has just been sat on my shelves for the last few years waiting to be read.  I found her 2008 memoir “Dear Fatty” to be impressively written but her chosen style felt slightly alienating for this reader.  It was really a selection of letters aimed for those she cared about, reminiscing along the way.  I thought this device held the reader away at some distance, her offerings of wise words and advice felt like I was reading something I had no real business to read.  There were jokey letters to the likes of Madonna and David Cassidy which felt they were there just for a laugh and didn’t work well, but central to the piece were two recipients, Jennifer Saunders (the “Fatty” of the title) and, very powerfully, Dawn’s father who committed suicide when she was in her late teens.  Reading these letters in particular showed a writer who can work with emotions and humour which boded well for her as a novelist.

The buzz she got from writing this inspired her to have a go at fiction and this book is the result.  Structurally, she’s gone along similar lines to the letters by using the journals of members of a family to tell her tale. 

Let’s just say she didn’t win me over immediately.  Dora is approaching eighteen in a fug of rage against her mother, Mo, a child psychologist who is struggling with her own teenagers, also including Peter who has adopted a fey Oscar Wilde young dandy persona.  It is largely these three who provide their accounts of the weeks leading to Dora’s 18th and Mo’s 50th birthdays.

To start with the vitriol in this family took me aback and I found it quite difficult to read.  In my job at the library I’m aware of a number of people who have borrowed this book with great anticipation and returned it with the feedback that they gave up on it quite early on.  I’m made of sterner stuff and persevered even when the characters were at their most unlikeable. I found myself waiting for laugh out loud moments which were just not coming.  In fact, once I began to appreciate that I wasn’t going to do this I found myself getting more into the plot and finding that this is all rather effectively done.  There’s actually a great deal of control being operated in what I found initially unsubtle and as the tale develops the characters did begin to win me over.  So much so that I felt a little bereft of their company when I finished the book.  Dawn has even included the cake recipes cooked for the family members by grandma, Pamela, who is the voice of reason throughout the turmoils of family life.  We all know that most problems can be alleviated somewhat by cake and here is the author illustrating this very nicely.

Once again, as with “Dear Fatty”, this was not totally what I was expecting and it took a while to draw me in but I found this a strong fictional debut which deserved the healthy sales it attracted.

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fourstars

A Tiny Bit Marvellous was published in the UK in 2010 by Michael Joseph.

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The Brazilian – Rosie Millard (Legend Press 2017) – A Chick-Lit From A Male Point Of View Review

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In a Victoria Wood tribute I watched recently I saw for the umpteenth time “The Shoe Shop Sketch” and I laughed at every single line, as always, feeling almost overwhelmed by laughter at the end.  Such a clever writer.  It got me wondering what would have happened if Victoria had followed the lead of chums Celia Imrie and Julie Walters and written a novel.  Would she have gone for comedy and would it even have worked?  Would it have been possible to sustain her brand of humour (which I find very funny) over the entire length of a novel.  To do this is notoriously difficult……

 

Legend Press invited me to read Rosie Millard’s second comic novel “The Brazilian”.  Rosie is a journalist and as BBC Arts correspondent has been on the TV herself a fair few times so eases herself into that group of women novelists that includes Dawn French,  Fern Britton, Celia Imrie,  Meera Syal and Helen Lederer who we feel we know something about already due to a public persona and “celebrity status”.  So long as they are written by the person named on the cover (not Katie Price then), I’m really quite interested in reading them.  In fact, it was a celebrity moment, a television appearance on the fairly ghastly sounding “Celebrity Five Go To Lanzarotte” in which Rosie took part which provided the inspiration for this novel.

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Rosie Millard

Rosie has cleverly incorporated the characters from her first novel about North London neighbours in “The Square” (2015) into a holiday setting, rather in the way that comedy classic “Are You Being Served?” did when it was expanded into a movie, but here with much better results.  I read and reviewed “The Square” and enjoyed it as a North London comedy of (bad) manners which evolved from the location so I initially felt that uprooting some of these upmarket existences felt like a bit of a risk.  I said of the first novel; “Most of the women are ghastly and the men not worthy of any of the female lustful attentions” but that certainly doesn’t diminish its comic potential and by opening it all out into a relaxed holiday setting the women can become more ghastly and the men less worthy.  Over the years much situation comedy has indeed focused on ghastly women and inept men.

The location for all this is Ibiza.  A couple of The Square residents have been chosen to take part in a daytime reality show “Ibiza (Or Bust)”; there’s a holiday for Jayne, Patrick and their son where a babysitter is needed and with boyfriends and wives making their way over to the island it takes about eight characters out of “The Square”.  I’m sorry that recently rich lottery winner Tracey has only a bit part to play here.  Central character this time round is Jayne who during her family holiday becomes more monstrous, self-centred and devious than in the previous novel.

The title refers to both a character from the Reality Show and a certain waxing Jayne has in preparation for her holiday.  The TV show aspect gives it more structure and ensures it builds towards a climax rather than lose momentum (which I feel “The Square” was a little guilty of).  There’s some new characters to spice things up.  I must admit I like my humour a little warmer than what is on display here but the prickly comic situations are enjoyable enough although I didn’t laugh out loud.

The cover compares Rosie Millard to Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen and Arnold Bennett but that’s more fitting of the socially mannered “The Square”.  If we’re looking for a classic comic comparison I’d be more likely to go with E F Benson and his monstrous characters Mapp and Lucia who gave him enough comic potential and staying power to last six novels.  I think there’s still potential for the author to go further with these characters.  Taking them back to “The Square” with their Ibiza experience behind them could pay dividends.  All in all, although I preferred the set-up of the first novel I think that “The Brazilian” is better structured, the humour is more sustained and therefore a more satisfying sequel.

threestars

The Brazilian is published on 14th June 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

Holding – Graham Norton (Hodder & Stoughton 2016)

 

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Graham Norton has joined the ranks of celebrity novelists.  After a couple of autobiographical works he has got the writing bug and has been spurred on to produce the novel he always wanted to write.  For the first half it is surprisingly under-stated, a rather cosy affair.  In the Irish village of Duneen a skeleton is unearthed when builders are working on redevelopment at an old farm.  The body is believed to be of Tommy Burke who had supposedly left some twenty years before following tangled encounters with a couple of women in the village.  It is obvious that some people know more than they are letting on.

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TV presenter, chat show host etc now adds novelist to list of achievements

So far, nothing especially distinguished but once Norton gets into his characters the novel develops a stronger identity.  He has created quite a star in Sergeant PJ Collins, the lone member of the Garda for the village, an overweight, lonely man who comes into his own and becomes unexpectedly in demand during the investigation.  Small time Irish life is something Norton obviously remembers well and it feels spot-on.  It certainly wasn’t the book I was expecting him to write.  I was expecting sharp, brittle humour and a much more glitzy affair.  Norton is a natural with yet really does not play it for laughs in quite the way I had anticipated.  It does open out from the charming, slightly dated feel of the cosy crime caper into a cauldron of secrets and lies and it has all been done rather well.  A welcome addition to the celebrity novelist’s club.

fourstars

Holding is published by Hodder and Stoughton on 6th October 2016.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.