Book review: Pussy by Harold Jacobson

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Published by Jonathan Cape, 13th April 2017

Few events have provoked a more seismic hostile reaction within the western world than the recent election of Donald Trump. One imagines his presidency will provoke a wealth of satirical novels based around his presidency. Well done then, to Booker Prize winning author Howard Jacobson then, for getting his version in first,  less than a hundred days into his presidency. Unfortunately, as with Trump’s own administration thus far, the book can only be viewed as a failure.

This is the story of Prince Fracassus, heir presumptive to the Duke of Origen, a spoilt, semi-literate, sex-obsessed, boorish,Twitter-obsessed fathead. Sound familiar?

Exactly. Indeed, this is part of the problem. Fracassus is so obviously meant to be Trump (something Chris Riddell’s excellent cartoons throughout confirm) that any satirical impact is largely blunted.

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The “heir presumptive” stuff seems somewhat misplaced too. Trump’s father was a millionaire property owner: Donald’s is not a rags to riches story but (as is often the case) a riches to far more riches story. But his dad was, at least, a self-made man. He was not, unlike Kennedy or Bush, part of a political dynasty. At least, not yet.

Donald J. Trump is probably the worst person to ever occupy the White House. He is an arrogant, bullying, egotistical, racist, misogynistic pig. Even the worst of his predecessors (Warren Harding, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush) had some redeeming features. He appears to have none. He is both a bad example to our children and a compelling argument for not having children.

He thus deserves a book which truly destroys him on the page. This isn’t that book.

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Star Wars book reviews: 2017

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Let’s face it: here is something about Star Wars. Nothing compares to it. It is simultaneously one of the biggest films of all time and a cult favourite. These reviews cover just a small sample of the huge range of Star Wars books released (mostly) in the past year. 2017 is, of course, the 40th anniversary of the original film’s release. The strange thing is none  of these books are even being released because of that. There are always just lots of Star Wars books being released anyway and these are some of them.

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Art of Colouring: Rogue One A Star Wars Story and Star Wars Rogue One Profiles And Pictures have both been released by Egmont to capitalise on the success of the recent mildly enjoyable Rogue One film. The colouring book has its weaknesses -why would any one want too colour in storm troopers who are black and white anyway? – but both are otherwise competent enough. Make Your Own U-Wing (also Egmont) similarly does exactly what it says on the tin.

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A more philosophical supposedly grown-up approach to the franchise is taken by former Obama Administration official Cass R. Sunstein in The World According To Star Wars (pub: William Morrow) which is good but mostly silly.

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Much the best book on the history of the franchise is Chris Taylor’s How Star Wars Conquered The Universe (Head Zeus, 2015). Utterly absorbing and totally comprehensive.

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Finally, before her untimely death last year, Carrie Fisher’s memoir The Princess Diarist (Bantam Press, 2016) generated a disturbance in the Force by revealing the then teenage actress’s on set affair with Han Solo actor Harrison Ford, then in his thirties and nearing the end of his first marriage.

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“I love you!””I know!” is the couple’s famous exchange in the film. And we should know  too. The affair is already referred to in Chris Taylor’s book mentioned above.

Fisher’s final book is not really a fitting tribute to her formidable talent. The diary extracts written by her younger self are not really fit for publication. The rest is lightweight fare from a great writer on lazy form.

Ultimately, though no books have been released entitled How Smokey and the Bandit (which was released at about the same time as Star Wars) Conquered The Universe. Why? Because Star Wars is utterly unique. Truly, a Force unto itself.

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Book review: Viz Annual 2017 The Bookie’s Pencil

Viz has been available nationwide for well over thirty years now, but let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that you’ve never heard of it, as surprisingly, many people haven’t. The first thing to emphasise is that this is anthology based on an adult comic and so not suitable for children. Or, for that matter, prudish or sensitive adults.

Once upon a time, Viz annuals were called things like “The Big Pink Stiff One”. This one is called “The Bookie’s Pencil,” a euphemism which I’ve never heard anyone use. Can we conclude from this that Viz has grown more subtle over the years?

No, it hasn’t.

The formula has remained largely unchanged. Comic regulars include:

Roger Mellie: The Man on the Telly:  A TV presenter who is notoriously foul mouthed when off air (and sometimes when on).

Spawny Get: A character whose luck varies dramatically from frame to frame, usually ending with him implausibly having sex with a large number of attractive women.

The Fat Slags: Two promiscuous overweight Geordie girls.

Spoilt Bastard: Almost self explanatory. A git who bullies his pathetic elderly mother into getting whatever he wants. This is generally one of the cleaner stories as is Mrs Brady, Old Lady, a geriatric who complains that no one will give up their seat for her on the bus and thus stands throughout even though the bus is virtually empty.

Often it is the newspaper, Top Tips and Letterbocks pages which provide the highlights.

In short, enter if you dare. A lack of squeamishness and an understanding of the traditions  of British comics and north-eastern regional dialects will all prove an advantage.

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Book review: The Long And Winding Road by Alan Johnson

alan-johnson-book-jacket-the-long-and-winding-roadImagine history had panned out differently. Alan Johnson might have become Labour leader in 2010. Labour might have won power in 2015 and the disaster which is Brexit might not now be happening. The pound would be strong, Ed Balls would be in government, Corbyn still on the backbenches while the Foreign Secretary might actually be someone who is capable of doing the job. Perhaps without Brexit to inspire him, Donald Trump would have lost in the US. We can dream anyway…

Perhaps this was never likely. Johnson never ran for the leadership and lost unexpectedly to Harriet Harman when he ran for Deputy. But as this, the third volume of his celebrated memoirs reminds us, Labour’s last Home Secretary is that rarest of things. Like Chris Mullin, he is a politician who can write.

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Book review: Nutshell by Ian McEwan

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“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”

The opening to Ian McEwan’s latest novella may go down as the best first line of 2016. Intriguingly, the author claims he thought up the line first and thought up the ensuing story afterwards. The story may essentially be summarised as a murder mystery told from the perspective of an unborn infant nestling within its mother womb. The mystery – without wishing to give too much away – has a strong Shakespearian element.

The fetus is a very clever fetus, having picked up more in the womb than many people pick up in their entire lives. The book is clever too, very clever. Not too clever either, although as it’s more of an experiment in narrative than a full blown novel is unlikely to gain the following that McEwan’s other books such as Atonement and Saturday have. But the experiment is undoubtedly a success.

Womb Raider? Inside Out? A Fetal Inversion? Inside Out? A Womb Of One’s Own? McEwan went for Nutshell as a title.

He’s probably right.

Book review: Tim Burton The Iconic Filmmaker and his Work by Ian Nathan

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This is a story about a little boy called Tim.

He was born nearly sixty years ago in California. He grew up, a bit nervous and a bit strange, and looked a little like his own later creation Edward Scissorhands except without the scissory hands. And perhaps not quite as pale.  He basically looked the same for his entire life and later had long relationships with Helena Bonham Carter, the English star of A Room With A View and Fight Club amongst other people. But this book’s not really about that sort of thing. It is about his films.

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After an unhappy spell at Disney working on boring films like The Fox and the Hound, Tim Burton made the first film Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985). The star, Pee Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) a children’s entertainer of the time, later got in trouble when he got caught publicly “misbehaving”  in an adult cinema. But the mass debate over this came later. Tim’s career had been launched.

Since then, he has made nearly twenty films. Most have contained a fantasy element. Some were animated (such as The Corpse Bride). Some were blockbusters (Batman, Batman Returns). Some were black and white (Ed Wood). Eight have Johnny Depp in. All but one have music provided by Danny Elfman who did The Simpsons theme. Some were magical (Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice), some  divided opinion (Mars Attacks!) Very few were actually awful (Planet of the Apes).

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All have been interesting in some way as this attractively illustrated coffee table book reminds us. Burton’s career proves that it is possible to be both offbeat, unconventional and interesting and still be commercially successful. And live happily ever after.

Tim Burton: The Iconic Filmmaker and His Work. Unofficial and Unauthorised by Ian Nathan. Published: Aurum Press, 2016

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Book review: No Cunning Plan by Tony Robinson

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Blackadder was not the sort of programme to rely on catchphrases. Most that were deployed such as “You have a woman’s hand, m’lord,” or the lecherous “woof woof! were used by one-off or very occasional visitors to the saga such as Captain Rum (Tom Baker) or Lord Flashheart (the late Rik Mayall).

A notable exception was “I have a cunning plan…” words which Blackaddder’s sidekick Baldrick (Tony Robinson) would use to signal a usually absurd scheme to get the duo out of trouble. These included a plan to rewrite Dr Johnson’s famous dictionary in one night after Baldrick had accidentally burnt it (Baldrick’s helpful definition for the letter C (sea) being “big blue wobbly thing where mermaids live”). Another ruse involved an attempt to save Charles I (Stephen Fry) from execution by disguising a pumpkin as the King’s head.

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This is not the life of Baldrick, however, but the life of Tony Robinson. Although ultimately a tale of success (he is now a knight of the realm), it is an eventful, entertaining life although, as he freely admits, full of mistakes and less governed by any overall “cunning plan” than many.

Starting out as a child actor, appearing as one of Fagin’s gang in the original stage version of Oliver! Robinson was initially just keen to have fun and get out of school. After a long career including run ins with John Wayne and Liza Minnelli along the way, landing the role of Baldrick in 1983 didn’t seem like any sort of big deal. Indeed, as the first series was neither very  good or successful, initially it wasn’t.

But soon it had made his name and he was appearing in other Eighties comedy like Who Dares Wins and The Young Ones before writing his own Blackadder-influenced kids’ show Maid Marian and Her Merry Men. The long years hosting Time Team were still to come. And, yes, hosting The Worst Jobs In History really was his own worst ever job.

It’s not all laughs: he writes movingly about his parents’ descent into Alzheimer’s (one after the other). But this is a hugely entertaining and unpretentious read. Here’s to you, Mr Robinson…

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Book review: Hinterland by Chris Mullin

chris-mullin-book-jacket-newAll politicians are supposed to have a hinterland: a realm of interest and experience beyond the Westminster Bubble, which they typically in Britain, inhabit. The late former Labour Chancellor Denis Healey, for example, with whom the term is often associated, had a huge range of experience and cultural and classical knowledge outside the political sphere and was much the better and more rounded a figure for it. Margaret Thatcher, in contrast, although in many ways more successful than him politically, had almost  no interests outside politics and thus had a boring and miserable retirement, often spent making a nuisance of herself.

Chris Mullin shouldn’t have this problem. Though his twenty three years as an MP for Sunderland South are now over, he entered parliament late in life (age 39) and as this memoir confirms, he did much before, during and since. He achieved ministerial rank under Blair and has perhaps subtly shifted from a position once regarded derisively as the “loony left” to a not uncritical position of support for Blair. He is rightly a cheerleader for the underrated Blair-Brown Government’s achievements, achievements unsung often by the governments themselves, particularly former members such as Ed Miliband.

“Loony MP Backs Bomb Gang” was The Sun’s unhelpful angle on his campaign to free the Birmingham Six. His three volumes of diaries on his political career make for fascinating  reading as does his novel A Very British Coup, a tale of a Corbyn-esque leader elected to power (it was published in 1982)) who is ultimately destroyed by the conservative political establishment. The book has been dramatised for TV twice, the second time, massively altered as The Secret State.

This is another fine book: a compelling story of a life well led.

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Book reviews: Egmont Star Wars titles 2016

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Have you ever fancied trekking around Tatooine? Hiking around Hoth? Basically, visiting anywhere that you’ve seen in any of the Star Wars films?

Well, basically you can’t. As none of these places really exist. However, for eighty pages of large, (27 x 1.5 x 37 cm) attractively illustrated maps, timelines and such like based around the Star Wars universe, The Star Wars Galactic Atlas (Egmont, RRP £20) cannot be faulted.

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Star Wars Propaganda (Egmont) written by Star Wars aficionado Pablo Hidalgo purports to be an anthology of propaganda posters from from throughout the history of saga e.g. “Remember Alderan: Never Forget” and “Trump and Vader 2016: Let’s Make America Great Again” (okay, I made the last one up. There are no references to contemporary politics here at all). To be honest, posters have never an obvious background feature of the films. Propaganda played a much bigger role in the Paul Verhoeven film Starship Troopers. Despite this, the book is undeniably marvellous to browse through, whether you’re a Star Wars fan or not. It is an inspired idea, beautifully realised.

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Book reviews: Viz Annual The Otter’s Pocket 2016 and The Roger Mellie Telly Times

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Is Viz as funny as it used to be? It’s been well over thirty five years since the teenaged Chris Donald first started selling his own self-produced adult comics in Newcastle pubs as a means of escaping unemployment in 1979. By the end of the next decade, it was a massive success story selling more than almost any other periodical except the TV and Radio Times.

I started reading it about then and to me it will always seem funnier then, partly because of the novelty and danger factor (reading it at school risked confiscation) and partly because I was barely into my teens. Just the name of the story Buster Gonad and His Unfeasibly Large Testicles was enough to send me into paroxysms of chuckling mirth for minutes on end. Other comics of the time were always promising to generate this sort of reaction. Viz was the only one that did. Buster and The Dandy could only offer some mild amusement.

Some of my favourite strips are long gone: Finbarr Saunders and his Double Extenders, Roger Irrelevant (“He’s totally hat-stand”) and the short lived Victorian Dad and Modern Parents. I never liked the Fat Slags (to date, the only Viz story to hit the big screen, albeit in disastrous form) which is still going.

Roger Mellie The Man on the Telly is still here too both in this annual and in this new anthology of his old strips The Roger Mellie Telly Times, both available now.

One suspects the idea of a foul mouthed TV presenter like Mellie is less shocking now than it was in the Eighties. But in truth, he has his moments.

And yes, Viz still is funny. Even if you don’t warm to the comic stories (the long running Sid The Sexist, Ivan Jellical, Gilbert Ratchet, Raffles The Gentleman Thug most of which derive a little from the traditions of British children’s comics, try the  news stories (“Donald Trump’ s World of Pumps”) or better still Ltterbocks. Always Viz’s funniest section. (“Do you think it’s possible to train a hedgehog to walk up and down a table with cubes of cheese stuck to the end of its spikes?” asks one reader who is planning a party).

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Or maybe it’s not for you. As the editor of Punch once said when asked if his magazine was as funny as it used to be, he simply replied: “it never was”.

Or as Roger Mellie would put it: “Hello, good evening and bollocks.”

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Book reviews: Viz Annual The Otter’s Pocket 2016

The Roger Mellie Telly Times

Both published by Dennis