Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Art Imitates Life...Sort Of: A Review of Milton Jones' Where Do Comedians Go When They Die?: Journeys of a Stand-Up

Title: Where Do Comedians Go When They Die?: Journeys of a Stand-Up
Author: Milton Jones
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: J.R. Books (2009)
Pages: 245
How I Came By This Book: I was first introduced to the author, Milton Jones, through watching the British panel show Mock the Week. When I found out that he had written a novel, I decided to order it through my library's ILL system.
Challenges: GoodReads 2011 Reading Challenge

Synopsis: A star of everyone except his own home, it's hard for Jerome Stevens to balance the demands of touring with family life. The circuit is a cynical world of extremes where money talks, agents slither and audiences throw mince pies.

We meet Jerome as he tries to make people laugh for a living. We follow him from the blind terror of a first open spot, facing an audience of trained killers in the Falklands, and the trauma of live television, to being chased out of Wales by an angry mob of brewery staff. Violent bouncers, paranoid celebrities and comedy producers without a sense of humour all compete to milk that cash-cow that is comedy, each desperately trying to grab at what they think are the udders of laughter.

But throughout it all, the hero's biggest critic remains his own seven-year-old son. Oh, and Jerome is actually in prison in China.

This hilarious account could only be written by somebody who's been there, with many of the extraordinary characters in the book being an amalgam of the personalities and characters and oddballs found on the comedy circuit. Fizzing with the one-liners and surreal humour for which Milton Jones is famous, this is an authentic, hilarious story of the life of a stand-up comedian.

Review: Milton Jones is punny. I mean, funny. Okay, he's punny, too. As an occasional panelist on Mock the Week, a British panel show that makes fun of the week's news headlines, Milton Jones has endeared himself to me with his crazy hair, his Hawaiian shirts, and his strange, but hilarious, one-liners. While I've never seen his stand-up, I knew once I heard that he had written a book that, if it was anything like what I had seen on Mock the Week, I wanted to read it. What I found when I did was a consistently funny, at times heartwarming, and all-around enjoyable novel.

Jerome's story is told in two ways: the first is through his history as a stand-up comic, starting with his first unsuccessful shows and following him through all the way to stardom; the second is through the recounting of the 18 nerve-wracking hours he spent in a Chinese prison. Told in first-person narrative, we are privy to Jerome's every thought, misgiving, doubt, fear, joy, anguish, triumph, and, yes, joke. We meet his friends, his family, his enemies, and his fans and are along for the ride as he traverses the British comedy circuit in search of fame.

For a first (and so far, only) novel, Milton Jones got a lot right. The writing is smart, the characters are fun, and the humor isn't forced. Jerome is a great narrator, one who doesn't hold anything back from the reader. He's a genuine human being with lots of flaws and, while he doesn't show them to his audience in the book, the reader is privy to them. We see him as he really is, which makes him not only likeable, but also a character that we really want to have succeed. Even as his comedian friends devolve into drugs, drinking, and debauchery, we hope that Jerome will be able to rise above all of that and stay true to who he is. Thankfully, we aren't disappointed.

Anyone familiar with Jones' work will recognize that Jerome's humor is rather similar, although not entirely. Jones' writing contains that surrealistic quality that he's known for, but as this is a novel and not a comedy routine, the humor slides into the narrative, building it and supporting it, rather than being its entirety. Jones' uses a lot of similes (some more successful than others) and relies on Jerome's reactions to his situation at that point in time for a lot of the novels funniest moments.

In the same vein, people familiar with the British comic scene in general will be able to pull apart some of Jones' characters to find possible influences for them. Jerome's fellow comedians are sort-of-but-not-quite people that Jones is familiar with. Hints of Canadian comic Stewart Francis, Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle, and others can be found upon examining the characters that litter the pages of Jones' novel.

Where Do Comedians Go When They Die? deals with the good, the bad, and the ugly of life as a comedian. Jones uses fiction and humor to examine life on the circuit, breaking into television and radio, the problems of juggling a family and a career, and other situations that comics find themselves facing. Most notable is Jones' exploration of joke stealing--a common enough occurrence, but one that about a year later would personally affect him after Keith Chegwin was accused of stealing some of Jones' jokes on Twitter. Simon Evans and (one of my personal favorite comedians) Ed Byrne stuck up for Jones in that instance but Jerome's situation shows just how little you can really do about it and how alone you sometimes are when it happens. While Jerome works his way up the ladder of success, the audience gets to glimpse a little of what it's like to be a comedian, both the highs and the lows.

This book was really fun to read and has a fast moving plot that covers the highlights of a little over a decade of Jerome's career. While people who aren't familiar with British slang, spelling, etc., might need to keep Google open in case of a misunderstood word or phrase here or there, I can sincerely recommend this book to anyone who loves comedy, Milton Jones, fun/creative characters, or just a good laugh. I'd love to see Jones write more novels and branch out from writing about comedians. In the hope that this will happen, I'm giving Where Do Comedians Go When They Die? 4 out of 5 Gabriels (can't give him a full score on his first try, right?).


Monday, August 15, 2011

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

It's Monday, which means it's time to take stock of what we're reading with Sheila's meme, hosted at Book Journey. It's Monday; What Are You Reading? is 100 posts old today and Sheila is celebrating with a give-away!

This past week I actually read quite a lot, although I didn't get through everything I was planning on reading. This means that you guys can look forward to reviews this week (as long as I get a chance to, you know, write them).

What I Read Last Week:
-Dark Road to Darjeeling by Deanna Raybourn
-Where Do Comedians Go When They Die: Journeys of a Stand-Up by Milton Jones
-Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
-Bossypants by Tina Fey

What I'm Currently Reading:
-Maskerade by Terry Pratchett
-Failed States by Noam Chomsky

What I'm Reading This Week:
-Coffee at Little Angels by Nadine Rose Larter (review requested by author)
-Dune by Frank Herbert
-The Book of Mordred by Vivian Vande Velde
-The Astronomer's Universe: Stars, Galaxies, and Cosmos by Herbert Friedman

I also watched the film Wonder Boys, and will be reviewing that in conjunction with the novel for a challenge I'm a little bit behind on.

Happy reading everyone!


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

People Aren't Always What They Seem: A Review of Deanna Raybourn's Dark Road to Darjeeling

Title: Dark Road to Darjeeling
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Edition: Paperback
Publisher: MIRA Books (2010)
Pages: 388
How I Came By This Book: I've been following Deanna Raybourn's career ever since shortly after her first novel, Silent in the Grave, was published. I finally purchased this novel earlier this year at Borders and am only now getting around to it (despite the fact that her latest novel was just released and I'm dying to read it).
Challenges: Read Your Own Books Challenge; GoodReads 2011 Reading Challenge

Synopsis: After eight idyllic months in the Mediterranean, Lady Julia Grey and her detective husband are ready to put there investigative talents to work once more. At the urging of Julia's eccentric family, they hurry to India to aid an old friend, the newly widowed Jane Cavendish. Living on the Cavendish tea plantation with the remnants of her husband's family, Jane is consumed with the impending birth of her child--and with discovering the truth about her husband's death. Was he murdered for his estate? And if he was, could Jane and her unborn child be next?

Amid the lush foothills of the Himalayas, dark deeds are buried and malicious thoughts flourish. The Brisbanes uncover secrets and scandal, illicit affairs and twisted legacies. In this remote and exotic place, exploration is perilous and discovery, deadly. The danger is palpable and, if they are not careful, Julia and Nicholas will not live to celebrate their first anniversary.

Review: I first read a Deanna Raybourn novel, Silent in the Grave, back in 2007, shortly after it was first published. I'm not sure what caught my eye (perhaps the title?), but when I plucked it from my hometown library's shelves and perused the first page, I knew I had to read it. The first two sentences of her first novel embodied everything that I've come to love about her as a writer:
To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor. (p. 13)
Since then I have devoured every one of her novels, including her first (and currently only) stand-alone, The Dead Travel Fast

Raybourn has managed to become, in a relatively short period of time, my favorite contemporary female writer. I will admit that I'm not a fan of historical fiction, mysteries, or romance novels, of which her novels contain an element of each. Yet, her skill as a writer, her unique voice, her twisting plots, and her endearing and unforgettable characters shatter every preconceived notion that I've ever held about these genres. Dark Road to Darjeeling stays well within the realm of mind-blowing fiction that I have come to expect from her.

I was actually reluctant to read it at first. It's why, I think, I took so long to purchase it and even longer to read it. It wasn't that I was worried that Raybourn would disappoint (I'm not sure she's capable of it), it was that at the end of Silent in the Moor, the third book in the Lady Julia Grey series, something happened that I was afraid would throw a wrench into the series: Lady Julia finally married Nicholas Brisbane. The sexual tension, snippy/snappy dialogue, and the frustration each of these characters caused in the other was one of the main reasons why they have become one of my favorite pairs in literature. Raybourn's ability to maintain this dynamic even after they had come together at last is due, I believe, to two factors. One, Raybourn knows these characters and has superbly shaped them into who they are through careful progress during the first three novels. Two, Julia and Brisbane's unconventional natures and their mild lack of disregard for social mores would make it almost impossible for them to be changed simply because they share a last name.

As with the rest of the series, Raybourn's characters, even her minor ones, are unimaginably complex, realistic, and memorable. Each one is given a voice, a history, a goal, a purpose. No one is extraneous and no one is thoroughly unlikable. Some of the standouts in Dark Road to Darjeeling are the mysterious White Rajah, the odd Cassandra Pennyfeather, and the inebriate Dr. Llewellyn. My favorite, however, is Cassandra's nature-loving son, Robin. Reminiscent of L'Engle's Charles Wallace (A Wrinkle in Time), the young Robin quickly endears himself to the reader because of his intelligence, his maturity, and his sweet nature.

Of course, some of Raybourn's usual characters show up, namely, Julia's sister Portia, her brother Plum, and Portia's ex-lover, Jane. These familiar faces are welcome in such a strange land with such a strange cast of characters and the plot line focusing on Jane's widowhood, impending motherhood, and reconnection with Portia is beautifully written. Having always been a fan of Portia and Jane's relationship, especially in such an uptight era as the Victorian age, I was devastated to learn that Jane had left and even more so to discover that she had married. Watching the two of them together again was comforting and the fact that I personally cared about Jane's well-being made the mystery of who had murdered her husband even more of a pressing issue than if it had been a new character or one that I didn't particularly like.

While we are on the subject, I will reiterate again what I think is one of Raybourn's biggest strengths: she always keeps you guessing. I stopped reading mystery novels when I started being able to tell, within the first half of the book, who had done it. After four Lady Julia novels, I have gotten better at discerning who the killer might be...but usually only about ten or twenty pages before it's revealed. Even still, I am never quite sure until it's finally confirmed. The end of Silent in the Grave had me literally gasping because I had never suspected the real killer for an instant. Dark Road to Darjeeling had me silently begging that my guess was wrong...which, sadly, it wasn't. In all of her novels, Raybourn deftly assembles a cast of characters, each with a possible motive, and then tangles their stories up in knots as Julia and Brisbane try to figure it all out, leaving the reader anxious to know because he or she seriously has no idea. It is telling of her skill that this is the case, especially in an age of cookie cutter murder mysteries and episodes of crime dramas where it's usually the first or second person that they interrogate. Anyone looking for a real mystery should definitely give these novels a try.

Everything about this novel is enjoyable: her sense of humor, her ability to juxtapose the lightness of life and the darkness of death, her vivid descriptions that create the locations her characters visit in your head as clearly as if you were standing beside them. You can smell the mountain air, taste the pungent tea, hear the roar of the tiger. Very few authors immerse you so fully into an environment without long, wordy descriptions; Raybourn is one of the most skillful at doing so.

The last thing I would like to note is how well she follows tragedy with comedy within this novel. It has a truly tragic ending, one that I didn't foresee and which touched me deeply. Yet, only about five pages later she has you laughing again, not forgetting what you have just read but allowing you a respite from the grief that the characters (and the reader) feel. It is the resolution of the catharsis that gives the reader a satisfying feeling even after such a crushing blow has been delivered.

I'm giving Dark Road to Darjeeling 5 out of 5 stars. This is one series which I believe anyone (regardless of age, race, gender, or reading preferences) can enjoy. If a sci-fi-loving guy like me can fall in love with these books, I'd bet that most people could, too.


PS: Here's a link to Deanna's website and blog. I'm also giving her her own tag because, let's face it, she's one of the only authors other than Neil Gaiman that I talk about on a regular basis.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

An Extraordinary Job Promotion: A Review of Piers Anthony's On A Pale Horse

Title: On a Pale Horse
Author: Piers Anthony
Edition: Paperback
Publisher: Ballantine Books (1983)
Pages: 325
How I Came by This Book: Jo from Fluidity of Time suggested that I read this book way back in May when I had asked for book recommendations in various and sundry categories. I recently picked a used copy up at Barnes and Noble for $2, along with a few other random sci-fi/fantasy books.
Challenges: Read Your Own Books Challenge; GoodReads 2011 Reading Challenge

Synopsis: Shooting Death was a mistake, as Zane soon discovered. For the man who killed the Incarnation of Death was immediately forced to assume the vacant position! Thereafter, he must speed over the world, riding his pale horse, and ending the lives of others.

Zane was forced to accept his unwelcome task, despite the rules that seemed woefully unfair. But then he found himself being drawn into an evil plot of Satan. Already the Prince of Evil was forging a trap in which Zane must act to destroy Luna, the woman he loved.

He could see only one possible way to defeat the Father of Lies. It was unthinkable--but he had no other solution!

Review: I'm a sucker for books with Death as the main character. Whether he's been in the job for years (e.g. Discworld) or just assuming the position (as with this book), I find the anthropomorphic personification of Death to be one of the most fascinating characters in fiction. With On a Pale Horse, Piers Anthony creates a new narrative surrounding a character as old as time...and pulls it off with only a few minor hitches.

The world in this book (and the rest of the Incarnations of Immortality series, which I intend to read at some point) is much different from the world we know. In Zane's world, magic and science both work within society; it's a place where magic gems and flying carpets are just as prevalent as guns and planes. Magic is woven into the narrative and it is also integral to the plot of the story. Anthony uses it in a unique way--there are no limits to whether or not a person can use magic; everyone does it and they learn it in public schools along with other, more mundane subjects.

The main character, Zane, is a man with a problem--he's gambled his money away, has lost the woman he loved, and feels guilty for helping to end his mother's life. One night he decides to end it all, but, as he starts to pull the trigger, Death comes to collect him and Zane shoots him instead. Fate arrives to inform Zane that he's the new Death and that he better get on with collecting souls...because the fate of his own soul depends on how well he performs his job.

In this novel, just as science and magic intertwine, so does religion. God and Satan are very real forces, with Satan leading a PR campaign on Earth in an attempt to garner more souls. It is Death's job to collect and judge the souls that are completely in balance--half good and half evil--to determine whether they should go to Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. Along the way, Zane meets the other Incarnations--Fate, Nature, Time, and War--as well as a high-level magician with a beautiful daughter, Luna, who wants Zane to take personal care of her when he's dead. Which is about ten minutes after Zane meets him.

The book moves quickly through his first few weeks on the job, juggling the responsibilities of Death with his new-found (possible) love interest, Luna, and a plot by the Father of Lies that could have harmful consequences for Zane, Luna, and the rest of the world if he isn't stopped. It's fast-paced with a decent plot and some well-developed and highly-likeable characters.

Zane is an Everyman who is thrust into a seemingly impossible situation whom the reader comes to like and root for as his story progresses. Luna, although somewhat of a wooden character, grows on you after a fashion. The other Incarnations, the little you see of them, are great characters who tie everything together nicely, answering all of the questions that the reader has at the beginning of Zane's ordeal. Satan is an interesting character, although a little predictable, and he doesn't have the uniqueness that books like Death: A Life or Hell give him. All in all, he's rather forgettable, to be honest.

I ended up really liking this book, but there were a few weakness that I feel need to be addressed. The first is the dialogue. Some of it was pretty decent, but a lot of it seemed very out of place in modern society. There were phrases that didn't quite mesh with the world that he was creating and that would have worked much better in a novel set in, say, the Middle Ages. A lot of the dialogue was also needlessly wordy. There were several soliloquies by minor characters (like the school nurse trying to explain to Zane why one little boy's soul had so much evil in it) that dragged on and were awkward to read. Much more could have been said in fewer words.

The second problem I had with this novel was how "issue-y" it was. In my review of Part Three of A Canticle for Leibowitz, I had complained that the book got too preachy at the end on the issue of assisted suicide. On a Pale Horse is preachy throughout its entirety, just at the opposite end of the issue. Piers Anthony is obviously a proponent of a person's right to die and I don't disagree with him. I'm a strong supporter of people's ability to choose to end their life or to designate themselves as a DNR in the case of an accident or other debilitating condition. But I don't appreciate being hit over the head with someone's viewpoint repeatedly...even if it's a viewpoint that I agree with. Way too much of this book was dedicated to the issue and it just became repetitive after a while. I was, frankly, bored with the topic by the time the book ended.

Other than that, I found this book to be an enjoyable read and an interesting new take on Death as a fictional character. Neither the dialogue nor the preachiness took too much away from the novel and the characters were likable enough that I'd be interested in reading the rest of the series.

I'm giving On a Pale Horse 4 out of 5 Gabriels.


Monday, August 8, 2011

It's Monday, What Are You Reading?

"Guess who's back (back, back)?
Back again ('gain, 'gain).
Gabe is back (back, back).
Tell a friend (friend, friend)."

That's right, boys and girls. I'm actually posting something. Please, please, hold your applause.

July was an insanely crappy month in which I barely did anything on this blog and ended up not meeting any of my challenge goals...at all. Here's hoping August is a *lot* better.

So, it's Monday and, for the first time in way too long, that means it's time for "It's Monday! What Are You Reading?," hosted by Sheila at Book Journey. I can once again tell you all what I've been reading, what I am reading, and what I will be reading.

What I Read Last Week:

-On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony (review posted tomorrow)

What I'm Reading Now:

-Failed States by Noam Chomsky
-Dark Road to Darjeeling by Deanna Raybourn

What I'm Reading This Week:

-Perelandra by C.S. Lewis
-Where do Comedians Go When They Die?: Journeys of a Stand-Up by Milton Jones
-Incarceron by Catherine Fisher
-Bossypants by Tina Fey

If I get a chance to work on my blog tomorrow (meaning: if I get a chance to get to the library), I'll be updating some stuff that hasn't been updated in several weeks...if not longer.

Look for my review of On a Pale Horse tomorrow!


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The "Books I Should Have Read By Now" August Link-Up

Hello, challenge participants:

Here's the link-up for August for the "Books I Should Have Read By Now" Challenge. Post links to any and all reviews that you're doing for this month here.

Anyone who still wants to sign up can do so here.

Anyone who still has links to post for July can do so here.

Happy reading!