Tara Calaby

writer, editor & phd candidate

Tag: humour

Review: Does My Bum Look Big In This? – Arabella Weir

Does My Bum Look Big In This? book coverI picked this book up years ago, because I’m a big fan of ‘The Fast Show’, even if the ‘Does My Bum Look Big in This?’ sketches aren’t among my favourites. Arabella Weir is a very capable comedian and this shows through in her writing, with several scenes in the book provoking audible snorts. The question, however, is whether a fairly limited premise – a protagonist with cripplingly low self esteem – can comfortably support an entire novel. For the first hundred or so pages of Does My Bum Look Big In This?, it doesn’t seem like this is the case, but there is more character development and action in the second half, meaning that there is less reliance on the tiring joke of an attractive woman who just can’t see that’s what she is.

I think my key difficulty with Does My Bum Look Big In This?, however, is the fact that it’s a little too realistic to be enjoyable reading. It’s hard to be amused by a self-destructive internal monologue that bears a little too much resemblance to my own negative thought patterns. While I can definitely appreciate the accuracy of the protagonist’s voice, and the consistency of her characterisation, I didn’t gain a lot of enjoyment from the novel. Some things just hit a little too close to home.

That said, I think that a lot of fans of humorous chick lit will find plenty to enjoy in Does My Bum Look Big In This? There’s an interesting supporting cast, complete with a caddish ex, a likeable new love interest and a large circle of friends, family, neighbours and workmates. It’s told in diary form, so is a light and easy read, and is laugh-out-loud funny in places. One for readers who can empathise with feelings of insecurity – but perhaps not for readers who are overwhelmed by them.

Review: Beauty Queens – Libba Bray

When a plane full of teenage beauty pageant contestants crashes on a seemingly-deserted island, the survivors are forced to trade their high heels for survival techniques, while they wait for the inevitable rescue plane or ship. Their efforts, however, are complicated by the top secret compound hidden in the island’s volcano and by the fact that a powerful foe doesn’t want them to return home at all.

I expected to love Beauty Queens, especially as there was so much positive buzz surrounding its release. A satire about beauty pageant participants being stranded on a desert island – how could it be anything but wonderful? Unfortunately, I cannot be counted among the book’s many fans. I found it disappointing, boring and often annoying and I shall attempt to explain why.

Satire is a difficult art and, I suspect, a highly subjective one. There is a fine line between cleverness and cliché and, for me, Libba Bray’s novel fell on the wrong side of this line. The trouble with intentionally writing in an over the top style is that it often has the same outcome as the very style one is mocking – poor writing. If a book is badly written for humorous effect, it is still badly written, and that can become very grating in a book as long as this one. I also question the originality of Bray’s satire. Is there anything new in portraying foreign dictators as ineffectual buffoons, blonde beauty queens as intellectual black holes or television corporations as brain washers of the general populace? Or anything clever, for that matter?

One of the things I found most disapointing about Beauty Queens was its characters. The surviving beauties are a collection of stereotypes – from the tomboyish, delinquent lesbian to the gun-toting, pageant-obsessed Texan and right through to the wild girl with strong sexual appetites and the trans woman who just wants to be a beautiful princess. Such a focus on character types leaves the characters themselves very one-dimensional and it is hard to care much about their individual stories. In addition, I didn’t think Beauty Queens was very successful if it were attempting to subvert these stereotypes; if anything, they felt perpetuated.

A lot of people have spoken about the relation between Beauty Queens and feminism, and I agree that it seems to be promoting a Girl Power kind of message. I have my doubts about the validity of the feminist message here, however. The novel doesn’t feel sex-positive so much as sex-imperative (with multiple readers feeling mocked for holding more conservative views than those the book appears to promote) and there is an emphasis on finding men and on appearances that doesn’t feel entirely satirical. The thing that grated on me personally, though, was the way that Bray put across her message – with a sledgehammer. It felt like she didn’t trust her (mostly female) audience to find truths within a subtly didactic plot.

Then again, nothing is subtle here and, in the long run, that was the key thing that ensured I could not enjoy Beauty Queens. It is over the top, always transparent and predictable, and more than a little hackneyed. I think that was entirely Libba Bray’s intention, so I cannot fault her for it, but the execution just didn’t work for me and I was left feeling like I’d wasted too many hours wading through four hundred-odd pages of a joke that tired after forty.

Review: The Caldecott Chronicles – R.G. Bullet

The Caldecott Chronicles book coverOne hundred years after the death of the Earl of Rothshire, his great great granddaughter released his account of the strange goings on that occurred on his property in 1896. in a series of letters to his son, he recounts the story of his battles with the undead that have taken over his estate and the surrounding area.

The Caldecott Chronicles is a fun novella that combines two of my favourite things: the Victorian era and zombies. They actually fit together surprisingly well, due in part to the fantastic voice of R.G Bullet’s protagonist, Radclyffe. As well as being full of wonderfully dry humour, Radclyffe’s letters are written in a style that feels surprisingly authentic, given the subject matter of the book.

Radclyffe is portrayed very much as the lord of the manor, although his character grows and becomes less snobbish as the book progresses. Always very aware of his position in society, he is also taken to brief reminiscence about his military past. The epistolary style of the novella cleverly allows for Radclyffe to award the reader a glimpse of personal and family history without an overwhelming backstory.

The development of Saffy’s character is limited a little by The Caldecott Chronicles‘s strong focus on Radclyffe’s perspective, but the reader is nonethless shown a spirited and interesting girl who seems to thrive in the unusual conditions into which she is thrust. In age, nature and class, she is the perfect foil for Radclyffe and adds a good deal of life to what might otherwise be a narrative-heavy book.

The undead themselves are wonderfully described. Squeamish readers may shudder a little at Radclyffe’s accounts of shattered bones and splattering bodies, but I personally enjoyed the particularly gruesome detailing of the decay the creatures have undergone. What can I say – I grew up on horror!

Although this is the first of several ‘excerpts’ from Radclyffe’s letters, the story is left at an appropriate point and doesn’t leave the reader feeling disgruntled. They will want to read on, but this is due to the clever voice and fun universe, not to a frustrating cliff-hanger.

Overall, The Caldecott Chronicles is a quick read and an enjoyable one. Recommended for lovers of zombies in unexpected places.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Chief Wiggum’s Book of Crime and Punishment – Matt Groening

Chief Wiggum's Book of Crime and Punishment book coverChief Wiggum’s Book of Crime and Punishment is one of a series of The Simpsons books that focus on individual characters. It’s highly illustrated and includes such things as ‘Chief Wiggum’s Top 40’ (and Bottom 40), comics, case files and TV scripts.

The books in the Simpsons Library of Wisdom series are a little hit and miss at times. The Ralph Wiggum one is extremely amusing in places and the Homer one is quite character-appropriate, so I was pleased when one of the most recent books involved another one of my favourite characters, Chief Wiggum. I found my copy in the UK, and dragged it all the way back to Australia with me, looking forward to reading it.

Unfortunately, Chief Wiggum’s Book of Crime and Punishment does not live up to the standards set by some of the earlier volumes in the series. The serialised comic strip is unfunny and dull and a lot of the pages are dominated by large pictures with very little accompanying text. More to the point, however, none of the content feels particularly original. A lot of the time, the only thing that marks this as a Simpsons book is the illustration.

There are a couple of likeable pages here, but overall my impression was one of disinterest and sometimes even boredom. Unless you’re a die-hard Chief Wiggum fan (and possibly particularly if you’re a die hard Chief Wiggum fan), I would recommend starting with one of the other titles if you’re new to the Library of Wisdom.

Review: Withering Tights – Louise Rennison

Tallulah has travelled to the wilds of the North to attend a performing arts college for the summer. Her grand plans of boys, shopping and stardom, however, are dented a little when she finds herself in a tiny village in the Yorkshire Dales with no Boots, but plenty of sheep and curious locals. Her teachers at Dother Hall are less-than-awed by her singing, dancing, acting and artistic skills, but at least she’s making friends. And, even in the country, there is always the possibility of a first snog to be had…

If you’re familiar with Louise Rennison’s Georgia Nicolson series, you won’t find anything very surprising in Withering Tights. Rennison has a new protagonist, in a new location, but the style of her new series is very much in keeping with her last. Fans are unlikely to be alienated by the changes but, on the other hand, after ten Georgia books, they are also unlikely to be very excited by more of the same.

Tallulah Casey is certainly a protagonist of the Georgia Nicolson ilk. Clever, witty and attractive, she is also awkward and insecure about her looks. Like many fourteen-year-old girls, her key focus in life is boys – or, more accurately, the quest to snag her very first snog. However, her too-long legs and distinct lack of corkers (that’s breasts, for the uninitiated) seem to present the greatest obstacle to her goal.

As with Georgia (and her nose issues), Tallulah’s body image is distinctly flawed, as becomes apparent once she begins to attract the attention of the local boys. Such authentic depiction of teenage insecurities and the inaccurate self-image that accompanies them is one of the greatest strengths of Rennison’s work. Her teenage girls always read like teenage girls.

Tallulah is surrounded by a cast of similarly amusing characters, from the dry-witted local girl Ruby to the short-but-tough Jo. As can be expected from Rennison, there are also plenty of potential love-interests for Tallulah, some more ill-advised than others. Readers are sure to find at least one possible suitor to support!

My difficulty with Withering Tights lies in its similarity to Rennison’s past work. While reading, I often found myself equating characters with counterparts in the Georgia Nicolson books. For many, the similarities between this new series and Rennison’s first one would be considered a positive. However, after reading all of the Georgia books, I was ready for something new.

Despite its lack of originality, Withering Tights is nonetheless an entertaining read. Rennison is a master of the silly and the absurd and her latest offering provides all the fun and foolishness that her fans have grown to expect.

Review: The Decameron – Giovanni Boccaccio

The Decameron book cover“Nature proves it to us very plainly, for she has made [women] soft and fragile of body, timid and fearful of heart, compassionate and benign of disposition, and has furnished us with meagre physical strength, pleasing voices, and gently moving limbs. All of which shows that we need to be governed by others; and it stands to reason that those who need to be aided and governed must be submissive, obedient, and deferential to their benefactors and governors. But who are the governors and benefactors of us women, if they are not our menfolk?”

With Florence in the grip of the Black Death of 1348, a group of seven women and three men retire to the countryside to escape the sickness and spend time in relaxation and frivolity. While there, they spend much of their days telling each other stories, ranging from very moral to very bawdy and from devious to munificent. Over ten days of storytelling, one hundred diverse tales are told.

The Decameron is a daunting book to pick up, given that it’s over eight hundred and thirty pages of 14th century writing. What’s more, it’s an equally daunting book to review, as it’s essentially a collection of short stories and it seems insufficient to review the whole – but just plain foolish to review all hundred tales separately instead.

Boccaccio’s work is of great importance to the literary tradition, but for me, as a historian, it’s the social setting of the tales and their underlying belief system that is most fascinating. In a sense, the stories themselves are of no great excitement to the modern reader, beyond the fact that they prove that some things really are timeless. There is an abundance of romance, plenty of trickery, smatterings of sex and the occasional moral for good measure. Usually, the guy will get the gal, but occasionally the gal will get the guy or they’ll both die horrible deaths.

Indeed, the predictability and repetitiveness of the stories is The Decameron‘s main downfall. It’s not a book that is easy to read in one go. After a point, I made the decision to read it a day (or ten stories) at a time, reading other books in between sessions, and my enjoyment increased greatly once I put this into practice. Many of the days involve ten stories told around a single theme, which tends to highlight the similarities in the collected tales. This didn’t bother me when it came to the themes I particularly enjoyed – the two days’ worth of tales of trickery, for example – but made the less-interesting themes seem to drag even longer.

The historical value of The Decameron is utterly priceless, however. Through fiction, the modern reader can learn so much about the society and social mores of Boccaccio’s time. The way in which the clergy is described was fascinating – both in terms of corruption and active sexuality. There are descriptions of political hierarchies, occupations, social groups, marriage rites, leisure activities and family routines. Each one of these hundred stories contains so much excellent information about 14th century Italian life.

Most intriguing to me is the way in which Boccaccio portrays his female characters. The quote above is uttered by one of the seven women in the prelude to her ninth story, which is a strong encouragement to husbands to soundly beat their wives. It’s an uncomfortable piece of writing, made more so by the knowledge that it is a woman who has been chosen as the moral’s advocate. And yet, elsewhere, Boccaccio’s women act in surprising ways. Women are portrayed as being smart, brave, strong, witty, loyal and accomplished. They are shown to possess healthy sexual appetites, rather than the common extremes of animalistic urges or chaste disinterest. Throughout the book, there is an obvious conflict between the accepted boundaries for women and the actual diverse natures of women, who may just as easily laugh at bawdy tales of lustful nuns as they may assert their own virtue.

The Decameron may be a daunting book to pick up, but it is worth the time you’ll spend buried in its pages. As a work of fiction, it is witty, romantic and perceptive; as a work of history, it is invaluable.

Review: The Craggy Island Parish Magazines – Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan

The Craggy Island Parish Magazines is a book tie-in to the 1990s television programme, ‘Father Ted’. As the title suggests, it is styled as a collection of Parish Newsletters, written by Father Ted Crilly himself. Along with editorials from Father Ted and several guest columns by Mrs. Doyle are collected articles about such topics as the history of Craggy Island and (so-called) Great Priests.

As a big fan of the television series, I first read The Craggy Island Parish Magazines in the early 2000s. I wasn’t hugely excited by it but, upon discovering it on ebay earlier this year, decided to give it a second go.

The book begins well. Ted’s voice is strong and perfectly in keeping with his television persona. The concept is clever, too, and the early articles about the history of Craggy Island are just bizarre enough to feel like the true history of this fictional place. However, the reading experience dulls as the book progresses. Repeated inclusions, such as Jim Sullivan’s sketches, soon tire, and the second half of the book feels less like a true tie-in and more like a collection of odd writings. (‘The Miraculous Power of Eggs’ is a key example.)

Most of all, though, the book suffers from a lack of content involving the fantastic characters that make the television show what it is. Ted is there, certainly, but there are only a few mentions of Jack and Dougal. Bishop Brennan gets one tiny post-script.

I love a good TV tie-in, but The Craggy Island Parish Magazines left me wanting something more. It’s a pleasant enough way of spending an hour or so, but a couple of episodes of the original programme would be a better choice.

Review: Three Men in a Boat – Jerome K. Jerome

I think my expectations for this were a little too high, simply because both of my parents adore it. It was an easy, entertaining read, but not exactly as life-changingly incredible as I had been led to expect 😉

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