The Snow In The Summer or So-So

Book reviews for 2017

Annuals for 2017

Four years after the print comic closed, Dandy books have become slightly predictable. Familiar characters in slapstick comedy routines, usually telling a complete story in a page or less.

It's the same this year, with popular culture features like "The Great Dandy Bake Off" and "Sickly Come Dancing". There's a nod to the comic's adventure story past with "Secret Agent Sally" - jokes are second to the plot.

And some new characters arrive: Bad Grandad is an out-of-control OAP, while Pepperoni Pig delivers pizza and gets the better of the wolf, The latter is a superb idea, executed with style and panache (and extra tomato). Overall, as good as recent editions but no better.

There's a very simple idea running through this year's Beano book: this year's book. From New Year to Christmas, the book tells stories in a simple order. There's some crossover from one story to the next, though nothing more complex - Minnie's actions on Valentine's Day don't come back to haunt her on Hallowe'en, for instance.

As usual, the stories are just on the right side of surreal, with moral endings and plenty of good food to the deserving. It's a difficult task to try and tell a year, and they've done well to make it look so effortless.

We also read Raiders of the Lost Archive, a compilation of strips from weekly comics and annuals.

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Tim WORTHINGTON's Bookshelf

Four books from a leading writer on popular culture. And by "popular", we mean "they might have been popular once, but certainly not now".

Not On Your Telly and ...Camberwick Green cover some of the dustier corners of televison. The former is for shows that have been forgotten - BBC1's Sunday Classics, "The Space Pirates" on Dr Who, Rubovia. The latter is wider pop culture, ranging from Rubik's Magic to Bowie on tv and torture porn on "Battle of the Planets".

Worthington has a welcome writing style, somewhere between avid fanboy and diligent chronicler. The graphic design of Camberwick Green is meant to evoke a mood: we found it distracted from the main content.

No such design flaws in Top of the Box, a complete chronicle of the singles released by BBC Records and its imprints. It's a whistle-stop tour around the BBC schedules of the early 1980s.

All the books are good: Fun at One is absolutely excellent. A review of comedy programmes on Radio 1, starting with Kenny Everett, progressing through Lenny Henry and Adrian Juste. Much of the book focusses on the comedy strand from 1988-95, with the highs and lows dissected. Fair but never fawning, Worthington dishes out praise and gentle rebuke like the engaged fan he is.

Such is that standard of research that Fun at One is likely the definitive account of the shows it covers.

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Dougie BRINSON (ed) - Rebellion

An uneven collection of tales about football fans who don't like their club's owners.

The main tales - Charlton at The Valley (1985-92), Brighton Stadium (1994-), Wimbledon and Milton Keynes (1996-04), the West Ham bond (1991-2) and Manchester United (1998-04) are interspersed with shorter vignettes. Remember Thames Valley Royals? Exactly.

After a while, the stories begin to merge into one. All boards are bad, all supporters are good, except for the ones who are violent. We get a lot of similar tales, and a few differences to compare success and failure.

Brimson ends the book with a call to action, to set up a protest political party. From the viewpoint of 2017, this looks bizarre: we've seen that parliament is useless and cannot represent a challenge to the establshment. Focussed action is the way forward.

Some of the writing is good. Some of it is sloppy, and a number of solecisms slipped through to the final book. By presenting the tales as different pieces by different writers, there's no effort to bring the strands together. We don't see what the West Ham campaign learned from the recent Charlton action, and that's a missed opportunity.

Some of the conclusions have come to pass: Charlton have settled into their ground, West Ham only left their stadium when given a bung. Others have not: Bournemouth weren't satisfied with third-tier mediocrity, and are now top-tier makeweights. Wimbledon have risen to Division 3, Manchester United have stalled in 6 North.

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Ali CRONIN - Skins The Novel

What the second class got up to on their summer break.

Cronin has a good understanding of the characters. As an official publication, she's got access to their innermost thoughts - what makes them tick, how they would react to stressful situations.

Our problem: Cronin doesn't have their voices. All of the diary entries have a similar style, there's only a superficial attempt to replicate the inner monologues. Only Effy's unconscious seduction of Aldo moves beyond exposition. There's no effort to explore why Katie would seek out Effy; last time they met, Effy banged Katie over the head with a rock.

The action is unremarkable. Cook and Freddie have a sex contest, with JJ appointed judge. Emily and Katie are taken off with their family, and have a row. Pandora and Thomas grow up, and Naomi has her doubts.

Did this foreshadow anything in the main series? Aldo is directly mentioned in passing, Katie's increasing desperation and Naomi's unease resonate. But our main takeaway is that Skins again kills off an interesting character for kicks.

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Nicholas PARSONS - Welcome to Just a Minute!

An authorised history of radio's panel game.

Parsons tells his tale of Just a Minute, from inception to 2014. The historical narrative is split into decades, and gives some insight into reasons why the programme changed as it did.

Much of the page count is taken up by transcripts from the show. These quotes are apposite to the points Parsons is making, and are entertaining in their own right.

After seeing the title, you'll know if you like this book. Fans of the radio show will love it, those who would rather not hear the show won't get anything from the book.

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David AARONOVITCH - Voodoo Histories

Scepticism should cut both ways. If it's too complicated to send men to the moon, how more complex is it to fake the effort?

That's the thrust of David Aaronovitch's book, which sets out its style in the first chapter. Aaronovitch explores the claims of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion", discusses how they altered society, and only then gives evidence that the document is a fake.

Patient and merciless, Aaronovitch explores many conspiracy theories - Stalin's show trials, JFK, Princess Diana, David Kelly, and Barack Obama's birth. He exposes them all, without emotion, without mercy.

Reading some years later, we have two takeaways. The one Aaronovitch intended: conspiracy theories themselves are piffle, the real danger comes from the bullshit effect. To acknowledge this nonsense takes effort, and cedes discussion to the conspiraloons, who can then move the conversation in their preferred direction. The combination of conspiracy nut and influencer leads to insufferable decisions.

The other takeaway is the dog that doesn't bark. Aaronovitch writes about the death of David Kelly, but doesn't write on the previous conspiracy theory. There's no mention of the "weapons of mass destruction", a complete bullshit myth peddled by people who should have known it was false. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was the result of a conspiracy theory, and Aaronovitch's book is weaker for ignoring it.

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Frank BOUGH - Cue Frank

Frank Bough reflects on his career to this point. And, by "this point", we mean Grandstand and Nationwide circa 1980. From his roots in Oswestry, through an apprenticeship in Newcastle, a dozen years fronting sport, and almost as long on current affairs. The book reflects his public persona: the majority is sport, with current affairs relegated to the last 50 pages or so.

We enjoyed a reconstruction of a live edition of Grandstand: though we don't recall the boat race / rugby match of 1979, we can almost taste it through the pages. Bough is heavy on the mechanics of his day-to-day work: how Grandstand and Nationwide get made. He's lighter on anecdote, though the tales he does tell are crackers.

The book ends with an interesting coda: it feels that he's ready to move on, and explore new frontiers of television. Wanderlust had struck, and if he hadn't been offered Breakfast Time, might ITV have beckoned?

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Bethany GRIFFIN - Masque of the Red Death

Remember the Edgar Allen Poe short story, where Prince Prospero locks himself away from his city during a plague? Remember Punchdrunk's theatre performance of this story, set inside the party? Griffin's book is a prequel to both of these.

Our hero is Araby Worth, the daughter of a scientist. She's throwing herself into a life of debauchery. Literally: she spends many nights at the Debauchery Club, a haven of sex and drugs and creepy old men. The Contagion is an airbourne disease, but can be kept at bay by masks.

Bethany Griffin builds a strong atmosphere - from the first chapter, we can feel the crushed velvet, and feel the sense of hopelessness in Araby's life. Her best friend is April, and she has a brother, Elliot.

Elliot plots to lead a revolution. See, only rich people can afford masks - that's Prospero's bidding - and Elliot wants to spread the cure elsewhere. But Elliot is a blighter, he wants to bed Araby, and presents her to Prospero as his fiancée. Prospero has a history with Araby's mother, Araby's father invented the masks, and her twin brother died after being infected with the plague.

As seems typical in young adult literature, there's a love triangle. Will, a bouncer at the club, has two adorable siblings. All three capture Araby's heart and sympathies.

The plot is sketchy. Straight after meeting Elliott, Araby steals documents for his revolution. What is she convinced by - his cause, his physique, plot phlebotnum? Araby's own motivations are handwaved away - she's made a vow to herself, not to experience anything her dead brother wouldn't have experienced. If this is a post-traumatic stress response, it's inconsistently applied.

The setting is implausible. Seven years on, a 100% fatality rate, and The Contagion is still a thing? The statistics do not support such a claim, even given "carriers" living in marshes. "Steamcars" and "balloons" and "tunnels" suggest a steampunk environment, but with high towers. Araby's "drug trips" are exceptionally poor writing, drugs only make her sleep.

Griffin captures the atmosphere, and that includes the overpowering smell of hopelessness near the end of the book. When good people have nothing to lose, when the powerful are breaking the world, we will do desperate things.

But there are better things to do than this book. The ending is a blatant cliffhanger, setting up the sequel (effectively, a re-telling of Poe's work from the view of some guests.) It's formulaic, and feels like it's the mutant offspring of Poe and Hunger Games Mockingbird. The closing twist just left us thinking, meh.

We remember Punchdrunk's theatre production after ten years: it rattled around inside this blog's head for months afterwards. We won't remember Bethany Griffin's book with such affection, if at all. It's not dark, it's not unexpected, it's not sexy, it's not dangerous.

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Reviewed this year

Beano Book 2017, Dundee: DC Thompson, 2016, pp 112, ISBN 978-1-84535-605-7
Dandy Book 2017, Dundee: DC Thompson, 2016, pp 112, ISBN 978-1-84535-603-3
AARONOVITCH, David Voodoo Histories How Conspiracy Theory has Shaped Modern History, London: Vintage, 2010, pp390, ISBN 978-0-099-47896-6
BRINSON, Dougie (ed) Rebellion, London: John Blake Publishing, 2006, pp302, ISBN 1-84454-288-2
BOUGH, Frank Cue Frank!, London: Queen Anne Press, 1980, pp 192, ISBN 0362-00519-2
CRONIN, Ali Skins The Novel, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2010, pp 264, ISBN 978-1-444-90004-0
GRIFFIN, Bethany The Masque of the Red Death, London: Indigo, 2012, pp 324, ISBN 978-1-78062-122-7
PARSONS, Nicholas Welcome to Just a Minute A celebration of the Best-Loved Radio Comedy, Edinburgh: Canongate, 2014, pp 464, ISBN 978-1-78211-247-1
WORTHINGTON, Tim Fun at One self-published, 2012, pp 252
WORTHINGTON, Tim Not On Your Telly self-published, 2014, pp 96
WORTHINGTON, Tim Top of the Box self-published, 2015, pp 96
WORTHINGTON, Tim The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society self-published, 2016, pp 192