The Road To Gandolfo

Robert Ludlum

Originally published under a pseudonym, The Road To Gandolfo is unusual for Ludlum in that it's a comedy novel.  And, as such, I find it much more appealing that his serious thrillers, and it's the book of his that I've re-read the most times.

The plot concerns an epic con undertaken by an ex-Army General.  It's not particularly intricate but there's lots of entertaining detail.  And it's not too heavyweight, either - unlike such back-breakers like the Jason Bourne novels.

All in all, one of his lesser known books but worth finding.


Don't You Know Who I Am?

Piers Morgan

Pretty much everything I know about Piers Morgan repels me. Obviously, as an ex-editor of the News Of The World, he is already highly morally suspect (and, let's be honest, that would have been true even without the phone hacking revelations this year) and any reading of his activities, both as a newspaper editor and as a TV celebrity, does little to dispel this.

Given all this, I'm not sure why I bothered with the book.  It was cheap - about a quid at Oxfam - and I was curious.

It's a diary of his life and covers the period in his life between getting sacked as editor of The Daily Mirror and being appointed as a judge on America's Got Talent.  The same period also roughly - and presumably coincidentally - covers the time between separating from his first wife and starting a relationship with the woman who became his second.

The theme of the book is celebrity.  Morgan, casting around for a way of earning a living, decides that he would like to become a celebrity and work in television.  The book discusses the ways he attempts this.  This includes a flop current affairs programme, Morgan and Platell (which was modelled on those tiresome US-style programmes that pits opposing views).  I was surprised to read that Morgan was supposed to be the left-wing viewpoint in this setup.

Despite all of this, the book is an entertaining read.  Piers Morgan is clearly not a stupid man and neither is he devoid of self-knowledge.  What he chooses to do with that intelligence and self-awareness is a bit depressing but amusing to read about.


"How I Escaped My Certain Fate"

The Life And Deaths Of A Stand-Up Comedian by Stuart Lee

It seems like all comedians produce books now - I guess it's just another aspect of the revenue stream for them. I haven't read any because I'm not that interested in them as people and I don't really find many of them truly funny - at least, not the famous ones.

Stuart Lee doesn't find many of them funny either, although he is happy to admit that he used to find them funny before they became famous. One of the threads running through the book is about the unrecognised trailblazers who have fearlessly broken comedic ground in dives around the country. He thinks Johnny Vegas is a genius, for example; not for his television appearances but his live performances.

Anyway, what we have here is not a life history of Stuart Lee, although it does cover some of his recent past. At its core it is three of his recent shows/routines, transcribed and heavily annotated, and interspersed with lengthy and entertaining essays about what he was trying to do, the points he was trying to make and what effect he was trying to achieve.

The book starts with him attempting to reinvent his stage persona after he realised that he had become predictable (and also after he discovered that Ricky Gervais had essentially appropriated it for his own stage persona). He discusses the way comedy works - or how his comedy works - and goes back to some of his inspirations and heroes. It then covers the next several years of routines, visits to the Edinburgh fringe and his attempts to get something on telly (not his favourite medium, clearly, but one that pays a lot more than touring).

I haven't seen Stuart Lee live but a quick search on YouTube gives us plenty to look at (e.g. excerpts from his show "41st Best Standup", one of the routines in the book), and it hardly needs mentioning that the routines are a lot funnier to watch than written down on paper, but they're still pretty good to read.

He also discusses in detailed footnotes why he does something. Here he does a bit about Richard Littlejohn chiseling words on a gravestone; he does the sound effect of the chiseling by knocking the microphone on the stand. In the book he mentions that he would entertain himself by seeing how long he could draw out the sound effect without losing the crowd.

The book is a very interesting read from the perspective of the craft of comedy, and not just a funny book - even if it is a way of making more money from existing material. Although there's so much more in this book than the routines, so that's probably a little unfair. Recommended, and I'll take the time to look for more of his stuff.


"The Princess Diaries"

by Meg Cabot

For a six-year-old girl, anything with the word "princess" in the title is like a magnet. K loves all the Disney princesses - Aurora, Ariel, Belle and so on - and she has the dresses to prove it (all gratefully received donations; do you know how much those things cost?) But this is a Disney princess she's not going to meet for a little while, I think.

I first came across the film rather than the book and to be honest it initially struck me as another routine Pygmalion story (see also: "She's All That" etc etc) in which a previously unremarkable girl turns out to be beautiful. The hook here, of course, is that the normal teenage girl is, like, a real princess!

Anyway, the film is actually rather sweet; Julie Andrews is marvellous, obviously, and Anne Hathaway is very cute (and even here, clearly on her way to becoming the Major Babe she is now). So when I came across the book and its sequel (The Princess Diaries: Take Two) for sale for 10p each in the library, I thought they'd be an excellent present for K. I'll just have a quick read first ...

And, it has to be said, the books are pretty good - but not something I'd give to a six-year-old. The diarist - Mia - is fourteen and concerned about teenage things. Reasonably real teenage things, like worrying about her period and when is she going to get breasts and whether her (single) mum is going to sleep with her new boyfriend, who just happens to be Mia's algebra teacher.

It's light reading, enjoyable and well suited to teens and slightly younger - but not a six-year-old. I'll hang on to the books for when K is a little older.


"Attack Of The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks"

by Christopher Brookmyre

Another entertaining satire from my favourite author - ever!  This time the targets are quacks, pseudo-scientists and "alternative" medicalists.  It's a bit like a fictional version of Ben Goldacre's Bad Science column (and highly recommended book), although the bibliography lists older books in the same vein, particularly James "The Amazing" Randi's exposés of quackery and fraudsters (here's an excellent talk at TED 2007) and Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things.

The book stars Jack Parlabane again, is set in Scotland again and features a psychic involved in setting up a chair at a Scottish university to study the paranormal and supernatural. In the course of the story, Brookmyre reveals many of the techniques used by such charlatans. But that doesn't take away from the plot of the story as a thriller, complete - of course - with a number of deaths. Although, to be fair, fewer than usual in a Brookmyre novel. All as tightly plotted and tautly narrated as ever.

The unsinkable ducks, by the way, is Randi's term for the irrational beliefs and their pedlars that survive in our supposedly scientific society.