I really really liked this novel.
It is set in the 60s, and opens as Barbara Parker realises she can't face a whole year being Miss Blackpool, and hands back the title in order to pursue her dream of showbusiness, and comedy in particular.
She idolises Lucille Ball, but doesn't find it easy, at first, to find like minded comedy fans in London, sharing a grim flat and working in a department store. She starts to buy The Stage and force herself to go to auditions: through good luck, she stumbles into a starring role in a half hour "Comedy Playhouse" written by two friends, Bill and Tony, and produced by Dennis. These four, along with the co-star Clive, become the central characters of the novel as the sitcom, Barbara (and Jim), becomes a mainstream BBC hit in the era of 3 channel television.
Barbara adopts the stage name of Sophie Straw (although her character is Barbara). She is a prodigious comic talent, and has TV-friendly good looks, which make her a 60s celebrity, but she doesn't find celebrity entirely easy. The novel focuses on the lives of the main characters, with more of a focus on Sophie / Barbara and on Tony, as the series goes through the stages of being a huge hit then the inevitable decline. The characters have to deal with their feelings about working firmly in the mainstream - much as it pays the rent very effectively.
I don't know much about TV behind the scenes, then or now, so the whole thing has the ring of truth for me, and I really enjoyed reading about the whole process and the underlying tensions. It drew on many real people and events of the time, using the context of other successful shows such as Till Death Us Do Part and real people like Harold Wilson and Marcia Williams.
I liked the fact that it was a light read but it wasn't genre fiction and it didn't draw on cliches or stereotypes as light reading often does. It dealt well with the restrictions felt by women at the time, and also by gay men, without making the characters into crusaders: they were as much shaped by their environment as everyone else. It's clear that Hornby has done his research, and also that he can (and does) write for TV, because the excerpts of the actual sitcom had great dialogue.
I just think it's a shame that I can't now go and watch Barbara (and Jim) on Youtube!
By Blodwyn Pigs Might Fly
Well, if Marcus Berkmann's book is the "Fever Pitch of cricket", what about the "Fever Pitch of football", er...Fever Pitch?
Along with a lot of other people, I was lured into reading this allegedly seminal book a decade ago. While it is very well-written and entertaining, and from the heart, the reaction at the time to the book was perhaps more interesting than the book itself. Middle-class man of letters likes football shock! The chattering classes couldn't believe it. Coming out just a couple of years after the 1990 World Cup had persuaded a lot of people that eating prosciutto and liking football aren't mutually exclusive, the timing was perfect.
I've been a middle-class football lover for well over 30 years now, and like a lot of others felt slight resentment at the bandwagon effect that propelled Fever Pitch. So I was slightly disappointed when I read it because it had been over-hyped, and what seemed a special story to many of its readers appeared to be an everyday tale of a football supporter to me.
Martin, a disgraced TV presenter climbs to the top of Topper's Tower on New Year's Eve to kill himself. However, he is not alone. 3 others have the same plan: Maureen, a single mum who cares for her profoundly disabled son and is tired of living a non-existence, JJ a failed musician who has been dumped by his band and his girlfriend, and Jess, a young, aggressive teen whose family problems leave her angry at the world and herself. All four become allies in a prolonged suicide pact, delaying their respective suicides till they exhaust what little of their lives remain.
I read this for my RLBG, definitely not my choice, and it hasn't improved my opinion of Hornby at all. It really is lit-lite. I can't quite make out if Hornby is striving for something more profound or if he just doesn't care too much. His writing style is very simple, very conversational-y, quite blokey, and he clarifies far too much. At first the clarifications of each narrator is mildly amusing but then the device is so over-used it becomes tedious at best and at worst a hurdle to the actual point of the novel.
The most interesting character was Martin - only because he was so utterly responsible for his downfall, and quite clearly knows it, that his journey seems the biggest one to embark on.
The story alternates between each character's first person narration of the same events told. Each alternation is only a couple of pages long. I can see why Hornby used this technique, as each has their story to be told, but it ironically prohibits the reader from getting to close to any of the characters - and I actually found myself skipping bits of Jess's story because I really didn't like her as a character at all. She was a caricature of a bratty teen - with no real depth or point at all. The length of each narrator viewpoint was short enough that I knew I wasn't going to miss much.
The only amusing point was Jess telling a reporter that they all saw an angel up on the tower who told them to come down. She likens him to Matt Damon. Now, I don't know if Hornby is deliberately referencing the film Dogma here, I suspect he might be as he seems to be 'up' on his pop culture, but Jess is so utterly clueless throughout the book, that I don't think she would connect Damon with his Dogma character - so why would we find it funny that she does? Is that the irony? That we know and she doesn't? In a first person narration? It doesn't quite work.
Hmmm - one for Hornby fans only I think.
By Top Cat
What did everyone think of How To Be Good? I'm not a massive Hornby fan (About A Boy and High Fidelity were sort of ok), but I bought an audio version of this from a small book shop when I was desperate for something to keep me awake on a long car journey. It's the first book I've ever read (or listened to, as was the case here) where the motivation for getting to the end was sheer disbelief that such a huge-selling, populist title could be so souless and empty. I'm not proud of this, but the ending - the last sentence, in particular - was so utterly appalling that I ended up throwing the tape out onto the hard shoulder of the M11...