Gagged by Richard Asplin

With Gagged (a thriller with jokes), Asplin tells the tale of two wannabe writers based in London who get caught up in a whirlwind plot involving blackmail, kidnapping, murder, mobsters, cowboys and journalism, all set to a Hollywood backdrop.

It tears along at a cracking pace for the most part, and the swift introduction of characters in the early chapters is initially quite daunting. Several times throughout the book I had to pause for thought to try and remember who was who in the big scheme of things. That’s not a fault of the book, I imagine, more so my own capacity for keeping track of things.

The story is sprinked with gags, asides, and comedic set-pieces that have a laugh out loud quality to them, and always stay the right side of farce. Some of them work, some of them don’t, but the story is never so concerned with grabbing a cheap laugh that it detracts from what’s going on in the first place. If one particular line doesn’t strike you as funny, the chances are there’ll be three or four more on the following page or two that will make you crack a smile.

Each of the characters is nicely fleshed out, if a little clichéd on occasion, and most of them get a decent amount to do and say without simply being dragged along to feed lines or make up the numbers. That’s quite a talent in itself, if I might say so, as many a revered author has struggled with less of a cast than Gagged has at its disposal.

You’re not going to like all of them – well, I certainly didn’t care for the pushy journalist, Diane, who seemed just that much more of a moving plot device than the rest of them. Still, she’s part of what it’s all about in Hollywood – the big story and the hunt for a scandal at any cost.

Ben, the main protagonist, and his long suffering girlfriend, Jackie, are nicely constructed and I felt great empathy for the pair of them. In fact, there aren’t too many characters I didn’t identify with, or relate to on some level, except for those who were quite obviously black and white. Even Zak, the laid back, Californian duuude who’s striving to be an actor is fleshed out just enough to make him that much more convincing as a character. Each has their place in the story and each of them contributes in some way that might not seem immediately obvious.

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The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

The religious undertones of this book would normally have had me running for cover, but when Fliss‘ dad offered it to me for a read, I figured I should give it a go. I had a rough idea what it was about, due to the amount of hype the book had generated, and still found the winding plot quite compelling despite spoilers I’d stumbled across on the web.

However, as compelling as the story is, the characters are as stereotypical as they come, with your chiselled, handsome american hero, your beauty with a brain at his side, pompous police chief, and a pip-pip, jolly hockey sticks english aristocrat thrown in for good measure. Considering the amount of research that has gone into the rest of the book, the one dimensional character development is piss poor to say the least, and something that surprised me considering the media attention the book has enjoyed.

Brown seems to suffer from that 24 season one issue, whereby all the characters he wants you to think are bad, well, they’re portrayed as shifty and unscrupulous. And all the characters he wants you to think are the good guys, they come across as whiter than white. It fails miserably on all counts, as the lack of subtlety sets alarm bells ringing almost right away. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that the overly shifty, must-be-involved-with-the-bad-guys police chief is so obviously going to be clean as a whistle when it’s all said and done. The same and opposite is true of the too good to be true, overly helpful character, to the point where I ended up just coasting through the story wondering when the “good guy” was going to finally fuck them all over.

Still, maybe if you can spin a good yarn then it doesn’t really matter if all your characters are flat? And I do feel slightly harsh in pouring scorn on someone with immeasurably more writing talent than myself. I mean, the story contains some captivating, foreboding material that seems quite probable in some cases, keeping the intrigue and pulling you back for more.

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Frank Skinner by Frank Skinner

I picked this autobiography up in early January, planning to save it as my holiday book on that ill advised trip to Malta. Although the holiday wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, the book was genuinely entertaining and shed a whole new light on Frank, or Chris Collins as he was born.

I’ve always found him entertaining in small doses, although I find his chat show a bit too cringeworthy to watch on a regular basis. Back in Y2K (haven’t heard that one in a while), Fliss and I went to see the play Cooking with Elvis starring Frank, and it was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. It was three parts smut to two parts smut and made no pretentions of being otherwise.

And that’s Frank, at the end of the day, and his book says as much. He comes across as a bit rough and working class because he is exactly those things, and although he’s enjoyed some fine success in the last ten years or so, what went before is a tale of a man who stumbles along wondering the same thing many of us wonder far too late into our lives – “what do I want to do when I grow up?”

His tone is informal and friendly throughout, and by the third page he says that if you’ve read that far then he considers you a mate and he might as well tell you the rest. It’s a nice touch, and as the book flits between present day and his childhood, you get a good idea of where Frank has been and where he’s at, all of the time never seeming to take life too seriously.

Along the way he breaks up with his girlfriend of the time, and their relationship had formed a prominent part of the commentary before that. He never wallows in the misery in a way that makes you feel you should drop your gaze, though, taking things like this in stride as much at the time of writing as he appears to have done all through his life.

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