I was going to blog this month about post apocalyptic novels, but as we seem to be living through an apocalypse anyway it began to feel a bit like bad taste. Also, who wants to read worse case scenarios when we’re in the midst of them? No, I reckon what we need now is something to cheer ourselves up, to take our mind off it all. And as everyone is marooned indoors with nothing to do but read, I give you a list of, not ten, not fifteen, but twenty books and/or authors to consider. And to break up the hours of reading, I’m also mentioning TV/film adaptations where possible.
1. Top of the list – the complete works of PG Wodehouse. If he doesn’t bring a smile to your face, nothing will. The most well known books are theJeeves and Wooster series (of which there are twenty) but don’t miss his other books; he wrote 71 novels in all! Plenty to see you through the apocalypse; when you’ve finished Jeeves and Wooster, I’d recommend the Blandings series (eleven of those). There is also the brilliant adaption of Jeeve and Wooster for TV, starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. And here is a link to just a few Wodehouse quotes to get you going.
2. If you’re not in the mood for fiction, then Bill Bryson will see you through many a quarantined hour, and you get to travel the world (virtually) as you do so. Added bonus. I’d recommend starting with Notes from A Small Island (about his first visit to the UK) and follow up with Neither Here Nor There (a trip round Europe). He also covers America and Australia, Britain (again), plus Shakespeare, Language, Homes, the Body, and to cap it all A Short History of Nearly Everything.
3.Back to fiction though, and this time some complete escapism. Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide To the Galaxy – the first of a series of five side splitting books, guaranteed to take you away from your normal life. After you’ve finished those, check out his Dirk Gently series. And find all of these also adapted for TV and film.
4. After you’ve devoured Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett is waiting for you with his forty-one Disc world novels. I found starting with the first in the series – The Colour of Magic – quite hard, so I recommend starting with Mort. Hogfather, Going Postal, The Colour of Magic and Good Omens have all been adapted for screen. Good Omens is definitely the best, though – warning – it does focus on the Apocalypse. And if you still haven’t had enough comic fantasy, why not try Jasper FForde, Robert Rankin or Tom Holt?
5. Don’t worry, I’m not going to just focus on male writers. Marina Lewycka is one of the funniest writers around. You may remember her first novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukraine, but she’s written several since, including the brilliant Lubetkin Legacy.
6. Another laugh out loud funny woman is Lucy Mangan. Her well known columns in the Guardian have been collected in various books. Start with The Reluctant Bride, and work your way through her oeuvre until you reach Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading.
7. And when we’re thinking about funny columnists, we mustn’t forget Helen Fielding whose novels about Bridget Jones first appeared as a column in the Independent. And of course there are the wonderful film adaptations with Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. (By the way, if you haven’t yet seen the third film, please don’t bother. It’s such a disappointment).
8. A J Pearce (another woman by the way)- her first, and so far only, novel Dear Mrs Bird is, as I said in my Goodread’s review, “Funny, sad, vibrant…. not enough adjectives to describe this brilliant book. Read it”. It’s set in the second world war and features Emmy who is desperate to become a war correspondent, but ends up working for a magazine, answering agony aunt letters.
9. James Robertson is not usually a comic writer, but To Be Continued…. is one of the funniest book I’ve ever read.I enjoyed it so much that I nominated it the best new book of the year in 2017. It’s a road trip novel with a difference – a washed up fifty-something newspaper hack goes on a road trip to the West of Scotland, by bus, with a talking toad called Mungo.
10. Another road trip novel, funny in a completely different way, is The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. Really quirky, unique, and also pretty compelling.
11. If you like the voice of The Hundred Year Old Man… then I’d also recommend The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion told through the eyes and ears of Don Tillman, who has Asperger’s Syndrome and sets out, in a very logical way, to find a wife.
12. Alexander McCall Smith could be a good read if you’re totally distracted and depressed by apocalyptic news, although I find reading too many of his books a bit like eating too much chocolate, so go easy on them. My favourite series – the five Von Igelfeld/Portuguese Irregular Verbs – are all about petty academic jealousies. They also have Dashunds. Start with Portuguese Irregular Verbs. Try the 44 Scotland Street series after that. And for TV adaptations of his work, look out for The Number One Ladies Detective Agency, a BBC production.
13. If you like your humour to be a bit pacier, then try Michael Frayn. Best known for the wonderful slapstick play Noises Off, he manages to keep that same anarchic humour going in his novels. Skios is set in Greece and revolves around two people picking up the wrong suitcase, and his novel Spies won, not only the Wodehouse prize for comedy, but also the Whitbread (now Costa) book of the year.
14. Ben Elton was one of the first stand up comics to turn to novel writing and it was a good move. His books are brilliant. Pretty dark comedy, and they always seem to reflect the zeitgeist, which is pretty insightful of him when you think how long a novel takes to come to fruition. His latest book Identity Crisis is about social media and identity.
15. Other comics have turned to non-fiction. Robert Webb’s How Not to Be a Boy, is pretty sad in places, and yet he makes this dark account of growing up somehow seriously funny as well.
16. Nina Stibbe is another writer who mines her own experience to create a funny work of non-fiction. Apart from novels such as Man at the Helm, her first publication, and her breakthrough work, came from her time working as a nanny in London, Love, Nina was taken from her collection of letters home to rural Leicestershire. You may remember the TV adaptation starring Helena Bonham Carter.
17. Adapted, in fact, by Nick Hornby. (See what I did there?) I think his shopping lists are probably funny. He’s not an overly productive writer, but when a new book comes out, it’s always a gem. My favourite is How To Be Good. A Dad in Islington, who is not the family breadwinner, decides unilaterally that his family should give up the spare room to someone who is homeless. Oh, and lots of films have been made of his books Long Way Down, About A Boy, High Fidelity. Fever Pitch but interestingly, NOT How To Be Good.
18. David Lodge is a great writer but maybe not so well known these days. He was born in 1935, and his most prolific writing time was during the 1950s and 60s. The effect of Catholicism on sexuality was a recurring theme, but he is probably best known for his satirical treatments of academia. Try Deaf Sentence, one of his more recent novels, and if you enjoy that, then try Nice Work for his academic satire, and How Far Can You Go? on Catholicism. His recent autobiography Quite a Good Time To Be Born: a Memoir, 1935–75 is also pretty good.
19. Still reading? You know there is a whole amazing selection of funnies out there in the world of children’s books. In fact, I wonder, is it a rule that books for children have to have some humour? Most of them do, but then there are also those which are entirely funny from beginning to end. Try Justin Davies Help! I Smell a Monster and the sequel, Whoa! I Spy a Werewolf, as well as Elizabeth Ezra Ruby McCracken, Tragic Without Magic. Frank Cottrell Boyce is better known as a screenwriter, but he also writes very funny children’s books. Try Sputnik’s Guide To Life on Earth. And no, you don’t need to have a child tucked away at home to read children’s books.
20. I’m going to finish with a poet. Hollie McNish is one of the funniest women on the planet. Mostly a performance poet, we are lucky that her work has been collected into books as well. Nobody Told Me is about becoming a mother, but there are other collections too; try Plum. See if you can read her poem Yanking without laughing out loud. (Could be a girl thing though…) Check out her website; she usually has new poems up there together with live appearance dates or look at her youtube channel as well