Uncovered! by Paul Jennings

There are quite a number of short story collections in the “Un-” series by Paul Jennings: Unreal!, Unbelievable!, Uncanny!, etc. After reading the first one, I could have picked another at random, but the title of one story in the volume Uncovered! caught my attention. It was called “Pubic Hare.” Recognising Jennings’s brand of slightly risque humour for kids, I plunged ahead.

Imagine my surprise when the first story, “For Ever,” turned out to be a deliberately humourless melancholic drama about a boy who’s terminally ill. I have no problem with being surprised, but the story was too sentimental for my taste. There are a couple more stories (of the ten in total) that are semi-serious. The rest are in keeping with Jenning’s usual brand of wacky comedy, covering such topics as seing ghosts, bed-wetting, growing pubic hair, and even eating a cat-turd!

My favourite was one of the more serious stories: a time-travel tale called “Backward Step.” The majority of the others I found a bit, well, lacking in imagination.

Jennings’s Wikipedia page shows that several of his “Un-” books have picked up multiple awards. I couldn’t help but notice that, in contrast, Uncovered! only picked up one single award. I haven’t read enough of Jennings’s books to make an objective comparison, but my suspicion is that this is one of his weaker efforts.

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Unreal! by Paul Jennings

I became interested in Paul Jennings recently as a result of revisiting an old TV series called Round the Twist on DVD. The series is about a family that lives in a lighthouse around which all manner of weird things happen. The episodes are often hilarious, especially when the humour gets a bit, well, filthy. And by that I mean, for example, losing your false teeth down the toilet and having to collect them at the sewage works, then having the clean and wear them. Ugh! This is typical Jennings story material, and it’s a lot of fun.

I believe Unreal! is the author’s first published book. It contains eight stories, five of which I recognise as episode of Round the Twist from seasons one and two, although the television versions have been significantly reworked to revolve around the Twist family. The versions in the book are stand-alone tales. I heard that seasons three and four of Round the Twist weren’t as highly appreciated as the first two, due to Jennings leaving the show. Having just watched season three, I can attest to that. There were a few excellent episodes, but most of them lacked the imagination Jennings brought to the show.

The first story, “Without a Shirt,” is about a boy who can’t help himself adding the words “without a shirt” to the end of every sentence he speaks. Filmed as “Without My Pants” in the TV series.

“The Strap-Box Flyer” is about a travelling con man selling glue that sticks anything … but stops working after four hours.

“Skeleton on the Dunny” is about a boy who uses an outdoor toilet cubicle on which he sometimes finds a ghostly skeleton sitting. Filmed as the pilot episode of the TV series.

“Lucky Lips” is about colourless lipstick that will make any girl kiss you. As you can imagine, it will not be a smooth ride for the wearer. Another one of the TV episodes.

And so on. I enjoyed this book to the degree that it motivated me to attempt writing my own children’s stories. Full of outrageous fun. As an adult, it occasionally made me think, “I can’t believe he just wrote that,” but always with a smirk.

Undercover White Trash by David Kilpatrick

With the word “undercover” in the title, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a novel about crime. It’s really a story about an elite advertising executive, Edward Vincent Prescott III, who makes a terrible blunder in his campaign for the BillyMart wholesale consumer store. The blunder doesn’t cost him his job, however; in a maverick move, his boss suggests that he spend several months undercover as a member of the blue-collar society. It’s an opportunity to research the target audience first-hand. So, Ed Prescott prepares to leave his rich life behind (at least temporarily) and embark on his mission. First, he heads for a BillyMart store (a place he would never normally shop) to check out the people. After singling out one family and following them home to their trailer park, he decides to rent the trailer opposite and observe them more closely. Prescott doesn’t know it yet, but his stay with the “white trash” is going to change him more than he could ever have predicted.

I discovered the author, David Kilpatrick, through his website, and got particularly interested in him because of his blog. It is both honest and sensitive but sometimes hard-hitting, and usually full of dry wit. One of Kilpatrick’s best lines, in describing a particular woman’s attractiveness, was, “I’d be on her like a hobo on a ham sandwich.” That just cracked me up. I figured that if this guy can write like this on the fly in his blog, then his fiction has got to be good. He has written four novels, but I got particularly interested in this one due to him mentioning that some of the events in it were true (but he’s not telling which ones).

Both the title of the book, and the author’s sales pitch, led me to believe this would be a raw read, where humanity at its worst is put under a microscope. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The story is sensitive, concerning itself mostly with exploring the issue of friendship between people at opposite ends of the class spectrum. What a great theme. Another thing that becomes apparent as you read it is that you have absolutely no idea where the story is heading; there is no clear goal for the protagonist to achieve (other than advertising research); no disaster to be averted; no one to save. Usually that makes for a boring read, but not in this case. Each chapter was consistently interesting, and kept dragging me back for more.

Kilpatrick’s style is happily loaded with the same dry wit that you’ll find in his blog. His novels are self-published through print-on-demand, which usually means you get a novel loaded with typos and poor sentence structure. For once an author has done the necessary editing work, and despite the occasional missing comma, you have a smooth read.

I look forward to reading the rest of David Kilpatrick’s novels in due course. This one, at least, deserve a mass-market publishing deal.

Vampire Dawn by Philip Henry

I seem to have a problem with comic novels. I read Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and thought, ho-hum. I tried Terry Pratchett’s Only You Can Save Mankind and I yawned. Arguably the latter isn’t Pratchett’s most revered work, but Hitchhiker’s – it’s hailed as a sci-fi humour classic. What’s wrong with me?! The thing is, how can I then pick up Vampire Dawn by Philip Henry (whoever he is!) and get a real kick out of the book’s humour? Go figure. Actually it might have something to do with the fact that both Henry and I are from Northern Ireland; I’m told we’ve got a particular sense of humour over here.

Vampire Dawn is Philip Henry’s first novel. It’s the story of a man called Christian Warke, whose job as a vampire hunter for “The Ministry” ends up putting his wife too much danger. When she gets drained by a vamp, Christian vows to track down and execute the one responsible. Many years later, Christian is a burnt out shell of a man, dependent on copious amounts of alcohol to get him through the day. But he’s finally catching up with Xavier, the vampire he has sworn to kill. Xavier, on the other hand, has his own story to tell about what happened all those years ago.

I like the vampire mythology Henry has created. It has a light-heartedness about it that is probably derived from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but without all the ridiculous teen-speak (you know, words like “icky” and “gooey” and “thingy”). There’s even a superpowered female Slayer in the novel, but thankfully she doesn’t take the spotlight. And the similarities end there. The vampire hunters in this novel are not superhuman, but a very ordinary bunch of people who belong to an organisation called The Ministry, something more akin to the FBI than Buffy and her loyal chums.

The first chapter of the novel concerns a young couple parked in a car at night. Before they get predicably bitten, Henry treats us to a series of jokes derived from Queen songs lyrics, as the young man attempts to flatter his girlfriend. Anyone remember “Fat-bottomed girls, they make the rocking world go round”? You can imagine how well that one would go down with a girl. Henry has a genuine talent for telling a good joke, and you’ll find plenty of them scattered throughout the novel. The story also gets very serious in places, particularly near in the end, in a chapter called “Heroes & Monsters,” where there are some jaw-droppingly unpredicatable moments.

Henry’s skill at bringing characters to life is fair – not good enough for me to care greatly about what happened to them, but they’re certainly not cardboard either. At times the good guys acted in such a way as to make me dislike them, e.g. Christian with his drink-driving, toasting his bottle of whisky to a passing police officer and then using his Ministry credentials to bully his way out of a fine. “Well, you see,” he later says to the girl in the passenger seat, “there’s one set of rules for the rest of the world, and one set for me.” It funny and it’s macho-cool, but it harms the reader’s attachment to the character. It’s the same with all the swearing. I can live with it when the author is striving for realism, but not when it just there to sound cool. Much as I enjoyed reading this novel, the characters left me with a slight bad taste in my mouth.

Early on in the novel, Henry introduces a spiritual element: the need to restore a proper “balance of good and evil” to the world. I thought this was illogical and hokey, and I feared it was going to kill the story, but it stays very much in the background, and could even have been snipped right out. Thankfully the story takes some unexpected turns and keeps the reader on his toes, never sure what to expect. Best of all, I found my interest level gaining the further I got into the story. Too often I’ve got halfway through a novel and found myself running out of steam, persevering with a story that has lost its momentum. Henry is a very capable story-teller for a first timer.

The Curse of the Small Publisher unfortunately rears its head with this novel. Maybe it’s too petty to mention but I’ve noticed in general that small publishers do not proof read their books properly. It bugs me because two readers with a red pen each at the pre-press stage is all it would have taken for Black Death Books to catch 99% of the typos. Thankfully there’s aren’t many, and anyone who reads for enjoyment (which is the only way to read) can forgive it.

This one’s definitely for those who prefer Joss Whedon to Bram Stoker. It’s a worthy first novel, and Philip Henry is one to watch.