How to be very funny


How To Be Famous by Caitlin Moran (Ebury Press, £14.99; ebook £9.99) ****

IN How To Build A Girl, Caitlin Moran's debut novel, the Times columnist's heroine Dolly Wilde (real name Johanna) gets cystitis and has to sit in a boy's bathtub, eating crisps and topping up the water, until the burning stops. It's brilliant, true to life and ridiculously funny - and it's Moran being Moran, chatting on about the stuff women have to navigate, but don't/can't really talk about. She's back on form with How To Be Famous, the follow-up, which sees precocious music writer Dolly, now 19, questioning her male-dominated industry, colliding with an older sleaze-ball comedian, and still madly in love with musician John Kite, who's gone and become a total girls-can't-stop-screaming-at-him popstar. Dolly rattles around London boozing, writing, hanging out with her new mate Suzanne (who is fantastic – everyone should have a fearless feminist warrior of a friend like Suzanne), and all the while her brain is formulating thoughts. She considers sexism in the workplace, the problem that so many women accept bad sex, that women – especially teenage girls – are so often exposed, belittled and ignored by the world they're trying to engage in. Sure, some of the plotlines are annoying (Dolly's dad's visits are particularly cumbersome), while others leave you with a stomach full of dread at how things will pan out, but How To Be Famous is most effective when it's spouting stuff you'll find in the heads of women everywhere. It's raunchy, rascally, sweet, silly, joyous and also strangely ordinary - in a good way. I defy you not to relate or ask the same questions as Dolly. Also, it's a right laugh.

Ella Walker

The Changeling by Victor LaValle (Canongate, £8.99; ebook £5.75) ***

THIS book starts so strongly that you can just about forgive the middle third where the pace slumps from an engrossing boil to a take-it-or-leave-it simmer. Second-hand bookseller Apollo Kagwa grew up pretty much fatherless, except for a recurring nightmare and a box of nostalgic junk, so when he and his wife Emma welcome their son Brian into the world, he's determined to get things right. What he doesn't factor in is Emma seemingly losing her mind. LaValle's descriptions of sleepless first-time parenthood and the stress of providing for your family have such clarity and precision, that when the narrative suddenly accelerates, it's disconcerting how porous and unsettling the plot becomes. Apollo is thrown juggernaut-like into a surreal New York that's spliced through with monsters, the creeping terror of what social media can leave you open to and how absurd the idea of living 'happily-ever-after' is if you analyse the practicalities. It's never silly, but at times the folkloric layers and witchified moments fall a little flat. Sinister and exposing, if occasionally laboured, it'll certainly make you rethink your online presence.

Ella Walker

A Station On The Path To Somewhere Better by Benjamin Wood (Scribner, £14.99; ebook £7.99) ***

SINISTER, highly detailed and slow to build, A Station On The Path To Somewhere Better sees Daniel, not yet a teenager, and his estranged dad, Francis - who pops in and out of his life, scattering lies and false hope with every snatched visit or late-night phone call - go on a road trip. But we already know it doesn't end well. Told from grown-up Daniel's perspective, we're drip fed his musings on how it could have gone differently, and how he's spent the intervening years obsessing over his father's crimes. The problem is, the sheer level of detail (from what the pancakes are like at Little Chef, to the fishing equipment in a corner shop) gives the book a lethargy that's hard to shift. It's also punctuated with long passages from a spoken word tape of the children's TV drama Francis works on, which convolute and stall the plot further, and you'll likely be tempted to skip them. If you're looking for a page turner, this isn't it, but if creeping dread and anxiety enthral you, it certainly ticks those boxes.

Ella Walker

Pathos among the pleasantries


Calypso by David Sedaris (Little, Brown, £16.99; ebook £8.99) *****

HUMOURIST David Sedaris here presents his latest collection of autobiographical sketches. Calypso reads like an autobiography in instalments, and with its thematic focus on bereavement, mortality, the indignities of middle age (and the consolations of growing prosperity), it has almost the unity of a comic novel. Expect his extraordinary ear for the funny things people say, the exquisite turn of phrase, the deadpan unsentimentality, the reckless candour, and the similarly reckless invasion of his family's privacy. And, of course, the seamless smuggling of great pathos in among the pleasantries. Yes, there are the routines about his Fitbit obsession and his search for the language with the most offensive swearwords, but there are poignantly personal strands too; the ache of his mother's untimely death, his struggles to connect with his ageing father and the processing of his sister Tiffany's recent suicide. Towards the end of the collections, Sedaris tells us how he turned away from Tiffany as she struggled, telling himself she was "someone else's problem. I couldn't deal with her anymore". This admission, it seems to me, tests the limits of the Sedaris approach. You admire the candour, and you have no wish to judge, but after this it becomes a little harder to slip back into laughter mode at this otherwise painfully funny and breathtakingly gifted writer bent on pushing himself to ever greater vulnerabilities.

Dan Brotzel


The Last Chance Hotel by Nicki Thornton i(Chicken House, priced £6.99; ebook £4.68) ****

IN the midst of a dark, dark mysterious wood, an equally mysterious hotel lurks. Kitchen boy Seth is kicked about from pillar to post by everyone who works at the hotel. There is a big event in the offing and Seth is tasked with helping with the catering. After rustling up a top-notch dessert, hotel guest Dr Thallomius dies, apparently poisoned. The only suspect to be found is Seth. With help from his only friend Nightshade, he's determined to clear his name. As he digs into Dr Thallomius' past, he learns of magic and that there is more to his life in the hotel than he ever thought possible. At every turn Seth is met by a bitter wall of hatred and spite from his boss' daughter Tiffany. Nicki Thornton has created a locked room mystery, filled with tension and suspense that should keep even the shortest of attention spans interested.

Rachel Howdle



1. The World's Worst Children 3 by David Walliams

2. How To Be Famous by Caitlin Moran

3. First Man In: Leading from the Front by Ant Middleton

4. 5 Ingredients by Jamie Oliver

5. Arnhem:The Battle for the Bridges, 1944 by Antony Beevor

6. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson

7. The Secret Barrister

8. Spitfire: A Very British Love Story by John Nichol

9. Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Francesc Miralles and Hector Garcia

10. Crudo by Olivia Laing