Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Last Tango in Aberystwyth by Malcolm Pryce – something rotten in the state of Denmark?

To the girls who come to make it big in the ‘What the Butler Saw’ movie industry, Aberystwyth is the town of broken dreams. To Dean Morgan who teaches at the Faculty of Undertaking, it is just a place to get course materials. But both worlds collide when the Dean checks into the notorious bed and breakfast ghetto – a dark labyrinth of Druid speakeasies and toffee-apple dens – and receives a suitcase intended for a ruthless Druid assassin. Suddenly he is running for his life, his heart hopelessly in thrall to a porn star known as Judy Juice. Once again, Louie Knight, the town’s only private eye, steps into the moral netherworld to make sense of it all. He knows that in order to find the Dean, he has to discover what was in the Druid’s case. It turns out to be something so evil it makes even the hard-boiled gumshoe gasp …

HAPPY READS

I have to say that I came to a point in my life during the late Spring where I simply couldn’t face any more grim fiction, no matter how great and worthwhile it was, and I made a vow to have a season of Happy Reads. If only to save me from the vast slough of despond threatening to drown me entirely. At the end of the season, I will have to see if it’s worked and if books can indeed give you mornings of joy for evenings of tearfulness as the old hymn has it (warning: there is music on this link). Time will tell.

This then is the first of my Happy Reads pile. I was rather looking forward to this one too, especially as it seemed to plough a similar furrow to Jasper Fforde, whose first three books of the Thursday Next series I thoroughly enjoyed – until Ms Next lost her pizzazz, to my mind. On top of this, my husband had in fact already read Last Tango to Aberystwyth and muttered quietly when I asked him what he thought. It was certainly a very different reviewing experience being able to discuss a book with one’s loved one, as our reading habits don’t usually coincide at all.

Anyway, I suspect my reading pleasure might have been altered by the fact that Last Tango is the second in a series, so I had no idea about any of the characters or what their relationships with each other were. I may well have written a different review if I’d read the first novel, but actually I suspect not. And, in any case, an author ought to be able to pull people into a story, no matter where it appears on the literary journey, so I’m really not prepared to make many allowances.

Still, the first line is nice, even though I really hate wasps:

I needed to find a druid, which in Aberystwyth is like trying to find a wasp at a picnic.

I think the trouble is that the author just isn’t prepared to build up character or interconnections between characters and make the reader care. Or not enough, and not for this reader, or in fact her husband. Pryce relies heavily on the amusement and the zany factors of his story to build up interest. He’s quite good at it too, it has to be said; there are lots of lovely one-liners and quirky scenarios that do bring a smile to the lips. Who could resist this:

When I regained consciousness I was lying at the base of Constitution Hill, a cold tongue of sea-water licking my face like a faithful dog.

or

Calamity, eyes bleary with sleep, yawned like a small hippo.

I also couldn’t help but enjoy the scene where the local women fight each other verbally to win points for best gossip and Louie plays them for information by pretending not to care. It’s utterly inspired. The problem is that the book as a whole is all too disjointed. Perhaps it’s simply the way I prefer to take my comedy? If I can make the analogy, I’m more of a Hugh Dennis fan, as what makes me laugh and laugh deeply is the building up of a comic story to a great and witty conclusion, something Dennis does with style. I’m not a fan of Stewart Francis who simply throws out a raft of unconnected one-line witticisms until someone laughs. Last Tango is very much like this latter version of comedy, and I therefore didn’t warm to it. Others may well feel differently.

There is a plot however. I swear I could see it in there somewhere. It just kept eluding me and, by the end, I was simply flicking the pages in order to get a vague idea of how it would all pan out. There were also a couple of scenes where I do feel Pryce might have gone over the top, even in a surreal comic novel such as this, and I didn’t believe what was happening. The instance of the main character’s missing girlfriend being apparently turned into a machine, for one, stretched the bounds of credibility to breaking point.

Neither do I think that the layout of the book does the story any favours. My copy is set out in blocks of text with gaps in between even when no change of scene has taken place. It was all rather unsettling, although I suppose in that respect it does tie in with my one-liner comedian theory.

There are an awful lot of characters too, and I didn’t really understand what they were all doing, or why they might be important. I’m sure, however – before the countless fans of this author begin to beat me to a pulp for what I’ve written so far – that there’s a viable story in a viable world in the book, but to be honest the author didn’t sell it to me well enough. It was therefore really rather depressing and immensely frustrating as a read, and I found myself being more and more reluctant to carry on reading at all – never a positive sign and even grimmer in terms of my Happy Reads focus …

So my conclusion is that if you want a quirky comic novel set in a surreal world, you’re best off with the first three Jasper Fforde novels instead. Because, in my final analysis, Fforde simply does it better.

Happy Read quota: 2 out of 10. Not a hugely auspicious start to my season then, but I’m hoping for better things, please God.

Last Tango in Aberystwyth, Bloomsbury 2004, ISBN 0-7475-6676-3

[Anne is anticipating a season filled with happy reads in order to improve her mental state. If you can recommend any happy reads which aren’t (please!) your own work, please leave a comment. In the meantime, you can wallow in her own on-the-whole misery-soaked fiction here.]

About annebrooke

Anne Brooke’s fiction has been shortlisted for the Harry Bowling Novel Award, the Royal Literary Fund Awards and the Asham Award for Women Writers. She has also twice been the winner of the national DSJT Charitable Trust Open Poetry Competition. She is the author of nine published novels, including her free fantasy series, The Gathandrian Trilogy, featuring gay scribe Simon Hartstongue. More information on the trilogy is available at: www.gathandria.com. In addition, her gay and literary short stories are regularly published by Wilde City Press, Amber Allure Press and Untreed Reads. All her gay fiction can be found at: www.gayreads.co.uk. Anne has a secret passion for theatre and chocolate, preferably at the same time, and is currently working on a fantasy novel, The Wilderness Room. More information can be found at www.annebrooke.com.

10 comments on “Last Tango in Aberystwyth by Malcolm Pryce – something rotten in the state of Denmark?

  1. sharonrob
    June 24, 2010

    Thanks for the review. I haven’t read any of Malcolm Pryce’s but my OH has. He began by liking them, but thought the idea ran out of steam quite quickly.

    Anyway, happy reads: as you mention detective fiction, you might like Lindsey Davis’s Falco series. Instead of a surreal, alternate universe, they are set in ancient Rome, with forays to other parts of the empire, so they are definitely drawing on a very different world to our own. Although Lindsey Davis doesn’t set out to write comic novels, she provides her central character with a hilariously dysfunctional family and plenty of trouble to get in and out of. The first novel in a series of 20 to date is The Silver Pigs and although it has some sad moments, it’s definitely more of a feel-good than a feel-bad novel.

    If you haven’t given Wodehouse a whirl, this might be your chance. I got into him a couple of years ago after a domestic crisis that left me feeling very low and was immediately hooked. I started with Right-Ho Jeeves and laughed so much I thought I was going to damage something. Those who haven’t read any Wodehouse might be inclined to dismiss Bertie Wooster as an upper-class twit. He’s not really. He has a kind heart and is susceptible to other people’s hard-luck stories; that causes him a lot of trouble, which he relies on those wiser than he is, especially Jeeves, to get him out of. Wodehouse’s oeuvre was huge, so if you like him, there is a lot to keep you busy.

  2. annebrooke
    June 24, 2010

    Thanks, Sharon! Interesting to hear your OH’s comments, which mirror my husband’s, really.

    And thanks so much for the Happy Reads tips! Weirdly, I’ve just finished a Wodehouse and have a whole set of them to get through – I used to love him, especially the wonderful J&W, and I’m really looking forward to revisiting them. Have also added the Falco to my list – many thanks indeed!
    :)

    Axxx

  3. ChrisCross53
    June 24, 2010

    Are you talking happy as in happy endings? Happy as in uplifting? Happy as in nothing sad/scary/nasty happens? Or happy as in funny?

    If it’s laughter you are after, Jerome K Jerome’s ‘Three Men in a Boat’ (the tale of a trip rowing up the Thames), is one of the funniest books I have ever read – forget the TV programme of the same name starring Griff Rhys Jones, this book is the real thing. It’s funny, informative and beautifully written.

    Alan Bennett’s ‘The Uncommon Reader’ gives a literary voice to the Queen as she explores the world of books. As you might expect from Bennett, it is gently humorous, with never a word out of place.

    ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ by Stella Gibbons pokes fun at the rural idylls of authors like Mary Webb, and always makes me chuckle when I’m reading it.

    For a happy view of the past, read Flora Thompson’s ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’, a wonderful, account of country life at the end of the end of the 19th century, which should not be confused or compared with the television series.

    ‘The Morville Hours’ by Katherine Swift is one of the most uplifitng books I have encountered. Inspired by medieval Books of Hours, it charts the author’s creation of a garden, mixing history and horticulture in magical, lyrical prose.

    Garrison Keillor takes a warm, witty look at life in his ‘Lake Woebegone’ books, as does Alexander McCall Smith in his ‘The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ stories (especially the early titles).

    Jane Austen’s wry humour and ironic tone always ensure a happy read, while Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ (despite its cruelty), provides one of my favourite happy endings.

    Then there is a wealth of joyful children’s literature (classic and modern) and, failing all else, there is chicklit…

  4. annebrooke
    June 24, 2010

    Thank you so much for that Chris (am I right in calling you Chris?) – I will put these books on my Happy List at once. In answer to your question, I’m not entirely sure what brand of “happy” I’m most after, but all of those perhaps, and funny is certainly good! Talking of which, I remember reading Three Men in a Boat years ago and being hysterical with laughter, so I must definitely revisit that one!

    Much to my shame, I’ve never read Cold Comfort Farm so there’s another one, and The Morville Hours also sounds brilliant. Especially as now I’m well into my 40s, I’m becoming strangely more obsessed with gardens – is it my age?…

    Interestingly, I actually studied Larkrise for O Level and absolutely loved it. My mother took me to see a production of it at the National Theatre where the audience was part of the show as we all stood or sat round the small stage (Cottesloe?) as villagers while the action took place. One of my best memories is how we were all part of the scything on the fields as the men sang their farming songs – magical stuff, though thankfully the scythes weren’t sharp (one or two of us had to get out of the way pretty quickly, which caused the actors much amusement!).

    Anyway, thank you for all of these – it’s developed my list hugely.

    Anne B
    xxx

  5. ChrisCross53
    June 24, 2010

    Hope it helped… I didn’t mean to write such a long reply but I always get carried away when books are involved!

  6. annebrooke
    June 24, 2010

    It certainly did, thanks, Chris! And I can talk about books until people lose the will to live, really …
    :)

    Axxx

  7. Jackie
    June 24, 2010

    Wonder if the author was trying for an exaggerated Sam Spade feeling in this book/series? Both the lack of detail & layout of the book sounds like the idea may have crossed his mind.It seems like the author missed an opportunity, though with the missing plot & sparse dialogue, a little more work & would’ve raised the quality of the whole thing.
    Lindsey Davis’ Falco series reminds me of a Roman Spencer(Robert Parker’s series), they have a similar tone, just set in different eras.
    VL has reviewed “The Morville Hours” & agrees that it’s a terrific book. Here’s the link https://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2009/06/15/the-morville-hours-by-katherine-swift/

  8. annebrooke
    June 24, 2010

    Very possibly, Jackie – I hadn’t made that connection, but I think you’re right. And thanks for the Morville link – sounds fascinating!

    Axxx

  9. nbeverley
    June 25, 2010

    Colin Watson’s Flaxborough series – books much better than the limp TV dramatisations.

    Any by Victoria Clayton – but only one in print at present I think. All feel-good AND well written, often laugh-aloud funny.

  10. annebrooke
    June 25, 2010

    Many thanks! Am adding Clayton & Watson to my list now :)

    Axxx

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This entry was posted on June 24, 2010 by in Entries by Anne, Fiction, Fiction: fantasy, Fiction: humour, Fiction: thriller, Happy Reads and tagged , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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