The Magic of Words, Comedy Novels, and a Future Imperfect
Escape into these six fresh literary picks that will have you entertained, laughing, and at some points, with your jaw dropped to the floor!
These six novels are a wonderful escape to the magic created by words and surreal notions, to rib-tickling armchair comedy, and to stories that brilliantly paint a snapshot of the scary world of today.
The Liar’s Dictionary by Elly Williams
The word mountweazel actually exists; and it describes a fake entry deliberately inserted in a dictionary or work of reference, often to safeguard against copyright infringement. This wonderful novel explores the world of lexicographers and the etymology of exotic words. One can only guess what Williams would be like to converse with, but her Love for words is evident and supremely entertaining in this slow burn of a novel. One may be forgiven for thinking at the outset that this is so much showing off, but eventually, the characters and narrative ensnare you, and you appreciate how she’s blended this expansive word knowledge with a compelling storyline.
It’s essentially a double strand narrative; with one set in 1899 London, as Winceworth works on the ‘S’ words of the Swansby New Encyclopedic Dictionary. In the present day, Mallory is an intern working for David Swansby as he digitizes the dictionary of his ancestors. It’s Mallory’s discovery of these mountweazels, and the why‘s of Winceworth having created them, that drives the narrative. Both Mallory and Winceworth are splendidly drawn characters, and we genuinely feel for them as they traverse this esoteric milieu of dictionaries and encyclopedias. That you’ll pick up a number of new words in the process, is part of the charm of immersing yourself in this novel.
Modern Times by Cathy Sweeney
You’re a new author, and your first book is a collection of short stories. The very first short story opens with, ‘There was a woman who loved her husband’s cock so much that she began taking it to work in her lunchbox’; and you have my undivided attention. Welcome to the weird, surreal, fantastic world of Cathy Sweeney, who hails from Dublin, Ireland, and could well be a name to look out for in the near future. The stories here quite often read like fables and folktales for the modern world, and they surprise, challenge, and subvert the reader, to our entertainment.
Another story depicts a man longing for a woman with too many mouths, and it’s like figures from a Picasso painting have come to life. Still another love story has to do with a couple who administer electric shocks to each other, to recapture that tingling feeling of the first blush of love. There’s subtle desperation, unhinged goings-on, but all described in a mundane, matter-of-fact manner that belies the strangeness that abounds. It’s a challenging read and may not be for everyone; but this little book reminded me of the first time I read the likes of Angela Carter—and I’d love to see her work on a novel, and see if she can sustain that form’s narrative demands.
Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony
Here’s a quick-read comic novel that carries a lot of weight within its pages. Ostensibly, it’s a doue strand narrative; one narrative having to do with Alex Wilson, a Republican Congressman up for re-election, and being urged by his staff to find a wife, while in denial about his own sexuality. Things get complicated when a stuffed aardvark is delivered to his Washington townhouse. The second storyline is set in Victorian England and concerns taxidermist Titus Downing, as well as the provenance of the aardvark and the extraordinary lengths Titus goes to, when stuffing this oddity of nature.
It’s how Anthony brings up themes of appearance and reality, of dissembling and Truth to oneself, where she excels. There’s excellent sleight of hand in how she makes the two narratives mirror each other, and how we draw illuminating parallels. In the execution of great comedy, there has to be a kernel of truth, of how we’re laughing and rocking in mirth, while something serious is actually being said. On this count, Anthony has succeeded, as there is much to reflect on as we reach the last pages of this funny, yet tender, novel.
The Lammisters by Declan Burke
If you’re looking for off-kilter, subversive comedy writing; go no further than Declan Burke. You’ll either have your patience fully expended and swear he’s a useless buffoon, or you’ll be righteously entertained and marvel at how he pulls it all off. On the surface, this could be categorized as crime fiction with an historical slant. It’s set in Hollywood 1923; and like some screwball comedy, the storyline involves a gangster and his starlet/moll, a rogue British/Irish aristocrat and his factotum, and a studio boss, his Mexican ingenue, and shady lawyer. It’s the kind of classic set-up that will give you pre-conceived notions, and that’s where Burke sucker-punches you.
First of all, the novel abounds with metafictional digressions, where the narrator addresses us, the reader, directly. The narrator even encourages us to skip chapters, remarking that the next one will just be an apology for some despicable character. Then there’s an omniscient author who shows up as an actual character and proves he’s not as in control as he thought he was. It’s some crazy gig Burke is trying to execute; and arguably, it may drive some readers off the rails in frustration. Me, I loved how much of a ‘beautiful disaster’ it all turns out to be. ‘A’ for effort, and for having such a deranged notion and producing so much stylized writing.
The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith
If you’re in the mood for a compelling medical thriller that’s so topical, it reads like it was written for this ongoing pandemic, you won’t go wrong with this novel from Eve Smith. It opens 20 years after the Crisis, and we’re led into a world where it seems government approved and institutionalized euthanasia of members of the population who have reached 70 years of age is being enforced. We meet a nurse named Kate who works at one of these Waiting Rooms. The Crisis (roughly happening in 2015) had to do with a global antibiotic crisis, when spiraling drug resistance happened, and even ordinary infections were untreatable.
There’s Lily at a seniors home who’s a few weeks away from 70; and there’s a narrative involving Mary, a botanist working in South Africa before the Crisis, and it’s through her eyes that we discover how the Crisis came about. Kate’s search for her bio-mom is the pathway to humanizing this gripping tale. And if you recall how, as coronavirus cases escalated, there was talk about who would get beds, ventilators, and treatment, how high risk groups would not be prioritized; we see a mirroring of our present-day world depicted in this heart-breaking story.
The Constant Rabbit by Jasper Fforde
In this stand-alone novel from Fforde, we’re treated to a wonderful dissection of discrimination, how inhumane humanity can be, and how just being different is often cause enough to be ostracized and be treated beneath contempt. And the irony is how it’s often the seemingly reasonable and respected members of society who’ll behave in this manner to protect the status quo, or because it’s far easier than accepting differences. The tale starts off with The Inexplicable Anthropomorphizing Event, when 1.2 million rabbits in England started walking and talking like people.
Decades later, there’s a move to relocate all these rabbits to Wales. They’re vital for British Industry, but they’re still treated like second-class citizens with no legal rights. A Prime Minister who ran on the platform of keeping these rabbits separate is out to fulfill his dire plans, and it’s up to Peter Knox, a ‘spotter’ and would-be librarian, to finally stand up for what he believes in and prove to the rabbits that there are humans still worth their weight in gold. It’s Beatrix Potter and the film Harvey meets Animal Farm—and it’s a delight to read.
Lead photos from Goodreads