Viva La Madness, By JJ Connolly
The Believing Brain, By Michael Shermer
Toploader, By Ed O'Loughlin
What I Don't Know About Animals, By Jenny Diski
Beyond A Joke, By Bruce Dessau

Paperback reviews of the week

Viva La Madness, By JJ Connolly
Duckworth £7.99
***

A convoluted tale of drug-dealing, money-laundering, faked death, IT trickery, torture, and good old-fashioned violence, Viva La Madness is a darkly comic thriller, fast-paced, full of alarms and surprises, written in Guy Ritchie geezerspeak (your home is your drum, to kill someone is to serve them, cocaine is cha-cha, and major swearwords have the status of punctuation marks). The story begins promisingly: the resolutely unnamed narrator wants to quit his Caribbean bar and return to a life of crime for one big payday so he can retire in comfort. He puts out feelers, and the noble black dude, Monty, a staunch figure on the London crime scene, comes to Barbados with a proposition and two murderous gangsters in tow, Sonny King and Roy "Twitchy" Burns. Our narrator returns to London and soon finds himself in an imbroglio involving two sets of Venezuelan mobsters, an Irish family of psychos, lots of cocaine, a priceless memory stick, and plenty of people "getting served". The story loses its intensity as it becomes ever more complicated, however; in the middle sections of the book there is way too much backstory and explanation, and too many chapters ending with lines such as: "Bridget whispers one more thing ... and leaves." What did she whisper? This sort of thing makes it impossible to believe in the narrator as a character (the absence of a name doesn't help); it's just JJ Connolly playing tricks. But there are some effective set-pieces (including a chase in an Underground tunnel) and, if Guy Ritchie hasn't optioned this yet, he certainly should.

 

The Believing Brain, By Michael Shermer
Robinson £9.99

****

Michael Shermer is a psychologist and a historian of science, and draws on both disciplines effectively in this refreshingly sceptical look at how and why we believe things. Shermer argues that we are evolutionarily hardwired to find significance in our environment; we believe first and seek for reasons afterwards, and are astonishingly good at self-deception. He deploys a wealth of evidence to show how the believing brain is operative in religion, politics, supernatural beliefs and conspiracy theories. Science, with its evidence-based approach and strict procedure of controlled, duplicable experiments, is the only rigorous way to test the truth of beliefs. Readers of Dawkins, Dennett et al. will find much that is familiar, but if you enjoy a dry, sceptical take on things – as I do – you'll enjoy reading this.

 

Toploader, By Ed O'Loughlin
Quercus £8.99

***

Toploader is a satire on the military, the media, and the war on terror, set in an unnamed controlled zone where the inhabitants are regularly shelled and bombed by drones. The plot features an explosive donkey, a washing-machine equipped with advanced military technology, and imaginary Iranian spies. Characters include the psychopathic torturer Daddy Jesus, the scheming, Bilko-esque Captain Smith, the clueless, self-important war reporter Flint Driscoll, and the heroic teenage victim of the occupation, Flora. O'Loughlin's aims are worthy, his targets apt, and his descriptions of a war zone evocative; but the story takes time to get airborne – the first five chapters all feature different sets of characters – and the dialogue is clunky. Although it's been compared to Catch 22, it lacks that novel's wit, verve and inspired lunacy.

What I Don't Know About Animals, By Jenny Diski

****

Part memoir, part philosophy, part ethology, What I Don't Know About Animals is an engaging meditation on animals and our relationship with them. Diski explores scientific and religious attitudes to animals, considers the ethics of eating meat (like many of us, she's uneasy about it but still does it), visits a hill farm, goes on safari, muses on representations of animals in film and television (she likes David Attenborough but not Johnny Morris), discusses the battle between reductionists and humanists, experiments with horse-riding, and conquers her arachnophobia. There is a constant tension between her sense of empathy for animals, and her acknowledgement of their fundamental, unknowable otherness. She also examines the fascinating question of why Jacques Derrida's cat used to stare at his genitals.

 

Beyond A Joke, By Bruce Dessau
Arrow Books £8.99

*****

Bruce Dessau, comedy critic for the past 20 years and a regular on the Edinburgh Comedy Award panel, brings to bear his knowledge and expertise in this witty, readable study of what makes stand-up comedians tick. Dessau takes a historical perspective, stretching from Joseph Grimaldi to Russell Brand, and reveals a constant pattern of excess – excessive sexual appetites, drug and alcohol consumption, narcissism and self-obsession – inextricably linked to the drive to make roomfuls of strangers laugh. It's a pattern which takes its toll – the rollcall of comedians who died prematurely is long. Dessau knows most of the contemporary comedians he writes about, and there is an enjoyable sense of getting the inside story.

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