Funny business

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"Hilarious", it says on the back of the book. Also, "crackling with wit" and "killingly funny."

These are from top newspaper critics' reviews of Zoo Time by Booker-winning Howard Jacobson, a novel which I can confirm is droll, slightly twisted and says a lot about the downside of the writing profession.

Reviews by some readers on Amazon, however, were less effusive.

"Dull, droning... an insult."
"I gave up about halfway through."

Reviewers on Amazon are famous for failing to appreciate how many months of work go into a novel, usually for a financial return far lower than they imagine. If they've spent even 99p on something they wouldn't normally choose to read, the knives come out.

But when, on Phil The Shelf, we talked to Howard Jacobson about negative internet reaction to his work, he floated the possibility that some readers were basically too thick to appreciate the subtleties of the humour.

It was one reason we decided to devote a full programme in the series to funny fiction. And, to an extent, Howard's right. If you don't know anything about the object of the satire you're not going to get the jokes. In this case, it helps if you're a published writer with embarrassing memories - which is virtually all published or would-be published writers.

Generally, they were kinder to Heartbreak Hotel, the latest novel by the equally-famous Deborah Moggach, also on this edition of Phil The Shelf. "Light, warm and entertaining" typifies the reaction, though someone did moan that it wasn't, as expected, about old people dating.

It is, however, even funnier if you know a bit about the area of mid Wales where, in the story, 70-something actor Russell Buffery (most famous for his voice over for Dyno-Rod) inherits a B&B.

So if you haven't read it, or even if you have and were wondering where the town of Knockton was, I'll tell you in advance - it's Presteigne, in Powys.

The first joke about Presteigne is that, though in Wales, it's actually on the English side of Offa's Dyke.

Some of the others I don't feel safe in discussing. Suffice to say, I was there as a radio reporter when it was the base of the wonderful Boysie Rumsey, Britain's oldest mobile DJ and possibly the first ever. And when the resident policeman was also the town's wart-charmer.

Presteigne was also the last refuge of the old hippy good-lifers who arrived in Mid Wales in the 1970s - a fact not lost on Deborah Moggach whose only real mistake is having local people refer to nearby Llandrindod Wells as Llandrod (it's Lan-dod).

Anyway Heartbreak Hotel is old-fashioned character-led comedy, and it works.

Which leaves us at literary humour's surreal end. Or fantasy.

Tolkeinesque elves have, to be honest, never really spun my Discworld. Ben Aaronovitch, however, walks a fine line between fantasy and the police procedural in his series about PC Peter Grant, a character not that far removed from the wart-charming copper from Presteigne.

Grant does magic and hunts down perps of a similar persuasion. Broken Homes, the fourth in the series and already a major bestseller, makes some interesting points about the magical qualities of certain blocks of flats.

Again, to get the joke, it helps if you know enough about police procedure to recognise that Peter Grant could be an actual employee of the Met. Yes, it's set in London, but we learn that the fifth in the series will bring Grant to within a five-minute drive of... Presteigne.

Serendipity: the second-home of Phil The Shelf.

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