Funny Girl – Nick Hornby published by Penguin/Viking

“Funny Girl – the much-anticipated new novel by Nick Hornby, the million-copy bestselling author of About a Boy Make them laugh, and they’re yours forever…It’s the swinging 60s and the nation is mesmerized by unlikely comedy star Sophie Straw, the former Blackpool beauty queen who just wants to make people laugh, like her heroine Lucille Ball. Behind the scenes, the cast and crew are having the time of their lives. But when the script begins to get a bit too close to home, and life starts imitating art, they all face a choice. The writers, Tony and Bill, comedy obsessives, each harbour a secret. The Oxbridge-educated director, Dennis, loves his job but hates his marriage. The male star Clive, feels he’s destined for better things. And Sophie Straw, who’s changed her name and abandoned her old life, must decide whether to keep going, or change the channel. Nick Hornby’s new novel is about popular culture, youth and old age, fame, class and teamwork. It offers a wonderfully captivating portrait of youthful exuberance and creativity, and of a period when both were suddenly allowed to flourish. Fans of Hornby will love this book, as will readers of David Nicholls, Mark Haddon and William Boyd” – BooktopiaBeing a Nick Hornby, I already had my imagined soundtrack picked out to accompany this book.  After all, this is the creator of “High Fidelity’ and ‘Fever Pitch’ and ‘About A Boy’.  Why wouldn’t there be some music humming away behind each character and each scene?  And I had the singles loaded up, with a stack of pennies ready to go.  Martha and the Vandellas, Duffy, Lulu, the them tunes to ‘Bewitched’ and ‘The Jetsons’, The Beatles (Mod Period), Gerry and the Pacemakers and even ‘Housewife’s Choice’ (from the popular BBC radio hour). My selection was spot on. 


‘Funny Girl’ sets itself in post War-60’s England, and opens at a Maplins style Blackpool and then moves to an emerging  Austin Powers swinging London. Flower Power has not hit yet but The Beatles are packing for America, the Ed Sullivan Show, and Elvis will be returning to tour soon.  But this book is not about music.  It’s about Barbara.  A knockout, smashing girl, with a large chest, long blonde hair and a full, peachy bottom, ready to be pinched.  She’s just won a bathing beauty competition and has been told of the wonders of a full year’s programme as reigning queen – kissing babies, avoiding the gropes of the mayor and no doubt endless beauty parlour openings!  Ahhhh!  Trouble is, she wants not a bathing beauty.  Barbara wants to be a Lucille Ball and models her self, a least internally on the maverick comedienne.  She has a hard time believing herself, when she has the looks of Dian Dors and Marilyn Monroe.  In fact she often gets mistaken for Sabrina, a stunning page 3 beauty who makes her crusts on her ample bosom and aerated mannerisms.  Sabrina (aka Norma Sykes) actually existed in real life (Hornby includes a photo of her doing her best to distract our gaze from the product she’s trying to sell in the poster – a slide projector I think?).  The book cracks along at the pace of a 60’s sitcom. 

Barbara meets her agent appropriately at the jewellery counter of Derry and Tom’s (where many young ladies can catch their future husbands).  But he’s entirely distracted by her looks and doesn’t believe she’ll become a serious actor.  He  does his best to send her to auditions where she’ll fail in a ploy to wear down any dreams and hopes she’ll eventually yield to the dark side of glamour photography!  But has other plans.  In a chaotic scene she arrives at the read through of a new pilot on the new fangled goggle box.  She also meets two, rather insecure, but talented writers – one gay and one who’s pretending, unsuccessfully not to be (after all he’s married and this is still a country where gay men can be locked up for their sexual choices).  That fact alone seems to breeze over Barbara.  She may be her own woman but she’s oblivious to the sexual revolution smouldering away underneath her feet.  Tom and Bill are the archetypical Swan and Flanders types – or perhaps duplicate copies of Tony Hancock – the famous BBC comic of the 60’s and 70’s.  You can imagine them squabbling away over various minor points, in their tight 60’s flannel suits, skinny ties and brylcream come overs.  I loved their wonderful restrained campiness, offset by Barbara’s enthusiastic, ambitious drive.  In one afternoon she turns their horrid little domestic half hour TV show into a whole 13 part series.  And becomes the lead, to boot.  She changes her name to Sophie Straw and a star is born.  The book wants her to success, and without spoiling the story too much, she does.  There are sojourns into romance and friendship, the value of work and the optimism of the new decade.  The pace is, like I said before at the speed of a half hour episode-per chapter.  And the contents of each I s just right, too.  Not too taxing, with breaks commercials and tea-cup refills.
The decade wears on, the British public fall head over kites in love with her, not realising that she’s become a strong female lead at a time when women were only just emerging back out of the post war shadows.  I found the whole book just washed over me, e a comfortable, familiar re-run.  The kind you get out from the library on a cold afternoon, by the box set.  Hornby uses sweet images to illustrate point, but I still had to resort to Google occasionally to find out who he was referring to as his references were both familiar and obscure at the same time.  I did love the way he avoided too many cliché’s.  If this ever becomes a film, then I’d caution directors to choose the more obscure or realistic images of this period.Like I said at the start, the soundtrack was ever present.  And so are the voices.  Each character, especially Barbara/Sophie’s is strong and eligible.  Her presence is also believable.  It would be much easier to portray an uglier Sophie trying to find her self confidence.  This is a revers: a Pretty, luscious Sophie has to battle sexism, bigotry and maintain her dignity.  This is Hornby’s first book since Juliet, Naked, which was heavier than this one.  Think of this as a switch in channel, not to the BBC light programme but still to a happy place like Jones or UKTV. 

Hornby’s books always conjure up a sweet cadence of music and relationships – not the crazy way out variety, but the familiar and the natural.  This time Barbara/Sophie is quite a calculated person, with a voice that defies her outward appearance.  She’s the thinking man’s crumpet and the literally dreamboat too.  But this is still that light-hearted touch that Hornby has, perfect summer reader, I’d venture.


The Rosie Effect

The Rosie Project author Graeme Simpson, on the rise of his book, why he wrote the sequel The Rosie Effect having promised himself that he wouldn’t, progress on a film deal and why so many people have fallen in love with his unlikely hero, Don Tillman. The CoffeeBar Kid had a chat to Graeme when he was in town last week

The Wellington International Ukelele Orchestra

The Wellington International Ukelele Orchestra


The Kid interviews Age Pryor about the upcoming shows and the debut album 9 years into their ‘career’.
The Wellington International Ukelele Orchestra Launch Be Mine Tonite

Festival fav’s The Wellington International Ukelele Orchestra are about to embark on a national tour in support of their debut, all Kiwi sing-along-able CD “Be Mine Tonight” which is due for release on iTunes and in stores on November 7th. The band has already been on the road and are just back for a quick home visit before heading back out again.  Taking a breather their recent excursion to China and Japan founding musician Age Pryor found a few moments to chat over the blower from his digs in Auckland.  Auckland, Age. Really?  Not Wellington? “Ah, yes.  I relocated up here about 6 years ago to teach music at Unitec part time.”  But he’s still a Welly at heart, he assures me.

A few years ago Age led a number of projects including the Woolshed sessions, recorded on Jane Campion’s Nelson farm and two solo albums.  These days his main focus is the ‘Uke’s’ (as he calls them), with whom he plays and co manages with fellow musician Gemma Gracewood. “It’s incredible,” he remarks, “that the band is still together.  As such it’s scattered to the four winds these days.  Some are back in Wellington.  I’m in Auckland.  Gemma’s based in New York and there’s another in Singapore.”  Truly international locals!

The band’s reputation has built up over the years based on a live show of madcap hilarity and spontaneous audience participation. But behind the hijinks is a finely-tuned musical group who’ve  have truly cemented their place on New Zealand’s entertainment scene. Their unique sound – a choir of gorgeous voices set to magnificent ukulele riffs and licks – is now in hot demand worldwide and they’ve long been the darlings of festivals and special events with tickets for their shows snapped up almost before they go on sale. The band’s original line up has changed little over the years and includes session musicians, a member of twinset and occasionally Brett Mckenzie.

The last time I talked to Age must have been over 9 years ago, when the Uke’s first was playing bars and Summer City gigs.  Right from the start the aim of the band was to be interactive.  Age relays tales of playing in morning cafe’s and sending people off to their day happy and cheery having sung and boogied away to the Uke’s interpretations of well-known songs, reinterpreted for the ukulele.  “The sign of a good song is that it can be played on a uke.  Like a school choir doing Beatle songs because their so easy to arrange.  Ukes have become the ‘new recorder’ – simple, interactive and easy to get into.  I read that we are in the Uke’s third age.  The first was the 1920’s, then the 40’s and 50’s when Pacific music was the rage.  And now there are a new generation of performers.”  Uke music is everywhere – from the immensely popular Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain to the avant-punk of Amanda Palmer and the skilled quirkiness of James Hill, a favourite at the last International Festival of the Arts.  Hill also features on the new album.  James does a brilliant little solo on Aadarana’s “wake Up”.  “He recorded it in a hotel bathroom for us, when he was on tour, jammed into a tiny space.”  Other guests on this all Kiwi repertoire include Amanda Billing (the recently deceased Dr Potts from Shorty Street). “Amanda’s got a great voice, she does choir work too.  She’s been in shows like Cabernet.  She’ll be touring with us.  We got her to do vocals on “E Ipo” (an old Prince Tui Teka number).”  Although in hot demand by the likes of Fat Freddy’s Drop and Neil Finn, of late, star vocalist Lisa Tomlins also found a moment to work o the project, with an old Aotearoa track: “Long Ago”.  That one also includes Hawaiian uke specialist Pi’ikea Clark.  Age tells me that Pi’ikea is schooled in traditional Hawaiian music, “from the ones who were the keeper of the knowledge.  He is a really fine player and we really learned a lot from him traditional playing.”

Recently the Uke’s have toured Asia, opening them up to a whole new audience base.  “We found China very challenging, especially the language.  I don’t speak Mandarin.  They don’t speak English and even relying on gestures was hard because they do theirs different to us.  But we learned a lot.  Chinese audiences are very polite,” Ages says.  Relying on a translator to convey their frivolous banter provided some extra complexities, too.  There were moments of blank-faced embarrassment. “Japan was different as we mainly did festivals and community events.  And English is not a problem.  Also the Japanese are less inhibited once they understand what you are doing.  They know about New Zealand.  So that helped.”  So, how will Kiwi audiences react in the coming month when the Uke’s arrive in their local halls and theatres?  One thing you can rely on – plenty of fun and hilarity.  “Be prepared to sing your lungs out – From Lorde to Sherbert, you’ll know all the songs!”

The Be Mine Tonight Album Release Tour:

8 Nov – Glenroy Auditorium, Dunedin
9 Nov – Stadium Southland, Invercargill
10 Nov – Alexandra Memorial Theatre
11 Nov – Lake Wanaka Centre
13 Nov – Ashburton Trust Event Centre
14 Nov – Roy Stokes Hall, Christchurch – JUST ADDED!
15 Nov – Roy Stokes Hall, Christchurch
21 Nov – Regent on Broadway, Palmerston North
22 Nov – TSB Showplace, New Plymouth
23 Nov – Great Lake Centre, Taupo
25 Nov – MTG Theatre, Napier
27 Nov – Baycourt Theatre, Tauranga
28 Nov – Wintergarden, Auckland 7pm SHOW SOLD OUT! 10pm show still available.
29 Nov – NZ Ukulele Festival
30 Nov – Turner Centre, Kerikeri
5 & 6 Dec – James Cabaret, Wellington

All ticket info can be found at

Book Review: The Dharma Punks, by Ant Sang

Originally published on the Booksellers website:

Ant Sang’s Wonderful Compilation

I was on the train today and a guy leaned over to inspect what I was reading. “What’s that like?,” he asked. I took pause and thought about it. “Well,” I started, “Do you know Jamie Hernandez? Love and Rockets?, Tank Girl, Gorillaz?” He nodded slowly, as the idea dawned on him. “Well it’s nothing like that.”

Back in 2001, fledgling cartoonist Ant Sang must have been at least partially inspired by the new comics that had been gaining momentum since the late 80’s. I know that fellow artist, Simon Morse, was hugely inspired by Hernandez’ anarchic reality. It was miles away from the underpants-over-longjohns superheroes that had dominated the industry up until then. Sang, like Morse, and of course, Dylan Horrocks, was interested in the more intellectual dichotomies that could be played out in the relatively new “graphic novel” medium.

New Zealand was slow on the uptake. Anyone who does get a reputation, after slaving long over a photocopier to produce enough zines to get noticed, is snapped up by the American comic empire – Marvel, DC, etc. Like those guys, Sang was a publishing pioneer, co-founding Tuatara Press with a collective of other cartoonists to release his first small work Filth. In Dharma Punks, this title appears again as the band name of a punk band, which is central to the story of Chopstick, a skinny Kiwi Chinese lad whose identity is intertwined with the fate and manipulated fortunes of the characters in the band – Benis, Jugga, Cat, Side Car and Brian The Goth.

It’s Auckland, 1994 and a group of anarchistic punks hatch a plan to explosively sabotage the opening of Bobo’s burger joint (think fictitious multinational McDonald’s). The night before their plan is carried out, Chopstick sets the bomb that will bring the joint down. But he gets separated from his partner in crime, Tracy, and the night takes a serious of unexpected twists and turns where chance encounters the past and the present. The spirit of Karma and the Zen of anarchy clash, they switch roles – the dragon becomes the mouse and the rodent roars and spits flames. Still reeling from the death of a close friend, Chopstick tries to reconcile his spiritual path with his political actions in this energetic, fast-paced story.

This release is the full collection of Sang’s work from 2001 to 2003, beautifully presented on good quality baxter stock (the holy grail for cartoonists because the ink bleed is virtually zero). It’s been touched up here and there, with new or restored introduction and end papers for each chapter – in simple colourings. The stories seem familiar to me, perhaps because I was an aspiring punk once too – although I never blew anything up. The raw emotion that Sang blends with the kind and rational teachings of Buddha is still refreshing and vibrant. His penmanship has an urgency, without abandoning aesthetics.

I have really enjoyed looking back over this period of Sang’s most inspirational work. Here’s hoping that the graphic novel reading community will demand more of him, and he delivers. Now that would be exiting news!

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

The Dharma Punks
by Ant Sang
Published by Earths End Publishing
ISBN 9780473289065