Harper, £6.99, ISBN 0-00-712203-9
Contemporary Fiction, 2001
I have no idea why they think it’s cute to segregate the boys from the girls. This anthology is a two-in-one thing, where the back cover of Girls’ Night Out is the front cover (flipside) of Boys’ Night In. The sequel to the successful anthology Girls’ Night In where a measly £1.00 off each book price goes to the War Child foundation, this time editors Fiona Walker, Jessica Adams, and Chris Manby rope in the boys to play as well.
The result? A much more superior anthology compared to Girls’ Night In. The boys, of course, are the true superheroes. Hailing from various genres from science fiction to plain comedy to lad-lit, these boys don’t just restrict themselves to one single story line. The girls play good too, although lazy, formulaic offerings from Fiona Walker and her ilk don’t help much. Most of the girls here lack the A-list name of the first anthology, and maybe that’s why they feel this urge to experiment.
Of course, reviewing every story will take ages – there are 34 stories here – so I’ll just mention those I find memorable in some ways or the other.
I’ll start with the boys. Mike Gayle, who, you know, is the sensitive sort of man who writes about ladies and their relationships with sensitive new age men, kicks off with a surprisingly cute and quaint story Grumpus about how relationships can be funny that way. What way? Well, that way – how sometimes we cannot stand our significant other, only to realize that we love that irritating creature so much the next moment. Cute. Then Robert Llewellyn presents the hilarious The Deck Hangers, about three men, our hero, a true chauvinist pig friend, and another sensitive new age guy friend who are indulging in the manly sport of fixing a deck when they realize they are stuck on the roof with no way to get down. Well, they have a cell phone and they can call the women in the house for a ladder, but no, they are Men, they will do things the manly way, with hilarious and disastrous results. Fun.
Marc Blake’s Bighead is a quasi-horror story about a fat, ugly man whose ego cause him to grow another head. I look at the author’s photo, and I must say Marc Blake’s a good looking guy who can pass himself off as John Cusack were not for that gigantic nose. Still, it’s not nice of him to write about ugly fat people with egos. Not nice at all.
John Birmingham who is Australian and has the cutest author bio ever is just plain bonkers in Actually, Twenty-three Beers Will Not Improve Your Judgement, a truly tragic tale of a spider that gets eaten by a boy who, after too much beer and marijuana, tries to impress the girl he wants. I sincerely hope this story is not autobiographical. Nobody deserves this much embarrassment, and no reader deserves this much sick giggles. Two thumbs up!
Colin Bateman cranks up an evil, chauvinist professor who finds himself trounced by – gasp – a romance author in Chapter & Verse. I still think Bateman deserves the finger for his depiction of a romance author, although he cozies up by having Ms Romance Author nominated for a Booker Prize in the end. Jon Hegley’s poem about Roman love triangles puts me to sleep, sorry. Nick Earls write about boy-boy relationships without actually going all slashy and homoerotic – I don’t know whether to salute or go “Aww!” in disappointment. Patrick Gale’s Obedience is a quaint murder story that James Herriott never wrote. Hector Macdonald’s Relative Madness is a wicked, dark comedy about cultural misunderstandings and why one should never eat with a despot ruler.
But the tour de force has to be Matt Beaumont’s Boy’s Night In, which details the hero’s search for the perfect, er…
That’s when the idea came. As I lay there in bed afterwards having a post-non-coital fag it struck me that, actually, I’d never have the perfect wank. I’d had hundreds, no, thousands of them, and sure, some of them had been so blindingly good that I actually remember them. (What were you doing when you heard the terrible news about Lady Di?) Even so, all of them were missing something. Not one of them was perfect.
And so he plans and plans with a zealousness that will put a general to shame.
I felt I had the grounding to put in place the ideal conditions. I had discovered my right hand’s God-given purpose when I was eleven and I was so excited that I spent the remainder of my adolescence pummeling my poor cock up to six times a day. My wrist suffered what would be now diagnosed as repetitive strain injury, probably earning its owner disability benefit.
Of course, something has to go wrong, and when it does, I almost broke a rib laughing. This farce is a hoot, and oh my, the ending, the ending!
Okay, then it’s the girls’ turn. If the boys talk about sex, sex, sex, and football, sorry, soccer to you Americans, the girls talk about nuptial-mania and bra cup sizes. Fiona Walker’s story that starts things off is pathetically bad, about a weepy woman who weeps over a dead boyfriend until a new boyfriend offers to give her a new life and then she starts weeping again. What a roadkill candidate.
Sarah Harris’s Mother Figure, however, is a different story – it’s about a woman who gets artificially inseminated and then has to deal with the fact that what is she doing isn’t what most modern women perceive to be a good thing, ie motherhood isn’t “in” anymore. Alexandra Potter can’t write anything but a formulaic chick-lit complete with Mr Wrongs and oblivious heroines – maybe she and Walker should just hold hands and stick to editing.
Colette Caddle’s When the Fat Lady Sings is an average story about how taking care of elderly relatives will do you some good when they die and leave you lots of money. At least it isn’t chick-lit formulaic.
Chris Manby surprises me with a very poignant tale of a one-night-stand in Art Lover that manages to be erotic, melancholic, cold, and scorching all at once. I love this one the most of the lot in Girls’ Night Out, because it’s a surprisingly emotional story that tries so hard to be cool and steady.
Martina Devlin must be very pissed with her fellow women when she wrote Home and Dry, which is a weird, meaningless tale of this guy who is a serial user of women. He gets off to his happy ending, leaving a trail of bleeding hearts in his wake. I hope Ms Devlin is happier and in a more fulfilling relationship with her fellow sisters now. On the other hand, Emily Barr and Louise Bagshawe deliver revenge fantasies on Mr Cheating Scumbag. And Kathy Lette’s An Ode to the Barbie Doll on Her 40th Birthday isn’t as much a novella as an angry, mad rant that lashes out against the media and everyone’s preoccupation about women’s bra cup size. Put this one next to the conventional chick-lit tales of this anthology and you will understand at last the meaning of the phrase “strange bedfellows”. Still, it’s a pretty funny rant.
Sophie Theobald’s The Masturbation Map isn’t the girls’ answer to Boy’s Night In. It’s a cute story though of two little girls’ figuring out what masturbation has to do with rats, ponies, donkeys, and climbing the bank (don’t ask). Girls still have a long way to go before talking about the M word in public, not like Matt Beaumont who pulls himself off in public with amazing bravado.
So how is it? Well, I love Boys’ Night In, which is superior when it comes to variety, readability, and entertainment. It’s not romantic, sure, if you define romantic as in “girl stumbling and going giddy over her lack of D’s in her bra size because she is sure Mr Handsome there wouldn’t want her then, oh not that she wants him to want her for her breasts, but still, she wants him and if that’s how she will have him anyway, anyways she is sure that she can change him, even though he’s, oh, like married and all, but she’s hitting 30 soon and she needs a – ugh!” Ahem, where am I? There are some good stories in Girls’ Night Out too, and it’s good that many authors in that one try to approach relationship from a non-chick-lit-formulaic fashion. But not enough. So, it’s roughly 50-50.