Tag Archives: J W Ironmonger

Paperbacks to look out for in October 2014

This is going to be a short post, not that there aren’t lots of paperbacks published in October but few of them take my fancy, I’m afraid, which is probably best for my credit card. I’ve already read and reviewed three at length here so I’ll start with those.

Cover imageThe first is John Ironmonger’s The Coincidence Authority which has a much more eye-catching jacket than the hardback. Humans look for patterns in everything: we seek the reassurance of predictability in a world which is chaotic and random. It helps to keep us sane rather than face a future in which a chance accident may rob us of all that is dear to us. At least that’s what I think. You, of course, may feel that everything happens for a reason, that there is a plan. That’s the debate at the heart of this novel which I enjoyed very much.

My second choice is Equilateral by Ken Kalfus, a tale of madness, folly and Martians. Set at the end of the nineteenth century, Equilateral opens in the Egyptian desert where nine hundred thousand Arab fellahin labour to create a vast equilateral triangle which will be seen from Mars, so Sanford Thayer, celebrated astronomer and instigator of the project, has calculated. Inspired by Giovanni Schiaparelli’s maps based on his observations of the Red Planet which depict canali on its surface together with his own theories derived from evolution, Thayer has come to the conclusion that Martians are a superior race, busy trying to conserve their dwindling water supplies, with whom earthlings should try to communicate. Sounds bonkers, I know, but Kalfus has a great deal of fun with the idea taking a few well-aimed kicks at colonial arrogance along the way.

My third already-reviewed choice is an entirely different kettle of fish. Hubert Mingarelli’s spare novella, A Meal in Winter, in which three hungry German soldiers striding through a frigid Polish forest flush out a young Jewish man, a prize which will ensure that they will be sent out to hunt again tomorrow rather than man the firing squad. One soldier reveals that he’s stolen enough food to make soup and spotting an abandoned cottage they set about lighting a fire, interrupted by the arrival of a hunter and his dog. What ensues frays the bonds between the three soldiers, opening divisions between them and forcing them to face Cover imagethe moral dilemma of what to do with their captive. A beautiful piece of writing.

My last choice for this month is James Scott’s The Kept, set in nineteenth century upstate New York where Elspeth Howell has returned to find that her family has been murdered – all apart from her twelve-year-old son. Together they set out to find the culprits. It sounds a bit like Gil Adamson’s The Outlander which I very much enjoyed and Ali’s review at Heavenali  has piqued my interest further.

That’s it for October paperbacks. If you want to see what I’ll be adding to my TBR in September, here are the paperbacks and here are the hardbacks.

The Coincidence Authority: Everything happens for a reason. Or does it?

Cover imageHumans look for patterns in everything: we seek the reassurance of predictability in a world which is chaotic and random. It helps to keep us sane rather than face a future in which a chance accident may rob us of all that is dear to us. At least that’s what I think. You, of course, may feel that everything happens for a reason, that there is a plan. That’s the debate at the heart of J. W. Ironmonger’s The Coincidence Authority.

Thomas Post is a philosopher, an academic dubbed ‘the coincidence authority’ because he sets about debunking the phenomenon using mathematical reasoning. One day he tumbles into a heap of people at the bottom of an escalator. He and Azalea suffer minor injuries, exchanging a few words before going their separate ways. Weeks later, Azalea walks into Thomas’s office. Having led a life beset by coincidence she wants to consult the expert. When they recognise each other from the escalator debacle, she sees it as coincidence – he sees it as a random event. Ironmonger explores the ways in which we make sense of what happens to us through the relationship between these two. Azalea’s life is one of extraordinary synchronicity and because of this she has come to believe that she may die on 21st June 2012 – her great-grandfather, her grandfather, her mother and her stepmother have all died on Midsummer’s Day convincing her that she will meet the same fate. As Thomas and she fall slowly, almost reluctantly, in love, he tries to rationalise her belief. The novel criss-crosses the decades following Azalea’s life from her apparent abandonment at a fair in 1982 to Uganda where the Lord’s Resistance Army run rampant, counting her missionary stepmother amongst its victims in 1992, and where she meets one of the two blind men who claim to be her father, to her relationship with Thomas in 2012.

It’s a sweet love story made intriguing by Azalea’s extraordinary string of coincidences, each weighed up and diffused by her Tim Harford of a boyfriend who loves her enough to still have a sneaking worry about her looming deadline. The philosophical dichotomy that Thomas and Azalea personify is clearly one that fascinates Ironmonger although at times the structure he’s chosen to explore it becomes a little strained: there’s a passage when Thomas explains determinism to Azalea which has a distinctly ‘here’s the science’ feel to it. That said, it’s a thought-provoking as well as entertaining novel.  And who knows, perhaps it was meant to be that the signalling failure on the London line was so bad that I gave up trying to get to Oxford and came home to write this post instead.