Tag Archives: Jonathan Coe

Six Degrees of Separation – from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Seven White Gates

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six others to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the titles on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we’re starting with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a book I’ve read many times as a child and as an adult.

Both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass are stuffed with riddles, puzzles, wordplay and a multitude of allusions which Martin Gardner helps elucidate in The Annotated Alice

I’m distinctly unkeen on annotations in novels but Jonathan Coe’s footnotes in The House of Sleep had me in hysterics.

Coe is best known for his state of the nation novels, a sub-genre I find hard to resist. A recent favourite was Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land which looks at the divisions between town and country through the story of Lottie, furious with the philandering Quentin but too broke to divorce him.

A particularly grisly murder brought Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm to mind for me while reading Craig’s novel. A couple of pages later she pleasingly tips her hat to Gibbons with a quote.

Gibbons’ comic novel is widely acknowledged as a parody of the floridly romantic historical style epitomised by Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, set in Shropshire during the Napoleonic Wars.

Shropshire is the location for one of my childhood favourites, Malcolm Saville’s Seven White Gates which has some wonderfully atmospheric scenes on the Long Mynd.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from Alice’s adventures down a rabbit hole to a childhood favourite set in Shropshire. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

Books to Look Out for in November 2018: Part One

Cover imageNovember’s packed to the gills with goodies, not all of them obvious Christmas presents although I’d be surprised if Jonathan Coe’s Middle England doesn’t appear on one or two wish lists. Set in the Midlands and London, it follows the last eight years through the lives of a set of characters including a political commentator and a Tory MP. Dubbed ‘a story of nostalgia and irony; of friendship and rage, humour and intense bewilderment’ by the publishers, it sounds like the kind of novel at which Coe excels. It feels a very long time since Number 11 and the return of the Winshaws so expectations are high.

A close contender for top of my own wish list is Georgina Harding’s Land of the Living which is set partly in India during the Second World War from which Charlie has returned, marrying, settling on a farm and hoping to turn his back on what happened in the remote mountains of Nagaland. ‘A beautifully conceived, deftly controlled and delicately wrought meditation on the isolating impact of war, the troubling legacies of colonialism and the inescapable reach of the past, Georgina Harding’s haunting, lyrical novel questions the very nature of survival, and what it is that the living owe the dead’ say the publishers. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Harding, including her last novel, The Gun Room, which also tackled the theme of war.

Walter Kempowski’s Homeland examines the legacy of the Second World War from a different perspective. In 1988, a journalist is commissioned to report on a car rally, an assignment which will take him back to the place he was born in 1945 as refugees fled the Russian advance. ‘Homeland is a nuanced work from one of the great modern European storytellers, in which an everyday German comes face to face with his painful family history, and devastating questions about ordinary Germans’ complicity in the war’ say the publishers promisingly. And it’s translated by one of my favourites: Charlotte Collins

Gerard Reve’s Childhood comprises two novellas: one set in wartime Amsterdam as a young boy watches the German occupation of his city, the other about a children’s secret society and its treatment of a newcomer. ‘In these two haunting novellas from the acclaimed author of The Evenings, the world of childhood, in all its magic and strangeness, darkness and cruelty, is evoked with piercing wit and dreamlike intensity. Here, the things seen through a child’s eyes are far from innocent’ say the publishers no doubt hoping for the same success that met Reve’s bleak but darkly funny The Evenings.Cover image

I’m polishing off this first selection on a more cheerful note with Matias Faldbakken’s The Waiter, set in Oslo where the eponymous waiter works at the city’s grandest restaurant. Our waiter knows his clientele well, tending to their every whim while sharply observing their various shenanigans. ‘Exquisitely observed and wickedly playful, The Waiter is a novel for lovers of food, wine, and of European sensibilities, but also for anyone who spends time in restaurants, on either side of the service’ say the publishers which sounds just great.

That’s it for the first batch of November’s goodies. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for anything that’s taken your fancy. Second instalment to follow soon…

Six Degrees of Separation – from Pride and Prejudice to Under the Visible Life #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we’re starting with Pride and Prejudice. It would have taken a very determined person to avoid Jane Austen’s sharply observed, elegantly expressed novel on love and marriage among the English bourgeoisie over the last couple of decades. There have been a multitude of tributes paid to it, not least the BBC TV series featuring a wet-shirted Colin Firth emerging from a lake after a swim. Not sure what Austen would have made of that.

Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary is surely the best known of those tributes, all about a young woman’s trials trying to find the man of her dreams when he’s practically under her nose. He’s even called Darcy which might have given her a clue. In a clever bit of casting, the much-ogled Firth played Darcy in the Bridget Jones films which may even have eclipsed the books in terms of their success.

Bridget Jones began life in a newspaper column in the now defunct print version of the Independent which leads me to Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, originally a San Francisco Chronicle column, also all about relationships with a good deal of product placement and outlandish adventure thrown in. I loved them but not the TV adaptation which failed to capture the charm of the books for me.

Which leads me to another TV adaptation, this time a successful one. I posted an entry in my Blasts from the Past series recently on Jake Arnott’s tale of 1960s East End gangsterism, The Long Firm, which prompted me to seek out the DVD of the BBC’s excellent dramatisation, It turned out to be just as good as I remembered – Mark Strong fits the part of Arnott’s complex Harry Starks perfectly.

When I passed Arnott’s novel onto H, my resident contemporary historian, he was struck by the accuracy of its period detail. The only other novel I can think of that fits this exacting bill is Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club, so good H included it on his undergraduate reading list for the period. It’s about four school friends growing up ’70s Birmingham and facing strikes, IRA bombs and appalling fashion trends.

Coe wrote a book called Expo ’58 set in the same year as Roddy Doyle, author of The Commitments, was born. Doyle’ s funny, touching novel is set in working class Dublin and follows a group of disparate people who form a band, belting out classic soul numbers. While some of the members are there for lack of anything else to do its the camaraderie of making music that keeps them together despite their many falling outs.

Which brings me to my last book, one which I’ll grab any chance to write about – Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life about two very different women bound together by their love of music in a friendship that endures through love lost and won; marriage, arranged and otherwise; and raising children in the most difficult circumstances. Music is the breath of life to Katherine and Mahsa, running through their story like a constant yet ever-changing refrain. A memorable, beautifully written novel

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from an early nineteenth century classic about love and marriage to a novel about friendship and a shared love of music. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

Books of the Year 2015: Part 4

Cover imageMy fourth and final selection begins with an award-winning novel. After differing with both the Baileys and the Man Booker judges I’ve finally found a set I can agree with: the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. Of course, they’d made their minds up in June and I only got around to reading Jo Mazelis’ utterly engrossing Significance in October. There’s a crime but this isn’t a crime novel – it’s a study in human nature and the way we interact and observe each other. Mazelis leads us down a multitude of cul-de-sacs and wrong turnings, filling in the back stories of each of her characters no matter how peripheral they might appear. By showing events from so many points of view, she draws her readers into a rich tapestry of interpretation and misinterpretation. A gripping first novel, thoroughly deserving of its prize.

October’s other treat was Zimbawean author Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory. Within the first brief paragraph, Gappah manages to hook you with both a grisly death and the announcement that Memory, our narrator, was sold to a strange man by her parents. She’s now on death row for the murder of Lloyd, the white man she went to live with when she was nine years old. Gappah teases out the threads of Memory’s past, slowly revealing her story, warning us that ‘It’s hard for the truth to emerge clearly from a twenty-year fog of distant memory’ then delivering a devastating denouement. A multitude of well-aimed barbs are shot at modern Zimbabwe, all served up with a helping of acerbic humour in the form of prison banter and Memory’s acidic wit.

We’re all over familiar with ‘dazzling debuts’, ‘stunning achievements’ and the like so that when a book comes along that is truly original, absolutely dazzling, those descriptions ring hollow. Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither comes into that category for me and two sets of literary judges agreed: it’s on the Costa First Novel shortlist and it won the Rooney Prize for Irish literature. It’s the story of fifty-seven-year-old Ray who on one of his weekly shopping trips spots a notice in the window of the local junk shop showing a dog as ugly as he thinks himself. Ray claims One Eye from the dog pound and soon the two are inseparable. Over the course of a year Ray tell his sad story to the only friend he’s ever had. As its title suggests, Baume’s novel is told in wonderfully poetic, sometimes musical language. She paints vividly gorgeous word pictures of the natural world, weaving observations of the changing seasons through Ray’s narrative. It’s the saddest of stories but without a hint of sentimentality.Cover image

My final choice is entirely different. Way back in the mid-‘90s, Jonathan Coe published What a Carve Up!, a wickedly funny satire on Thatcherism in which the Winshaw family had their fingers in a multitude of nasty pies. Twenty years later and they’re back. Beginning in 2003, Number 11 follows ten-year-old friends Rachel and Alison over a decade during which many of the roads they travel will lead back to the nefarious shenanigans of the Winshaws. Number 11 bears several familiar Coe trademarks: intricate plotting, comic misunderstanding and arcane film references. It’s a very funny novel but, as with all good satire, its subject is deadly serious: the ever more gaping divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Honourable mentions to Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last,  Jo Bloom’s Ridley Road, Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors and Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us.

And if I had to choose one? Impossible as ever – last year it was a three-way between Shotgun Lovesongs, With a Zero at its Heart and The Miniaturist. This year looks like a four-way between Weathering, A God in Ruins, Spill, Simmer, Falter Wither and The Mountain Can Wait.

That’s it for my reading year highlights. What about you? What are your 2015 favourites?

Books to Look Out For in November 2015: Part 1

Cover imageWell, knock me down with a feather! I would never have expected to be posting a two-part November hardback preview. Often it’s a rather dull publishing month but here it is: part one of two starting off with a new Jonathan Coe. I’m treating this one with caution as after many years of Coe fandom I’ve gone off the boil with his last few novels although Number 11 apparently features members of the loathsome Winshaw family, characters from the wonderful What a Carve Up!, in what sounds like a lacerating satire on the state of the nation ‘where bankers need cinemas in their basements and others need food banks down the street’. Sounds very promising.

Rupert Thomson’s inventive fiction wanders about all over the place which is part of its charm for me. His last novel, the excellent Secrecy, was set in seventeenth-century Florence but Katherine Carlyle jumps forward four centuries to the twenty-first. The product of an IVF embryo, frozen then implanted into her mother’s womb eight years later, nineteen-year-old Katherine decides to disappear after her mother dies from cancer and her father becomes increasingly distant. A ’profound and moving novel about where we come from, what we make of ourselves, and how we are loved’ say its publishersCover image.

Despite frequently proclaiming that I’m not a short story fan I’ve reviewed several collections here this year and am about to recommend another short story writer – Helen Simpson whose smart, witty collection of linked stories Hey Yeah Right Get a Life had me hooked. The link for Cockfosters is Tube stations which should appeal to London commuters and seems tailor-made for a Transport for London advertising campaign although it does venture outside of the confines of the metropolis, apparently. She’s very funny – sharply observant of human foibles but compassionate with it

cover imageMy last choice for this first batch is Anna Gavalda’s Life, Only Better, two novellas published in one volume. In one a twenty-four-year-old woman changes her life entirely after a man returns the bag she thought she’d lost and in the other, dinner with a neighbour spurs on an unhappy young man to start afresh. I loved Breaking Away with its bright red 2CV adorning the jacket. We used to own one just like it before seeing a distressing number with engines smoking or, once, in flames.

That’s it for the first batch of November titles. You may have noticed a common thread running through this selection, all by authors of books I’ve already read. All but one of the next lot will be entirely new to me. As ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis, and if you want to catch up with either October’s hardbacks or paperbacks they’re here and here.

Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe: a romp that reads like an Ealing Comedy

Cover imageIt’s been a while since a new Jonathan Coe novel has lived up to my, admittedly, high expectations – they’ve been too far into ‘state of the nation’ territory, lacking the humour that made What a Carve Up! and The Rotters’ Club so appealing – but Expo 58 is a return to form. Set in Belgium, it follows the exploits of Thomas Foley a copywriter at the Central Office of Information seconded to oversee Britain’s showpiece pub at the eponymous festival celebrating the achievements of the shiny new post-war world.

His bosses grumpily mutter about ‘those bloody Belgians’ and their dreadful food, but Thomas, married with a young child, scents an adventure and that’s just what he gets. He’s a little unsettled by Wayne and Radford, two gabardine-mac wearing spooks who give him a hilarious vetting in a coffee bar, and wonders about the funny clicking noises on his phone but he’s looking forward to a break from his humdrum suburban life. He arrives to find that he’s sharing a room with the amiable Tony, a scientist in charge of Britain’s great hope in the nuclear fusion race, the ZETA-machine. Apart from the tipsy landlord and his surly barmaid, Shirley Knott (think about it), all goes well at the Britannia which soon becomes the international draw the festival was set up to be. The editor of the Russian news-sheet flatteringly seeks Thomas out for his copywriting skills, an American customer soon overcomes his annoyance at Shirley’s tardy service and becomes a regular, and, of course, Tony is frequently to be found at the bar.

This being the Cold War there are spies everywhere although Thomas is too naïve to notice until Wayne and Radford appear on the scene with a little job for him. Part of the fun is working out who is spying on whom, although there are some pretty heavy hints dropped along the way, and Wayne and Radford fill us in very satisfyingly at the end of Thomas’s time in Brussels. It’s a very funny novel, a romp which at times reads like an Ealing Comedy: Coe’s portrayal of upper class 1950s Britons is particularly sharp. There’s the odd anachronism – loft-living in 1950s New York? – but I’d hardly have noticed had I not been handing it over to H who’s been doing his best to keep his covetous mitts of it. Just the ticket to cheer up those of us plunging headlong toward the great British winter.

The anachrohumph: a definition

Yesterday evening after a long day spent reading – me the intriguing Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux and my partner a pile of dissertations for marking – we decided to plonk ourselves on the sofa and catch up with Endeavour, ITV’s prequel to Morse. Along with most of the UK, I seem to be hooked on quality crime TV although I rarely read crime fiction. Broadchurch, the BBC4 Scandi-crime roll call, not to mention The Sopranos and The Wire are all up there at the top of my viewing favourites. For most people, I’m sure, Endeavour is cosy, relaxing viewing but for us it’s fraught with tense moments which have little to do with the plot for, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, my partner is a contemporary historian and the 60s are one of his stomping grounds. Things went pretty well last night, just a couple of phrases: ‘I’d like to speak with her’ – ‘to her’, we Rotters Clubchorused – followed by ‘they were gifted it’ which met with a groan but there have been so many harrumphs over anachronisms in the past that I felt moved to come up with a description and anachrohumph seems to fit the bill. The worst outbreak of anachrohumphing I can remember was twenty minutes into Stephen Poliakoff’s Glorious 39 when H anarchrohumphed right out of the cinema. Still, at least I was left in peace to enjoy the rest of the film. Ignorance really is bliss occasionally. Novels set a few decades ago are dangerous territory, then, but Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club passes the test with flying colours. Set in Birmingham, four school friends face the combined terrors of growing up in the 70s: strikes, IRA bombs not too mention appalling fashion. It’s a political novel with a seriously funny heart which excels when Coe turns his talents to the minutiae of British life. And it’s guaranteed anachrohumph-free.