Tag Archives: Number 11

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?

Number 11 by Jonathan Coe: The Winshaws are back…

Cover imageWay 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. I was in bookselling at the time and my Penguin rep and good friend, A, gave me a proof, praising it to the skies. Twenty years later and the Winshaws are back. Thanks to A who handed over a copy of Number 11 when we met for lunch last weekend I’ve been chortling over their return. Sadly, Coe has just as much to satirise now as he did all those years ago and much of it in the same vein.

Ten-year-old Rachel and her friend Alison are visiting Rachel’s grandparents when the news of David Kelly’s death breaks. It’s the first death, perhaps the first bit of news, that Rachel registers and it has a profound effect on her. She and Alison make an uneasy alliance. It’s their mothers who are the real friends, both single parents hoping for a bit of fun during their break in the sun. When Alison finds what she thinks is a dead body together with a few playing cards – one marked distinctively with a spider – she drags a reluctant Rachel off to see it, only to find the corpse has disappeared. Suddenly a hand seizes a second playing card left abandoned, terrifying the girls. The hand belongs to the Mad Bird Woman who Rachel remembers flying a kestrel one half-term visit with her brother. Alison, by far the sassier of the two, persuades Rachel that they need to get to the bottom of the mystery. Taking their courage in their hands, they visit No 11, the house on Needless Alley where the Mad Bird Woman lives, and find that appearances are not always what they seem. Coe’s novel follows Rachel and Alison over the next decade during which many of the roads they travel will lead back to the nefarious shenanigans of the Winshaws, taking swipes at all manner of things from reality TV to factory farming along the way.

‘Sequels which are not really sequels. Sequels where the relationship to the original is obilque, slippery’ notes one of Coe’s characters in an essay on film. Maybe Coe’s warning us about thinking of Number 11 as a sequel to What a Carve Up! but the ghosts of the Winshaw family, who met such a satisfyingly sticky end, are everywhere. Perhaps it’s a  political comment rather than a literary one. Whichever, Number 11 bears many familiar Coe trademarks: intricate plotting, comic misunderstanding and arcane film references reflecting his early career as a cinema critic. The final section is a winning combination of Ealing Comedy and B-movie horror. 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. People who look like you or me are forced to resort to food banks while Rachel’s employers dig down eleven floors for a basement for one of their six homes just because they can. This is Coe’s eleventh novel – expect the number eleven to pop up again and again – but something tells me that the Number 11 he has in his sights is the chancellor’s. Maybe it’s that infamous George Osborne quote ‘We’re all in this together’ which precedes the final chapter, What a Whopper! Bit of a giveaway.

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.