2020 Alphabet Soup Author Challenge – Middle England – Jonathan Coe

Genre: Literary fiction

Narrative Style: Third person from multiple viewpoints

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2018  

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Coe returns to the Trotter family to examine the state of the nation in the run up to and following the vote to leave the EU. 

Having read the previous two books in this series, I was fairly sure that I would enjoy this. Also, I thought it would be interesting to see what novelists might be making of Brexit and the way that it seems to have torn the country apart.

Middle England is a funny and clever read andCoe has an easy to read style. Going back over such recent political history reminded me of exactly what the run up to the referendum was like. Coe shows both the casual racism of the leave voters and the stark horror and naivety of remainers. He isn’t particularly judgemental about either side, preferring to focus on the conflict caused in families and between friends.

My favourite part of the novel was the various descriptions of the characters watching the opening ceremony to the 2012 olympics. Coe carefully showcases their differing attitudes and how they are variously sucked into the ceremony almost against their better interest. There is only Benjamin who genuinely has no interest in what is happening. Indeed, he wanders through the novel in a sort of self-absorbed fog, missing the fact that the woman he has been dating is in love with him completely.

This is a very middle class book. Benjamin, who no longer needs to work, finally has the leisure to write his masterpiece. Sophie his niece is a lecturer, as is her best friend, Sohan. Doug, an old school friend, is a journalist. At the end of the novel, Benjamin and his sister, Lois, escape from England into the countryside of France before the Brexit deadline. They have the money to escape the worst of what Brexit has to offer. I must admit I found this a little irritating. As a solution to the Brexit problem, it is extremely limited.

Another irritant was the story arc of Sophie. When she marries Ian, who she met after being caught speeding and taking his course instead of a fine, it seems doomed to fail as we have already been given hints of his right wing views. This finally comes to a head after the referendum and they separate. I thought that this was good for Sophie but by the end of the novel, she is back with Ian and also pregnant (despite not wanting children earlier in the novel. This was a little disappointing and it felt as if Coe couldn’t imagine what to do with her or a better way to end a female story.

All in all though, this was an enjoyable read which cleverly describes the way the country is split at the moment.

 

 

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Challenge – Ian Rankin – In a House of Lies

Genre: British Detective, Scottish Fiction

Narrative Style: Third person from multiple viewpoints.

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2018

Format: Paperback

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet soup Author Challenge.

I always enjoy a Rebus story. This one was a Christmas present and I couldn’t wait to get stuck in. On the whole, I wasn’t disappointed – as you can see from my rating – but it has to be said, I’m not sure how long Rankin can keep this up for.

When a body turns up in the boot of a car and it turns out to be the body of Stuart Bloom, Rebus knows that he could be in a lot of trouble. He was part of the original inquiry when Stuart disappeared. To say it hadn’t gone well would be an understatement. On top of that, Siobhan Clarke is receiving anonymous phone calls and has had graffiti sprayed on her front door.

This is a tale of the ways policing has changed. Although the original inquiry was in 2006, it feels much older. Stuart Bloom was gay and that had a huge effect on the original enquiry with homophobia being just one of the many problems. There are cops taking backhanders, working for shady businessmen in their spare time as well as cops like Rebus, trying desperately to hide everyone else’s lies. Interviews and meetings were fabricated. All of which is now being looked at very closely by Malcolm Fox, a man who Rebus has had run ins with before.

As ever, there is a lot of moral ambiguity in Rankin’s writing. We want the good guys to win obviously but Rebus does not always follow the rule book. For me, that is his main charm. Siobhan, so long under his wing, is similarly likely to follow her own tune. So the question is whether you allow for their breaking of the rules because it is in the name of justice or believe that they are tainted by their actions. Certainly the right people get their comeuppance but whether Rebus should get into more trouble than he does is another question entirely.

My one complaint would be that as Rebus gets older, it gets harder and harder for Rankin to find a place for him within the police force. He is very much a civilian and, at times, he feels shoe horned into the narrative. I’m not sure how many more times Rankin will be able to manage it. Which is a shame but both Clarke is an interesting character. It may be time to give her the lead.

 

TBR Challenge: Emmeline Pankhurst by Paula Bartley

Genre: Biography, History, Women’s Rights

Narrative Style: Third person, academic

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2002

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Bartley’s biography takes us from Emmeline’s childhood, through her early years in Manchester, her move into militancy and her work on sexual health after the fight for suffrage was won.

Reading Challenges – TBR Challenge 

Time on shelf: Not entirely sure but my mam bought it for me and she died six years ago so at least that long.

I guess I suspected that this might be hard going as I left it until last to read for this challenge. While I am interested in the fight for the vote and Emmeline herself seemed to be quite a character, this was a bit of a drag to read. I don’t read much in the way of political biographies (or even biographies at all, if truth be told) so I don’t know if the style is typical but I did find it a bit dry.

Obviously, the most interesting part was Pankhurst’s years of militancy in the run up to the first world war and that is undoubtedly her main legacy. The rest of her story paled in comparison to those years. The main thing that kept the interest through the rest of the biography was the sheer force of Pankhurst’s personality and her inability to deal with people who did not completely agree with her. This let to many splits with members of the WSPU, not to mention her father and her daughter, Sylvia. Emmeline expected total and utter loyalty to her and her ideas and if that couldn’t be managed then she had no problem with cutting all ties.

I’m glad to have read the biography and have a little more knowledge of a very important woman but I’d be lying if I said I’d 100% enjoyed it. If you have a more academic interest than no doubt this would be a useful resource but for the more causal reader, not so much.

TBR Challenge – The Shipping News – Annie Proulx

Genre: Literary fiction, Masculinity

Narrative Style: Third person from varying points of view

Rating: 5/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 1993

Synopsis: When Quoyle’s unfaithful wife meets her end in a car crash, he decides to move back to Newfoundland where his family were originally from with his two daughters and an old aunt. Here he starts his life anew, writing the Shipping News for a local paper and discovering that love doesn’t need to involve pain.

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge hosted by Roof Beam Reader. 

Time on Shelf: Not entirely sure. But some time after Brokeback mountain came out, I read the short story collection that Brokeback Mountain came from and then bought this not long after that. 

This is one of those books where I was so glad to have read it. Why did I wait so long to do so? Actually, I know the answer to that one. The title, The Shipping News, really put me off. I had expectations that it would be about shipping and different types of boat. It was nothing like that.

It is quite slow paced, seemingly matching the life of the Newfoundlanders. Everyday life is captured successfully and if that sounds tedious, it really isn’t. The novel is populated with strange and interesting characters who don’t always behave in expected ways. It is more a series of small happenings, than one over-arching plot line.

Quoyle – the main character – is really quite hopeless. He loves his two-timing wife despite her infidelities because that is what he believes love should be like. He almost misses a second chance at love with Wavey because it looks different to this model. He is moved by the forces of life and death, seemingly doing little of his own volition – at least, at first. But for all that, it is easy to empathise with him, left with two unruly daughters and a large house that is falling to pieces.

There are a lot of supporting characters, all of whom seem to have absurd names such as Tert Card, Petal Bear and Nutbeam. All have some bearing on Quoyle’s life, be it at the paper where he writes the Shipping News, The Gammy Bird, or in the small town where he resides. By the end of the novel, Quoyle has a satisfying job, friends and the possibility of love with Wavey. In some ways, this novel has the hallmarks of a bildungsroman except that Quoyle is a grown man at the beginning.

Proulx has an interesting prose style. There are lots of short, incomplete sentences which I can imagine some would find annoying but which I quite liked. The style is clipped, straight forward and I found it easy to read. There is some depressing imagery. After all, this book describes some bleak locations. But it wasn’t heavy going and it fitted the mood of the novel, particularly in the first half.

So I would say to anyone who has this sitting on their shelf – don’t let it languish there. This is definitely a worthwhile read.

TBR Challenge 2019: The Plague by Albert Camus

Genre: Disease, Allegory, Classics

Narrative Style: First person but which gives the points of view of lots of other characters

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1947

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: In the town of Oran in North Africa, the rats are starting to die in unprecedented numbers. The locals start to panic. Then people start to die from a unexplained fever. At first the authorities do not believe what the doctor knows, this is a return of the bubonic plague. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge 2019 – Time on Shelf – about five years.

This was an interesting rather than an enjoyable read. Camus is a clever observer of human frailties and the descriptions of the various reactions to first, the plague and then, the quarantining of the town, seem apt and still have resonance today. However, the characters felt a little flat, a little too of a type to have real emotional resonance.

There are many ways of reading this novel. At first glance, it is merely the story of a town fighting for its life, going through various stages of reaction to an emergency. Various battles are fought at an interpersonal level. Then there are the sociological elements such as Doctor Rieux’s fight with the authorities to have the plague taken seriously and his willingness to sacrifice his own life to treat those that are sick. There is the priest who preaches that the plague is God’s punishment. Finally, there are allegorical elements as to what the plague represents. As this was written in 1947, the Nazi threat would likely be high in Camus’ mind. At the end of the novel, when the plague has retreated, many return to their lives confident that it will never return. Rieux knows better and that it will return when the circumstances are once again correct. If that is not a moral for our current times, I don’t know what is.

Camus’ style is readable and the novel is clever but I stayed detached. It felt like what it is, an allegorical tale, with characters serving that purpose rather than developing in their own right.

TBR Challenge – Powder – Kevin Sampson

Genre: Music, Masculinity

Narrative Style: Third person from various perspectives

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1999

Format: paperback

Synopsis: Keva McCluskey, lead singer with the unknown Liverpool band, The Grams, wants nothing more than the fame and success he feels are his due. When he meets Guy de Burnet, of newly formed Rehab records, he realises that his dreams may be about to come true. Will fellow band mates and manager, Wheezer, be a help or a hindrance on the way to the top. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge 2019

Time on Shelf: My husband bought this at the time. He read it and really enjoyed it. I didn’t get round to it. So twenty years after he recommended it, I finally read it. No wonder he doesn’t often recommend a book for me to read.

I really wasn’t sure what to rate this book. There were some things I really enjoyed about it but also some things I really didn’t. However, it is generally quite well written and I did feel compelled to read on so I guess the good points won out.

What I really liked about this was the way it reminded me of the nineties and of the music scene then – a time when I was very enthusiastic about music and a time before The X factor and all those talent shows. There is a genuine love of music behind this novel. It also seems like I would imagine it is like when a band first takes off with all the madness of touring and recording. Sampson has long been involved in the music industry – as a journalist and a manager – so the novel has an air of authenticity.

However, this is also a very laddish book. And in that it is also very much of its time. At times it felt like an extended edition of Nuts. It is full of lewd sexual encounters. In fact, most of the women in this novel are little more than holes to be filled by the band. I’m not a prude and some of these encounters were amusing especially as guitarist, James Love gets more and more twisted in his needs. It just would have been nice for some of these women to be given a personality not just body parts.

There are some similarities between this novel and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. It is obviously aiming for a similar grittiness and honesty. And it is written in a similar style with little in the way of over-arching plot – more a series of vignettes about the band and the various hangers on. However, it lacks the emotional depth of Welsh’s novel. The characters are stereotypical and do not develop. I felt little for them and didn’t really care whether the band would survive or not. James Love is similar to Welsh’s Sick Boy but there is no hint of anything underneath his womanising so it all becomes dull and tawdry.

Still, it was amusing and it did make me nostalgic so I’m not sorry to have read it. It is quite a long read at 500 pages. Maybe if it had been shorter, I wouldn’t have got so impatient towards the end.

 

 

TBR Challenge – A Room With A View – E.M. Forster

Genre: Classics, Romance

Narrative Style: third person, chronological

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1908

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Lucy is on holiday in Florence with her chaperone at the start of the novel. She is keen to experience life but is often hampered by the mores of the day and her conventional chaperone, Miss Bartlett. Her life is unbalanced when she meets the unconventional Emersons, particularly the son George. When she returns to England, her life no longer seems so straightforward. 

Reading Challenge – The 2019 TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf – about 5 years. This was inherited from my husband’s aunt. I felt I ought to read it rather than wanting to so I put it on the list to make sure that I did.

I definitely have mixed about A Room with a View. I liked it better than Where Angels fear to Tread which is the only other Forster I have read but I really didn’t like that so it’s not saying much. In a lot of ways, I feel about Forster like I feel about Austen. The writing is clever and sharp but ultimately doesn’t move me.

When I read Where Angels Fear to Tread, I thought I’d never met a writer who seemed so ill at ease with his own masculinity and that of other men. In this novel, it seemed that the unease could be extended to the whole human race. Forster observes his characters well but I felt he was removed from them. And as such, they seemed more like representations of certain ways of being rather than fully drawn characters.

The story itself is very simple. Lucy feels obliged to marry a man she does not love because he is from the right social class. She has to choose between him and the unconventional George, who works on the railways. Part of the problem is that we do not see that much of George so it is hard to understand exactly what it is that is so loveable about him.

I’m not a big fan of romance. And for all the social observation and cleverness that is all this is. It’s not a terrible book. It was pleasant to read, just not for me.