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.

 

2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Challenge

Okay so I have decided to do an alphabetical reading challenge this year. It took a little while to find this one – a lot of A-Z challenges seem to be by title which I didn’t want. I have settled on the 2020 Alphabet Soup challenge which is hosted by Escape With Dollycas. It’s rules are quite simple. Pick a book written by someone whose first, middle or last name starts with each letter of the alphabet and keep a record of each one.

It isn’t obligatory to decide in advance what books to read but I love a list and also need a reason to stick to a challenge. I’ve tried to make it by surname as much as I can and am yet to find anyone for Q or X. Any recommendations for either of those would be gratefully received.

Allende, Isabelle – The Stories of Eva Luna

Boyne, John – The Hearts Invisible Furies

Coe, Jonathan – Middle England

Doyle, Arthur Conan – The Return of Sherlock Holmes

Ellison, Ralph – Invisible Man

Faulks, Sebastian – Paris Echo

Gray, Alasdair – Lanark

Hollinghurst, Alan – The Line of Beauty

Ishiguro, Kazuo – The Remains of the Day

James, P.D. Death Comes to Pemberley 

Kramer, Larry – Faggots

Le Guin, Ursula – A Wizard of Earthsea

Maud, Constance – No Surrender

Nabakov, Vladimir – Lolita

O’Farrell, Maggie – The Hand that Once Held Mine

Palahniuk, Chuck – Survivor

Quick, Matthew – Boy21

Rankin, Ian – In the House of Lies

Sagan, Carl – Contact

Tremain, Rose – Music and Silence

Updike, John – Rabbit Run

Vera Brittain – Testament of Youth

Williams, John – Stoner

X

Young, Neil – Shakey

Zusaz, Marcus – Bridge of Clay

 

My Reading Year incl. TBR Challenge Round Up

It’s been a strange reading year. I only just managed to make my Goodreads Challenge of reading 40 books this year, finishing a biography of Emmeline Pankhurst on New Year’s Eve. I found some books a real slog, even giving up on The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older but I find it harder to continue with something if I’m not absolutely loving it. I absolutely hate not finishing things – there’s always the possibility that it will get better – but when you are ignoring a book and getting out of bed and working instead of lying in and reading then you know that you need to have rethink. I also seem to have less reading opportunities. Partly because I’m writing more, partly because I’m doing more examining work. So I don’t get as many books read as I used to.

To be honest, the year started badly. I was still struggling through Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow which I started the year before for a reading challenge. It was hard work and seems to have set the tone for the year. I’m all for reading books that are considered challenging and there is kudos to be had from having finished it but it was not a fun reading experience.

The best books this year were The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith which was a thrilling read, Choke by Chuck Palahnuik which I enjoyed even more than Fight Club, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes which was a great piece of science fiction and The Shipping News by Annie Proulx which was an absolute revelation. A great read that I would definitely recommend.

That brings me nicely onto the TBR challenge, hosted by Roof Beam Reader (sadly for the last time).  I managed to read 12 books – although as I abandoned Tristan Smith, I had to read one of my alternates – ending with Emmeline Pankhurst on New Year’s Eve. I read one a month and I probably could have made it less difficult by reading them more quickly. As ever, they were a mixed bunch. Sometimes books have stayed on your shelf for a reason. The highlights were The Shipping News, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, Thank Your For the Days by Mark Radcliffe and The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. Less enjoyable was A Room with a View by E. M. Forster, The Beetle by Richard Marsh and The Virgin’s Lover by Philippa Gregory which was my only one star read this year.

I also read a couple of books that have been popular and I’m always curious to know why. I don’t know why I do this as inevitably I don’t like them must. This year’s were Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher which seemed like just another version of the girl needs to die so the boy can have a revelation about himself and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman which I just found annoying. It was easy to see why both these books struck a chord with people though and were probably justly popular.

As for next year, I’m not sure what to do. I’ve set the Goodreads challenge to 40 books again but I’m undecided as to whether to do a reading challenge or not. Ideally, it would need to be something like the TBR Challenge which focuses on the books on my shelf. Challenges with categories often require me to buy books and I’m trying not to do that at the minute. Also, there always seems to be some category that I know I’m going to hate before I even start and that seems pointless. The two books I’m currently reading (In the House of Lies by Ian Rankin and Middle England by Jonathan Coe) are both very good so I hope I have got this year off to a better start.

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.

Well, I failed to finish a book – why does that feel so bad?

First of all, I hate not finishing a book. It’s a horrible thing to do because for all you know, you may be missing a wonderful read later on. It may be hard in the beginning but there may be rewards later. So I don’t give up easily. I struggled with parts of War and Peace but I was certain that the pay off would be worth it and it was. That’s the thing if you struggle on – generally, it feels worth it because if nothing else, you got to the end.

Also, it is hard to know when to let go. How far in do you need to be before you know that nothing is going to change for you? It’s a difficult one. Too soon and you’d definitely have regrets and wonders; too far in and you might as well finish it. This time I was about a quarter of the way in. Seemed like far enough that I’d know.

The book in question was The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey and it was one of my books for the TBR challenge. (So now I have to read one of my alternates. The Shipping News by Annie Prouix, if anyone’s interested.) I’d read Peter Carey – Bliss and The True History of the Kelly Gang – and enjoyed his writing before. But this, I just couldn’t get to grips with it. I was avoiding reading it – always a good sign that you need to abandon a book.

I appreciate that this book is quite the feat of writing. Carey has invented an entire new country, along with that country’s language. The novel revolves around a group of actors after the birth of Tristan – a very unusual boy. He wants to be an actor but no one else wants that for him; in fact they suggest it is impossible for him, given his deformities.

There are lots of quirky characters – none of which seem quite believable. The plot is based on the rivalry between Efica and Voorstand (for Efica read Australia and Voorstand maybe England or America) and the different cultural and political systems. Some of which was very clever but it didn’t move me and I found myself zoning out when I was reading it.

So there we are – an unfinished book. I feel guilty for not finishing  – which I’m aware is slightly ridiculous. But at the end of the day, life’s too short for bad books. Although to be fair, this isn’t bad, just not to my taste.