More than Middling

3 08 2019

Middle England by Jonathan Coe


Beginning eight years ago on the outskirts of Birmingham, where car factories have been replaced by Poundland, and London, where frenzied riots give way to Olympic fever, Middle England follows a brilliantly vivid cast of characters through a time of immense change.

There are newlyweds Ian and Sophie, who disagree about the future of the country and, possibly, the future of their relationship; Doug, the political commentator who writes impassioned columns about austerity from his Chelsea townhouse, and his radical teenage daughter who will stop at nothing in her quest for social justice; Benjamin Trotter, who embarks on an apparently doomed new career in middle age, and his father Colin, whose last wish is to vote in the European referendum. And within all these lives is the story of modern England: a story of nostalgia and delusion; of bewilderment and barely-suppressed rage.

Dealing with contemporary and ongoing events in a novel can be challenging (see this recent review of a largely unsuccessful effort) but Coe manages it here with some style. This is the third novel in the rather extended series of The Rotters’ Club (excellent) and The Closed Circle (much less impressive) and really represents a terrific conclusion to the trilogy (if indeed it turns out to be the final one).

The older and wiser (well, a little perhaps) characters have lost none of their original force and the dealings with their various parents and offspring are really well represented. All of the goings on are extremely smartly represented against the pre- and post-referendum backdrop which fuels much of the debate.

A really great read and a delight to be reunited with Benjamin and friends.

four stars


Digital dystopia

27 07 2019

Perfidious Albion by Sam Byers


In Edmundsbury, a small town in east England, fear and loathing are on the rise. It is the near future; Brexit has happened and the ramifications are real. Grass-roots right-wing political party ‘England Always’ are fomenting hatred. The residents of a failing housing estate are being manipulatively cleared from their homes. A multinational tech company is making inroads into the infrastructure. Just as social tensions appear to reach crisis point, masked men begin a series of ‘disruptions’, threatening to make internet histories public, asking the townspeople ‘what don’t you want to share?’


The setting of the very near future feels reasonably credible but you suspect is going to look rather dated quite soon as the nightmare reality of the UK today overtakes the dystopian landscape depicted here. Social media features significantly and is probably the reason this will feel out of date quite quickly. It’s a pretty pacy read but none of the characters is particularly likeable and it’s hard to care that much as things slowly fall apart.

Not wholly unenjoyable though although with one of the reviews describing this as being “like an episode of Black Mirror as scripted by a “woke” Martin Amis” you know it really is not going to be great.

And it really does have an extremely poor and immensely irritating ending.

It was a very good year

20 07 2019

1971 – Never a Dull Moment: Rock’s Golden Year by David Hepworth


The Sixties ended a year late – on New Year’s Eve 1970, when Paul McCartney initiated proceedings to wind up The Beatles. Music would never be the same again.
The next day would see the dawning of a new era. 1971 saw the release of more monumental albums than any year before or since and the establishment of a pantheon of stars to dominate the next forty years – Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Marvin Gaye, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Rod Stewart, the solo Beatles and more.
January that year fired the gun on an unrepeatable surge of creativity, technological innovation, blissful ignorance, naked ambition and outrageous good fortune. By December rock had exploded into the mainstream.
How did it happen? This book tells you how. It’s the story of 1971, rock’s golden year.

This is the kind of thing David Hepworth does extremely well. His detailed, month by month exposition of all the remarkable musical things which happened in the golden year of 1971 really takes some beating. From the Rolling Stones to Bowie, The Who to the Carpenters and Don McLean to Carole King he covers them all. It’s a decent thesis and the evidence is all pretty powerful just by by the sheer volume and quality of the music but at the end of it, this is really just an arbitrary 12 month period in the great history of music. Still, all the stories are outstanding – well worth a read.


four stars

Lethal stuff

13 07 2019

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith



When Billy, a troubled young man, comes to private eye Cormoran Strike’s office to ask for his help investigating a crime he thinks he witnessed as a child, Strike is left deeply unsettled. While Billy is obviously mentally distressed, and cannot remember many concrete details, there is something sincere about him and his story. But before Strike can question him further, Billy bolts from his office in a panic.

Trying to get to the bottom of Billy’s story, Strike and Robin Ellacott – once his assistant, now a partner in the agency – set off on a twisting trail that leads them through the backstreets of London, into a secretive inner sanctum within Parliament, and to a beautiful but sinister manor house deep in the countryside.

And during this labyrinthine investigation, Strike’s own life is far from straightforward: his newfound fame as a private eye means he can no longer operate behind the scenes as he once did. Plus, his relationship with his former assistant is more fraught than it ever has been – Robin is now invaluable to Strike in the business, but their personal relationship is much, much more tricky than that . . .

As entertaining as the previous ones and with an intricate and twisting plot which keeps going right to the end. Strike and Robin remain completely compelling characters and their relationship continues to be absorbing. Great stuff as ever but perhaps just a tad over long. It’s hard to be too critical of this though as remains gripping from start to finish.


four stars

Let’s hear it for the band

6 07 2019

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid


They were the new icons of rock and roll, fated to burn bright and not fade away.
But on 12 July 1979, it all came crashing down.

There was Daisy, rock and roll force of nature, brilliant songwriter and unapologetic drug addict, the half-feral child who rose to superstardom.

There was Camila, the frontman’s wife, too strong-willed to let the band implode – and all too aware of the electric connection between her husband and Daisy.

There was Karen, ice-cool keyboardist, a ferociously independent woman in a world that wasn’t ready for her.

And there were the men surrounding them: the feuding, egotistical Dunne brothers, the angry guitarist chafing on the sidelines, the drummer binge-drinking on his boat, the bassist trying to start a family amid a hedonistic world tour. They were creative minds striking sparks from each other, ready to go up in flames.

It’s never just about the music…

I always enjoy this kind of thing and wasn’t disappointed. There are plenty of cliches of rock excess in here (and some musical stereotypes too)  and the journalistic style with the interspersing of a range of first person recollections can be a little wearing at times but on the whole it really tears along and takes the reader on a rollercoaster ride with the soaring 70s band after which the book is named.

Two downsides only. Firstly, it really doesn’t seem credible that an established band would allow a new member to join and then put their name up front without a hell of a contractual argument. Secondly, I never can stand fictional songs. Analysing songs which never actually existed (and the lyrics of which are appended in full) has always struck me as particularly pointless.

It reminded me a lot of Iain Banks’ wonderful Espedair Street (which I now need to go back and read again soon) but didn’t quite match some of the background detail and rich texture of the story of Frozen Gold although many of the features, styling and influences are similar.

Anyway, if like me you are a sucker for a cracking story about a fictional band then this comes highly recommended.


Colonial crime and corruption

29 06 2019

A Madras Miasma by Brian Stoddart



Madras in the 1920s. The British are slowly losing the grip on the subcontinent. The end of the colonial enterprise is in sight and the city on India’s east coast is teeming with intrigue. A grisly murder takes place against the backdrop of political tension and Superintendent Le Fanu, a man of impeccable investigative methods, is called in to find out who killed a respectable young British girl and dumped her in a canal, her veins clogged with morphine. As Le Fanu, a man forced to keep his own personal relationship a secret for fear of scandal in the face British moral standards, begins to investigate, he quickly slips into a quagmire of Raj politics, rebellion and nefarious criminal activities that threaten not just to bury his case but the fearless detective himself. The first Detective Le Fanu Adventure, A Madras Miasma, tells a classic tale of murder, corruption and intrigue with a sharp eye on British colonial politics and race relations. It is a story that, like its main protagonist, has its heart firmly in the right place.

A rare thing this, an erudite crime thriller written by a former Vice-Chancellor. Stoddart, whose research covers India and South Asia, wears his learning lightly but nevertheless portrays the decline of British colonial rule in a quite convincing way. It’s also a really great yarn and Detective Le Fanu is a compelling central figure. Intriguing, pacy and intelligent it is well worth reading and I’m looking forward to the next ones in the series.

four stars

It was a very bad year

22 06 2019

Diary of a bad year by J M Coetzee

An eminent, ageing Australian writer is invited to contribute to a book entitled Strong Opinions. For him, troubled by Australia’s complicity in the wars in the Middle East,it is a chance to air some urgent concerns: how should a citizen of a modern democracy react to their state’s involvement in an immoral war on terror, a war that involves the use of torture?

Then in the laundry room of his apartment block he encounters an alluring young woman. He offers her work typing up his manuscript. Anya is not interested in politics, but the job will be a welcome distraction, as will the writer’s evident attraction towards her. Her boyfriend, Alan, is an investment consultant who understands the world in harsh economic terms. Suspicious of his trophy girlfriend’s new pastime, Alan begins to formulate a plan…

It’s not his finest work by any stretch but nevertheless still extremely well written with the  contrast between the donnish author and the vibrant Anya providing the core entertainment. There is a lot of seemingly autobiographical material in here, plenty of political critique and amusing mockery of the writer. Worth a read, as always.

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