Profile for Jonathan Davidson > Reviews

Personal Profile

Content by Jonathan Davidson
Top Reviewer Ranking: 8,037
Helpful Votes: 140

Learn more about Your Profile.

Reviews Written by
Jonathan Davidson (The English Midlands)

Show:  
Page: 1 | 2 | 3
pixel
Destroyed Dresses
Destroyed Dresses
Price: 2.21

4.0 out of 5 stars Good short book, 8 Sep 2013
This review is from: Destroyed Dresses (Kindle Edition)
Destroyed Dresses is an excellent title; a suitable combination of the challenging and the domestic. And it is a very nicely designed book, witty without being overpowering. The poems are a perfect sampler of a new writer's work, a range of themes and subjects, but staying reasonably close to 'emotional' home. These are poems about growing up, becoming aware of the subtleties of the world, of time passing already. They are well observed, self-deprecating and self-aware. It is a very enjoyable book of poems, and one which I find I have been carrying around and dipping into for several months.


Expo 58
Expo 58
by Jonathan Coe
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 8.49

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Innocent Abroad, 6 Sep 2013
This review is from: Expo 58 (Hardcover)
Alfred Hitchcock's 1938 film, The Lady Vanishes - a glorious tale of plucky British resolve pitched against the fascistic tendencies of an unnamed central European state - features a couple of chaps who were destined to spend the rest of their days kicking their heels in the metaphorical cricket pavilion. Jonathan Coe has done a great service in kitting them out in the regulation British Secret Service beige raincoats and Trilbies and sending them out to keep an eye on his protagonist, Thomas Foley, as he stumbles through what turns out to be a sticky diplomatic wicket at Expo 58, Belgium's contribution to the spirit of entente cordial at large in 1958. They are hilarious but just menacing enough to convince us that someone might find themselves resorting to the Duckworth-Lewis Method if they were to get too chummy with the assortment of apparently innocuous types loafing around the environs of Brussels.

The premise is entirely plausible - I shall waste no time checking this, I want it to be so - in that the British would contribute not only examples of high tech to this world's fair, but also a convivial watering hole, presented as the sort of public house that represents modern, egalitarian Britain - designer furniture rather than horse brasses. Thomas Foley finds himself out of his depth, falling in love with a sweet but glamorous Belgium woman, Anneke, sharing `special' vodka with the `Editor' of the USSR's Sputnik Magazine and rubbing shoulders with the carriers of flags of many nations. And to compound Thomas's sense of unease, he has the tragic personal history of his Mother's Belgium family to explore, focussing on the brutality of the Nazis when in retreat at the end of the War.

This all makes for a deliciously suspenseful novel, but what is far more interesting - to my mind - is the picture of a Britain about to lose its innocence wholesale in coming decades. WW2 for all its horrors offered young men and women a certain clarity of purpose, and clarity of purpose is something that Thomas finds in short supply. In a series of perfectly rendered scenes set in central London and Tooting, we are presented with the remnants of wartime good-neighbourliness about to be subverted by frothy coffee and rock `n' roll. All is not as it seems, and there are conversations that are said and then `un-said' but at the same time Thomas's wife plods on back in South London, sorting out the carrots for dinner and confiding with us that bad feet run in her family. From such a background, where `mustn't grumble' is the mantra, Thomas's journey into unforeseen espionage is unsettling.

More unsettling, however, is Thomas's romantic situation. He faces a dilemma - several in fact - and Jonathan Coe's handling of these is masterly. And in a single, extraordinary chapter which must not be read in advance, the implications of decisions are shown to ricochet across the decades and across Europe, disappearing into a future which is just as laden with suspicion as Europe in 1958. What had been a novel of comedy and action becomes a fable of love and innocence - the former possibly found, the latter lost for ever. We may live our lives in various imaginary screenplays, some involving spies and guns, others involving outtakes from Carry on Films, but our quiet triumphs and tragedies are just the unscripted improvisations of a strange kind of hell or heaven. At which point I should admit, that our two rain-coated secret service operatives didn't spend all the intervening twenty years from The Lady Vanishes to Expo 58 drinking tea, but found themselves in other films. And actually, it is the actors Jonathan Coe recruits not their screen alias, but as Expo 58 reminds us, what is known may not be known and what is understood may not be understood. This is a story with far more resonance than its setting might suggest. Highly recommended.


A Kind of Eden
A Kind of Eden
by Amanda Smyth
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.59

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Revealing and Unsettling, 5 Aug 2013
This review is from: A Kind of Eden (Paperback)
It is human nature, supposedly, to want to return to the Eden out of which we may have been cast, and in recent years the globe has been criss-crossed by individuals and their families looking for the promised land. In Amanda Smyth's chilling new novel, A Kind of Eden, it is clear from the outset that contemporary Trinidad and Tobago despite - or because of - the blazing sun and luxuriant vegetation is not much of a garden. After all, the central character, Martin, has come from the UK to help improve the Islands' policing, and has had to quick come to terms with an undercurrent of almost casual violence, and shortly afterwards to come to terms with his own personal betrayal of his marriage. That's not quite the story of Eden.

It would be a mistake, however, to see this novel as another repudiation of the Eden myth; few readers will be under any illusion about the difficulty of life in the Caribbean for many of its people. This is a novel not about the causes of social unrest but the journeys of transition demanded of its protagonists. Can a white, middle-aged British policeman sustain a relationship with a younger Caribbean woman? Can the expectational compass of his visiting wife and daughter be reset to accommodate the juxtaposition of beauty and brutality offered by the Islands? Can a Northern European reader - or equivalent - re-think their understanding of good and evil as perhaps simply good fortune and misfortune? For all its easy readability, this is actually a rather demanding book, questioning how we should respond to the original sin of violence.

Amanda Smyth, through her lightly woven prose, ensures that the experiences of her characters play skilfully with our preconceptions and also with our desire for resolution and justice. The initial premise suggests that there will be no justice or even happy resolution. And it would not give away anything to say that by the novel's conclusion we are still seeing the world 'through a glass, darkly'. What kind of person hurts another person, needlessly, for their own convenience or pleasure? A boy with a machete, a man conducting an affair?

The triumph of A Kind of Eden is that it subtlety challenges our perceptions of right and wrong. All comforts, it suggests obliquely, are to be betrayed. The value of life is not fixed, and against the backdrop of daily suffering, individual acts of violence are not, after all, so remarkable. For liberal, compassionate readers, this is a potentially disturbing view, as much for its challenge to personal understanding as for the evidence it presents that not all Edens are the same and that perhaps morality is not fixed and that the law enforcers are no better than the rest of us. This very readable novel is highly recommended.


Mr Lynch's Holiday
Mr Lynch's Holiday
by Catherine O'Flynn
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 10.49

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I Don't Want A Holiday in the Sun, 5 Aug 2013
This review is from: Mr Lynch's Holiday (Hardcover)
Dermot Lynch, the retired bus driver and recently widowed father in Catherine O'Flynn's novel, Mr Lynch's Holiday, arrives accidentally unannounced to take a short break with his son, Eamonn. This is an appropriately unprepossessing start to what turns out to be a deeply enjoyable novel that illuminates the complex relationships between children and parents. It also has a good deal to say about what is 'home' and what is a 'holiday'.

The 'home' that Eamonn has made for himself and his recently departed partner is a half-completed development of apartments in Southern Spain, abandoned by its developers and offering a roof over the heads of feral cats, a small cast of assorted ex-pats and the ghosts of immigrants yet to come. Dermot's 'home' is revealed to us in a series of recollections of life in 1960s and 70s Birmingham, an immigrant himself and as an Irishman not always welcomed. His 'holiday' is rather out of character (it is certainly not a busman's...) and by the end of the novel perhaps both Eamonn and Dermot are referred to in the title.

In many ways, this is a book about first generation immigrants to the UK and about how their children subsequently responded to what looked like a far more welcoming world in the 2000s. Sometimes one needs to go further away to see clearly, and both Eamonn and Dermot eventually understand each other through being obliged to look back across time and distance. It turns out that parents are slightly more worldly and aware than their permanently logged-on offspring imagine, and children are not always as confident as their world-weariness might suggest.

Catherine O'Flynn has written a perceptive novel that gently exposes the cluster of ironies that make up most people. Her appreciation of how we under-appreciate each other is timely and moving. And although it is not a major theme, we are reminded that after one wave of immigration will come another, often existing uneasily in the shadows or in the shade. At least the feral cats are under no illusion about the welcome they might receive, kind and unkind in equal measure. This is a very satisfying read and highly recommended.


Things of Substance: New and Selected Poems
Things of Substance: New and Selected Poems
by Liz Cashdan
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.67

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Real Substance, 18 July 2013
Things of Substance: New and Selected Poems is a really pleasing book of poetry, not least for it being able to show the full range and development of Liz Cashdan's poetry. She has a distinctive voice, affirmative but rueful, able to deliver moments of high comedy alongside a keen eyed sense of the transitory sense of life. Of course don't all poets do that...? Well, actually no or not with such seeming ease. And she sustains it in poem after poem, that pleasure in the possibility of language for making us laugh or smile or for making us go quiet.

Liz Cashdan is particularly good at taking an idea and finding a previously unseen resonance around it, for instance in poems about skin and a first avocado. Again, don't poets always do this? Well, actually no, again, or not with such a sharp wit (in the older sense of the word); she's clever but not suffocatingly so. And her take on her family, it's part in the affairs of the world, is small dramas and their larger resonance, is also fascinating and moving. Liz Cashdan has done a lot and remembers a lot and most importantly remembers to write very good poetry about it. Congratulations to her and thanks to Five Leaves for publishing such a good book of poems.

My four stars is obviously five stars.


Then
Then
by Alison Brackenbury
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.34

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Now and... Then, 12 July 2013
This review is from: Then (Paperback)
Alison Brackenbury has been writing carefully crafted and quietly moving poetry for many years and Then is her seventh collection. It offers us some really fascinating and enjoyable poetry; covering a range of subjects, introspective and outward looking, contemplative and even comic. History - personal and universal - is a common source of inspiration, and there are poems here that might actually be of use in our lives, poems about loss (for instance The Shed) but also of sudden joy (like Take Off). Mostly, whatever starting point, they are about people - relatives and friends and also The Beatles and Shackleton and Mozart. It takes a certain nerve to have such a broad pallet, and Brackenbury's nerve is steely and rewards us with good poem after good, un-self conscious, poem. A real pleasure to read and I imagine to hear read (she really should be on The Poetry Archive, surely?). I offer it four stars only because to give anything five stars is slightly vulgar. Time will tell, although it may well be a five star book in due course.


The Devil is White
The Devil is White
by William Palmer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 13.59

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Experience triumphing over hope, 11 July 2013
This review is from: The Devil is White (Hardcover)
The subject of The Devil is White is rather unnerving. We are fairly sure from the outset that a group of high minded idealists are going to find things tough going on an uninhibited island off the coast of West Africa in the 1790s. And so they do. And so we carry the fore-knowledge not of sudden disaster but gradual dissolution. However the joy of this excellent novel is not just a really engrossing subject but the effortless quality of the prose and the deftness of the plotting. It may be basic stuff to set scenes and introduce multiple characters and begin various interlocking plot-lines, but there are plenty of well regarded novelists who stumble at these tasks.

Palmer is absolutely marvellous as a prose writer. He handles the mechanics superbly and we are carried effortlessly into his narratives. And although the story is grim - reminding us of how appallingly self-destructive human nature can be - the overall experience is curiously positive. Death is, of course, inevitable but faith and love and loyalty are not, and so all the more powerful when they survive. The brutality of Europeans towards the continent of Africa is a background, but this is a subtle novel and it reminds us that a continent is actually the sum of its people, who have an intriguing habit of acting unpredictably, as people will. This is a very enjoyable piece of fiction and highly recommended.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 24, 2014 7:06 PM BST


The Friday Gospels
The Friday Gospels
by Jenn Ashworth
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 14.39

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Strange Recipe, 29 April 2013
This review is from: The Friday Gospels (Hardcover)
The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth includes towards its close a very strange recipe for a casserole featuring crumbled Ritz biscuit as a topping. Strange, or so I thought until I remembered that my Mum used to prepare a similar dish but with crushed crisps. Still, she was brought up in Formby on the Lancashire coast, while Ashworth's novel is set - I'm fairly certain - in Chorley, one of inland Lancashire's finest towns. So a Lancastrian dish, perhaps? But then I asked my friend Sara who was brought up in Horsham in Sussex and she claimed her Mum made something just the same. So let me get this straight: everyone, absolutely everyone in England has been pushing the culinary boat out with the reckless use of crisps, crackers, ryebreads and even, in one recorded instance, quavers as a topping for casseroles.

Is this an important fact? Yes, it is, because The Friday Gospels is a story that if you look through one end of the telescope looks utterly unbelievable but if you take the bigger picture is a perfectly realistic portrait of early 21st Century people being (un)comfortably crazy. Who would eat Ritz biscuits on a casserole? Most people, it turns out. Setting aside that this is a story specificaly about Latter Day Saints (Mormons), Ashworth offers us an interlinking narrative at just the point when a family unit is about to collapse. Each individual narrative is compellingly written - the mother, Pauline, particularly. The backstory of a group of people working against the gravitation pull of religion feels painfully accurate. And the cramped terraced houses and unkempt parks of urban England are all too familiar. There's nothing aspirational here, but it all rings so true.

The religion of the lead characters is, of course, important. Ashworth successfully stands aside from making judgements, but a reader is certainly given some fascinating insights into how ordinarily oppressive any organisation which requires some obedience can be. Latter Day Saints are out there, working hard to keep the faith; Johovah's Witnesses too and my Dad still sells the Morning Star to fellow communists and contributes to the Fighting Fund (and I find myself still buying the occasional copy for the comfort it brings...). Clearly there are aspects of this religion that are difficult but Ashworth's portrait is even tempered and compassionate. Most of her characters are not either of these things. They are dangerously, passionately, understandably daft. Ashworth brilliant illustrates, I think, that everyone's life is so very close to falling apart and that perhaps the miracle isn't the Second Coming but that most people somehow muddle on.

Is location important? Cleary Ashworth writes from a recognisable location but she's not heavy-handed about it and her Chorley could have been Mansfield or Redditch or Didcot or substitute any small English town. What is important is that it is a book about England now; not colour supplement England, not X-Factor England and not rioting England, but clouded-over, can't-complain, the nights-are-drawing-in England. Irony is in short supply, but all kinds of faith abound. It is a terrific book, reflective of our times, full of the bloody motley of day to day life, uncomfortably compelling to read. I would happily have given this book five stars if that were not clearly vulgar, so assume my four stars is nearly five. And the prose is not at all taxing, although there is nothing wrong with tax.


Five Degrees: The Asian Writer Short Story Prize 2012 Anthology
Five Degrees: The Asian Writer Short Story Prize 2012 Anthology
by Shaikh Farhana
Edition: Paperback

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Unassuming but excellent, 28 Mar 2013
Five Degrees: The Asian Writer Short Story Prize 2012 Anthologyis an unassuming book, but a very accomplished collection with a really satisfying range of work. There is always a risk that a book like this will be met with pre-conceptions: stories of the warmth of the old country and the cold of the new, and there are certainly good pieces that touch on these subjects. `Jamal's Pen' by Nilopar Uddin, is a moving story about aspirations and the reality of immigration, for instance. More typical of the collection, however, are stories that simply interrogate personal experience. `Oysters' by Sharmila Chauhan and `A Done Deal' by Priya Khanchandani are both perceptive stories about contemporary relationships, and although they have a certain resonance for being written by Asian writers it is the quality of the prose and the deftness of characters that shines through. Other striking stories include GD Stickland's `Number Five at the Square' - contemporary and gritty - and Roxanne Paredes' `One Exposure', a subtle story of family and memory. And `Where the Wild Animals Will Eat You' by Kalpana Lamichhane is a brilliant fable; a dark fairy tale but uncomfortably realistic. There's not time to name all the writers here but each of the stories featured has a real quality, assured and confident, and we can look forward to longer works from many of these writers. And, as I so often say in these reviews, none of the prose is taxing although there's nothing wrong with tax!


Ten Things I've Learnt About Love
Ten Things I've Learnt About Love
by Sarah Butler
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 12.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Degrees of separation, 8 Mar 2013
Sarah Butler's novel, Ten Things I've Learnt About Love, is more substantial than the title might suggest, although it is an attractive title. It is a book about love despite the word rarely being mentioned - perhaps never. It isn't about falling in love but the degree to which love can be sustained despite so many degrees of separation. This is a far less racy subject but makes for a far more powerful piece of fiction.

Other reviewers have mentioned London and this is a poignant use and appreciation of the city. I suspect other cities might have done almost as well but the contrast of the London we know and the various hidden Londons is fascinating. It is easy to forget that people in London are going about their daily lives very much as the rest of us are. The version of London Sarah Butler offers is very human; drilling down to the importance of pieces of rubbish and shopping for paint at B&Q.

Patterns are important: the stars in the sky, the places people walk, the relationships between individuals, those who have aims and those who are aimless, and they are all carefully woven together. The relationships between people is one of the triumphs of the book; there are no redundant characters or moments, everything is absolutely necessary. This, with the clear prose and cleverly shared points of view, makes for a very enjoyable book. And the prose is not taxing, although there's nothing wrong with tax.

I have given it four stars but four point five would be more accurate.


Page: 1 | 2 | 3