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3.9 out of 5 stars
3.9 out of 5 stars
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on 29 May 2014
I'm a big fan of Jonathan Coe's early books, What a Carve Up, and the Rotters Club/The Closed Circle. I've read his more recent releases eagerly and have tended to enjoy them but feel a bit underwhelmed, so I picked this up with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Would this be back to Coe's earlier standard?

The subject of this novel is an unusual one - a 1950s low-ranking Civil Servant, and the 1958 "Expo" held in Belgium. As a modern-day Government employee, the differences and the similarities between the main character's day job and mine made me smile. The world of the 1950s was beautifully recreated, and treated with a similar mix of fond nostalgia and cool-headed scrutiny. The knowing references (such as the woman encouraged to smoke during pregnancy as it's such a stressful time) were occasionally a little heavy-handed, but generally made me giggle. Coe is one of the few genuinely literary authors who can really do humour well.

Although the world of the civil service was a broadly familiar one to me, then the Expo was something completely new. I've seen pictures of the Atomium building that formed it's centrepiece, but didn't really know what it was, and had never heard of the titular event where countries from around the world came together for the first time since WW2. And now, I feel I know everything about it, from the opening speech to the design of each pavilion. Coe certainly seems to have done his research. It was fascinating to find out about this obscure piece of history. At the same time, the themes of European integration or separation, and conflict between Russia and the US seem oddly relevant to today's world.

The plot has two main strands. In one, the main character is torn between his humdrum life at home and the glamour of the Expo, between England and Europe/America, between the past and the future, and more practically, between his suburban stay-at-home wife and a charming Expo hostess.

The other is a slightly odd spy story, which works from the premise that instead of a suave James Bond type figure, it's an ordinary lower-middle class man who gets caught up in an international plot featuring kidnappings and seductions and nuclear technology. The slightly far-fetched turn that things take manage to be oddly believable, and the main character is fundamentally likeable and relateable, despite a decisions that are questionable from the standpoint of both morals and sense. The references to Ian Fleming's books, which both the hero and the two actual spies have read but struggle to relate too were hilarious.

The worst thing about the book was the ending. No spoilers, but suddenly rushed ahead to the present day, felt unnecessary maudlin and cast a bit of a shadow over everything that had gone before. It didn't add much to the story and wasn't that clever. Coe pulled a similar "clever cop-out" ending in Maxwell Sims - give me a sad ending, give me a happy ending, do anything but skirt the issue.

To answer my opening question, I thought this books this was funny, enjoyable and a bit different. As you'd expect from the author, it was well-written and flowed nicely and it was definitely better than Maxwell Sims. Equally though, unlike some of his earlier books, which have lingered in my mind for years - both the one-liners and the profound moments - I never felt really wowwed, never thought of it as more than just a bit of easily-forgotten fun.

So it's worth a read, whether you're a fan or just like the premise and want something different. It's just not wildly memorable or up with the author's best.
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on 5 December 2013
This novel breathes the atmosphere of the 1950s; and probably to a degree of the Ealing Comedies of that time in terms of the behaviour of the characters and the broad sweep of the comedy - the two spies who behave like Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, the atmosphere in which people dress formally and address one another formally at work and at play, and the whole idea of a World Fair to help nations get along and look forward to the future all belong to a different era.

As I became accustomed to the ambience, I grew to like and enjoy this book more and more. It in fact manages to touch on the human condition (it cuts quite deeply into the character and behaviour of the main protagonist at various points and indeed towards the end) as well as to gently amuse and to keep the reader (this reader anyway) in suspense until the denouement of the plot. So I was quite impressed...
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on 28 October 2015
This is my third Jonathan Coe book and I enjoyed it rather more than the others. It is not high literature, but good knockabout fun which kept me amused on a long plane journey. Reading "What a Carve Up" and "The House of Sleep", I had found the characters to be caricature goodies and baddies. What I enjoyed about Expo 58, was that the characters were more believable, less one-dimensional, and I became interested in and cared what happened to them.

The story which is set at an international exhibition in Belgium, is of Cold War intrigue that envelops a plucky Brit, Thomas Foley, a low-level Foreign Office employee who has been sent to Belgium as a permanent representative for the 6 month duration of the exhibition. It canters along at a nice pace and is brought to a satisfactory finale.

If you want something to read by a pool or on a journey, then I think you will romp through this and enjoy it as the story unfolds.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I must admit that this is only the second Jonathan Coe novel I have ever read, the other being 'The Rain Before it Falls'. What I feel in all honesty I should immediately point out that whilst writing this the publisher is currently touting this as some sort of comedy thriller. I would have to disagree with classing this as a thriller, this is a spy caper as such and in the main is quite comical.

Thomas Foley, who works for the Central Office of Information is given a chance to go abroad to Brussels, and be part of the team at Expo 58. His job is one that isn't that particularly onerous, the British theme pub at the event is owned and being run by a brewery, but it is thought that it is probably better if a civil servant is on hand in case of any problems. Deciding to leave his wife and baby daughter at home, Foley plans to do the stint at the Expo by himself. Even before he has started though he finds himself being approached by the Security Services and interviewed.

Thus the story is very funny, Foley naive and really a man all abroad, getting caught up in the world of the Spooks and women, and this works well. Where this starts to unravel though is the latter part. The novel tries to become something a bit more serious, which jars with what has gone before, and as he thus becomes more worldly as it were it is then disconcerting to see him just as naive as at the beginning.

Although this has quite a poignant ending it is ultimately let down due to the more serious latter parts. If this had been just kept as a comedy it would have been that bit better. A fun, and entertaining read this isn't as good as it could have been. It is perfectly okay to sit down and relax with, but don't expect any thriller as such, this is an undemanding read that should entertain you alright, and make you laugh.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 6 January 2014
I've never read any Jonathan Coe before, but was attracted by the unusual cover and the plot, and then thoroughly enjoyed reading this.

It really felt like 1958. Great period detail, could picture the clothes, the Expo, the attitudes.

In a World Fair year, Brussels is playing host to 'Expo 58', a large-scale international fair and show that offers countries chance to demonstrate (and show off in a time of Cold War) their technological and cultural prowess.

Part of Britain's exhibit is a pub, and with little time to finish preparations, lowly copywriter Thomas Foley is drafted in to supervise the pub exhibit, leaving behind his new wife and baby daughter.

The story follows his life in Brussels, as he embraces bachelor life, meets a charming young Expo hostess, manoeuvres his way through possible (Cold War) spy scenarios and tries to decide if his married life is really the life he wants.

I really felt for the wife, Sylvia, left at home 'holding the baby', with no choice but to let her husband leave her to the mundane chores of home, reading his occasional letters and reason between the lines. It felt like a realistic portrait of domestic life of the 1950s housewife.

The office scenes were funny, Thomas's superiors comic creations that pop up with requests that grow increasingly more intrusive and morally unsound.

Thomas is sometimes unsympathetic (especially if you sympathise strongly with Sylvia) but is at heart a good man, and his adventures are great to follow. The Expo is a wonderful setting and one I can almost picture.

A great period piece, and I loved the fact that we see past the Expo into Thomas's later life as he lives with the choices he made. Very moving.

Definitely makes me want to read more by the author - this is witty, full of detail and a great story about choices, responsibility and Salt 'n Shake pub snacks.
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on 12 December 2014
I am a great Jonathan Coe fan but it's been some time since I've read one of his books. Loved his classics and looked forward to this latest offering. I wasn't disappointed by Expo although I thou it was a little understated. Beautiful writing and some nice comic moments. Some great characters and smart references to the time, Fifties relationships and the spying game during the Cold War era. An elegant novel.
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VINE VOICEon 28 May 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
It's 1958 and Thomas Foley has been working in the Central Office of Information since the age of 18 in 1944 (which raises the question of why he wasn't called up for military service). He's a quiet man, so quiet that his colleagues affect to believe that he has taken a vow of silence. He's also handsome, while not having the least idea what to do with his good looks, although he is married to Sylvia with a baby girl.

He spends his time making the sort of COI films that we now find so hilarious, warning people not to sneeze over others and to look both ways before crossing the road, until the startling day when he's told he's to go to Brussels for Expo 58. The centrepiece of the British exhibition is to be a 'typical English pub' called The Britannia and as Thomas's mother is Belgian and his father ran a pub (both of which sad facts earn him the commiserations of his public-school superiors in a very amusing passage) he is the obvious choice.

It's up to Thomas whether he takes Sylvia and the baby with him and he's starting to feel neglected by his wife in favour of his newborn daughter, like so many men. Preparing to set out for Brussels alone, he finds himself an object of interest for a couple of cartoon British spies. Meanwhile, the rather creepy man who lives next door with his invalid sister is keen to keep an eye on Sylvia while he's away.

After 'What a Carve up' in the 80s and 'The Rotters' Club' in the 70s, Coe has gone even further back in time and exposes the sad underbelly of the Cold War world with the lightness of touch which one expects of him. It's a useful reminder of how dismal the 1950s were, and don't let anyone tell you that they were some sort of golden age: Thomas, rather than being put up in a posh hotel as he would be nowadays, is dumped in something resembling a holiday camp, sharing a room with a stranger. Thomas is a very likeable character -- an innocent bumbling through the unreal world created on the outskirts of Brussels, barely understanding what is real and what is fake.

At less than 270 pages, the novel won't detain you long and it's a rollicking good read, funny with just the right leavening of sadness. A surprising amount happens for such a short book and it left me with much to think about.
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on 9 October 2013
This is the first Jonathan Coe book I've read, so I had no idea of what to expect, except maybe a humourous read, which is what I got.

Set in the Fifties, this is a gentle comedy which could easily have been made, starring Ian Carmicheal, Leslie Phillips, Barbara Windsor, Terry Thomas, Joan Sims and others from the comedy caper entourage from that era.

The period, and language, in which it's set, is described and evoked effortlessly, and you can see the film unfolding easily in your mind's eye. Maybe as the movie on Saturday afternoon on BBC2 before Playaway, back in the 1970s.

Entertaining enough read, but aside from that, I'm not sure this book would have been published if it came from a first-time author, as it's not outstanding, and it doesn't really push me in the direction of Jonathan Cole's other novels, which are widely-acclaimed.

So, in conclusion, one for hardcore fans of JC only. Or if you find a copy left on the tube or on a train, then pick it up if you have nothing else on the go.
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on 29 June 2016
Really enjoyed this. Even today the Expo still has a huge impact on Brussels and this book sets the scene at the time of the expo very well. Highly enjoyable even if a couple of characters are a bit cliched.
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on 22 August 2015
Having read all of Jonathan Coe's novels, I certainly wouldn't put this up with 'The Rotters Club', or 'What A Carve Up', but it's an enjoyable tale, with interesting detail about Expo '58 of which I knew very little. The main character's are reasonably well drawn out, but the novel doesn't really explore them in any depth, so it's not as easy to care for them in the way you might do with Benjamin Trotter for example. The emphasis here is more on narrative, which has some very amusing moments that keep you wanting to read on. The state of East/West relations in the 1950's and the relevance of Expo '58 in the creation of the modern world is both interesting and intriguing. Jonathan Coe is one of the best British authors on terms of contemporary fiction, so this is definitely worth reading.
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