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3.9 out of 5 stars
Expo 58
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Thomas Foley is a quiet man, working industriously in his role at the Central Office of Information in Baker Street. When he is seconded to be `the man on the spot' at the British Exhibition at the World's Fair in Belgium in 1958 because his mother is Belgian and his father ran a pub (a pivotal fixture at the British Exhibition), he is a bit dumbfounded. Particularly as he has a wife and a new baby.

This is the first book by this author that I have read, and I had no real idea what to expect; it was the premise of the book which caught my attention initially. I thoroughly enjoyed this book; it had wit, humour, sadness, and captured in a delightfully off-kilter way a slice of life of 1958 that I never knew anything about. The main character Thomas is a man who seems always slightly out of focus with the rest of the world, and the surprises that he finds in his new temporary life in Belgium are wonderfully laid out for the reader. Definitely recommended.
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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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VINE VOICEon 4 January 2014
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
A delicious confection set in post war Britain and Belgium with intrigue, double entendres and the ultimate Englishman as the Innocent abroad. The influences of Greene and Fleming are apparent with a whiff of Amis and a dash of Pym.

This new novel by Jonathan Coe has his characteristic humour and his writing style is spot on for the decade that basically invented itself as it went along. Set in and around the Belgian Expo of 1958 the historical references are well researched without appearing to obviously so and the "bad guys" are superb comic book characters.

Highly recommended for readers of books that take them on a journey, safely, returning them to their armchairs and fireside
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
TOP 100 REVIEWERon 3 November 2013
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I seem to have enjoyed this more than many of the other reviewers here: this certainly isn't a raucous, laugh-out-loud comedy, and its humour is as much in the way Coe presents things as in what actually happens, but I found myself giggling all the way through it.

Set in 1958, this juggles between a beautifully-realised old-fashioned world where people fly to Belgium, smoke constantly and everywhere, and only have black and white TV - and more modern concerns about ideas of what constitutes English identity, and the relationship between Britain and the EU.

This reminded me of Waugh in his better moods, Graham Greene's lighter `entertainments' and Wodehouse who also transmutes the absurd into the comic through his use of language. The cod historical Belgian village, Belgique Joyeuse, translated as `Gay Belgium' for the Expo, the delegate from the 5th European Congress on Fluorisation and Prevention of Dental Decay who breaks a tooth on one of the fake British pub's speciality pork pies, and the unassuming Englishness of our hero and his `radical' room-mate (`supports CND, votes Labour, that sort of thing') are all done with a wonderfully droll and light touch.

I found this deliciously comic but also quite touching and sad towards the end. In some ways the world of 1958 has gone forever, but in others - with the Olympic jamboree still fresh in our minds, and the ongoing debate about Britain's role in the world and relationship to Europe - it is, as Coe makes clear, still with us.

So a 1950s comedy inflected by 2013 concerns - I enjoyed this enormously.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine 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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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 18 February 2014
This is a wonderful book, full of light and shade, farce and sorrow. The writing and the story often made me smile, depicting so wonderfully the era with gentle humour - cold war spies, ordinary post war life in England, the beginnings of a new internationalism, and a new sense of Europe, and salt and shake crisps are all here. You can see it all in your minds eye as you read - even if you are drawing on old movies to do so

And, movingly, here too are the energies, beauty, naiveties and hopes of youth, and the consequences of the decisions we make when young which play out across our whole lives, and the loss that comes with the paths we did not choose when we made our decisions (not knowing) long ago.

Having read the last page I feel moved by the story and sad I that have finished the book - and thinking, thinking about the characters in the story, the choices we make and the life we chose not to have, and the life we had and have instead.

Just wonderful, and one of my favourite books of recent years
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Gentle humour in `Expo 58' stems from dialogue between main protagonist Thomas Foley and his wife, neighbour, associates etc. but it is somewhat frothy and clichéd. Thomas' secondment to Expo 58 in Belgium and the consequences of his work there and his involvement with a variety of individuals draw him into a world of East-West espionage and personal relationships, but the situations are of fluff and caricatures that lack depth. Author Jonathan Coe has clearly researched the aims and organisation of the Bruxelles exhibition and he skilfully evokes the spirit of post-war Britain, but his story is trite and trivial. It makes a pleasant read but it is too long and drawn out as a novel, and perhaps would do better as a magazine novella or a TV instalment for a spy programme. The frothy fluff nature of `Expo 58' leaves it as a very average novel - hence 3-star rating.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 28 May 2013
Format: HardcoverVine 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 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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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
..is the title of the first chapter. The novel starts 'In a note dated 3 June 1954, the Belgian Ambassador in London conveyed an initiation to Her Majesty's Government of Great Britain: an invitation to take part in a New World's Fair which the Belgians were calling the 'Exposition Universelle et Internationale de Bruxelles 1958.'

The next paragraph tells us that it takes five months before the formal acceptance is presented to the Belgian Ambassador. The pace is that of the 1950s; what it means to be European is being defined and the 1960s informality hasn't yet emerged. The title of the opening paragraph is very Jonathan Coe - the juxtapostion of Brussels and excitement has its own humour, the setting of the Brussels World Fair of 1958, the first major international trade expo to take place after World War II is an intriguing one. We know that Coe is great on evoking the spirit of the times and an international fair can provide an insight into British post imperialism and the cold war as well as the emerging European union.

Coe's What a Carve Up! is one of my favourite books; a coruscating satire of 1980s Thatcherism, it built on the gothic horror film to both humorous and political effect. The Rotters' Club played with the genre of school stories as a microcosm and depicted the 1970s with nostalgia and some genuine feeling. Coe's set up is very promising and we are ready for a satire on Britain's attitude to Europe within the familiar mix of goofy gags and double entendre, together with an evocation of 1950s spy thrillers and Ealing comedies.

Our protagonist is Thomas Foley, a suburban civil servant in a lifeless marriage, sent from the Central Office of Information to oversee The Britannia, a theme-pub that is part of the British pavilion. His fidelity to wife Sylvia is soon tempted by an Expo hostess called Anneke, who is an attractive multi linguist without any of depth which Coe can bring to his female characters. Foley is essentially passive, a character to whom events occur, and we as the reader are nudged that there is more going on than he himself realises. We get that there is, but the thriller twists and turns don't quite work to build tension. There is humour, such as when secret agents Radford and Wayne quiz Thomas on 
his opinion of Stravinsky, Tolstoy and Prokofiev 
as a measure of his 
sympathy with Communism. However, the tonal shifts in the novel were disconcerting and meant that I didn't care enough about the characters to feel much.

I am a huge fan of Jonathan Coe but this novel doesn't deliver on its starting promise. I enjoyed it and it's well written, of course, but I failed to be fully engaged because the characters were essentially caricatures. Coe's mix of farce, intrigue, comedy and political satire has worked better elsewhere.
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