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William Jordan

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The Closed Circle
The Closed Circle
by Jonathan Coe
Edition: Hardcover

3.0 out of 5 stars enjoyable, but less persuasive, sequel to The Rotters Club, 30 Jun. 2015
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This review is from: The Closed Circle (Hardcover)
A sequel to the Rotters Club that brings to a conclusion all the plot strands left hanging. We learn what happened to Claire's sister; what happened after Benjamin and Cicely made love; how Paul called in the offer of help from Rolf (whose life he had saved in the Rotters Club in an episode that seemed somewhat far from the main plot); what the future held for Sean Harding, Steve Richards and Culpepper. And who lived/did not live happily ever after. At the same time Coe examines 90s Britain - road rage, the mingling of left and right in politics, far right movements, the war in Iraq, fat cats and so on.

The plot turns out to be thoroughly Dickensian - by which I mean, based on the wildest chances and coincidences, though skilfully contrived. That doesn't make Dickens any less enjoyable, and it shouldn't make Coe less enjoyable - indeed you can enjoy his ingenuity - but it does mean you don't primarily read the novel for the unwinding of the narrative. (I was interested, though.)

The level of comic invention here - something that carried The Rotters Club, for me - is lower here though (no doubt intentionally so - there is less of Harding and Harding has changed; and life is more for real - this isn't school). And I felt that while the 90s in general were well characterised, and it's interesting to be reminded of the early stages of the final fate of Longbridge, Coe's attempts at writing about the life of an MP weren't convincing. You just couldn't be essentially loyal to the government, 6 years in, an opinion former in the media, and have no Ministerial office - unless you were devoid of talent. And surely you don't write to the Prime Minister - as Paul here does - when you resign as an MP but (if anything) you address your constituents. (Your write to the PM when you resign has a Minister, but that's because he has appointed you to the post. He hasn't appointed you to the House of Commons.)

So, in the end, I enjoyed reading this - but not nearly so much as The Rotters Club


The Golden Gate
The Golden Gate
by Vikram Seth
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.39

4.0 out of 5 stars Quite a remarkable achievement worth reading both as poetry and also as a novel of ideas, 25 Jun. 2015
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This review is from: The Golden Gate (Paperback)
A novel stretching over 300 plus pages written in tetrameters - which generally move swiftly, can surprise us with unexpected rhymes, yet prove able to sustain a wide variety of moods. And then there's the story of John, Phil, Liz, Ed, Jan and friends, which contains much of psychological acuity and keeps us guessing as to the next plot development. And finally there's also the serious content here - the novel's also set in the 1980s when it was written and several of the players are serious campaigners for nuclear disarmament as well as finding their ways through a complex love life.

Overall quite a remarkable achievement


The Rotters' Club
The Rotters' Club
by Jonathan Coe
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars the comic inventiveness is very high - its well worth reading on those grounds alone, 23 Jun. 2015
This review is from: The Rotters' Club (Paperback)
The novel starts in Berlin with two children of the main protagonists of the novel meeting up and starting to tell their story - set in the 1970s which was a very different time politically and socially and which Jonathan Coe brings very vividly to life. The story itself - left at a conclusions but not a final conclusion (the last page promises a sequel) - revolves around a group of friends at school in Birmingham and growing up - tensions of rivalry and first engagements with the opposite sex, friendship and the impact on children's lives of their parents' ongoing lives (affairs etc) and of the times - an IRA pub bombing campaign is underway in Birmingham at the time the novel starts….The tone is comic, also wistful and the events are occasionally also tragic.

The level of comic invention, particularly in the opening sections of the book, is very high - and I would strongly recommend the novel on those grounds alone. While there'a a tendency for some of the characters to be 'good' or 'bad' and not shades of grey (I am thinking particularly of the rivalry between Richards and Culpepper - and the stance of the author on some characters is not terribly clear (is Cicely actually a force for good or just a force to be reckoned with - the latter it would seem, in fact, despite Benjamin's ongoing sense that she is the centre of his emotional world - it's a little frustrating not to know Coe's position, in some ways!), the plotting remains inventive - and the fact that we enjoy several narrators and bits of the past remain obscured from us does not in any way detract from a straightforwardly enjoyable reading experience throughout.


Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want
Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want
by Nicholas Epley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

3.0 out of 5 stars full expose of our shortcomings as everyday mind-readers, 13 Jun. 2015
Epley argues that we are overconfident in our understanding of ourselves and others. We don't know how other people are judging us - we don't know how attractive we are or how we are doing at a job interview. We also don't know how we will behave - people who said historically in the US that they would not serve non-whites generally did so, when put to the test by non-whites turning up for service in a historic experiment. Turning to the explanation of all this, Epley points out that we're not all that good at introspection or perception - we jump to conclusions about the world and we confabulate about ourselves. We can dehumanise other people at a distance from us - most notably it's easier to kill other people when you can't see the whites of their eyes (in war). And we can humanise the non-human - when we have a temperamental piece of machinery or car. We tend to see ourselves as at the centre of the world, and accept more than our fair share of credit or blame for joint enterprises. We worry too much about what other people think about us - they probably don't think about us much at all. When it comes to other people, body language merely 'whisper' and phone conversation we find a lot easier than email to pick up the nuances of communication. There is of course empathy (e.g. with our children when they hurt themselves) and also active reflection about what other feel (as with most doctoring) as well as blanking out the feelings of others.We use stereotypes to reason about other people when we don't know much about them. And we tend to ignore contextual factors when interpreting other people's actions - maybe the people who didn't flee Hurricane Katrina had large families and no transport, for example..

As to what we should do to improve matters, Epley doesn't go much for trying to put yourself in someone else's shoes - this leads to just thinking the worst about what they'd do so much better not to try. Nor is body language the key, in his view - micro expressions don't really seem to do the job, he says, drawing on experimental evidence. What he does recommend is asking other people where they are coming from and what they want - Kennedy and Khrushchev managed this during the Cuban Missile Crisis and if it works for them it works for anyone (better than anything else).

Actually at this point I remembered where we came in and the hoteliers who'd said they would not serve non-whites (when asked) but actually did so on autopilot when it came to it - which rather detracted from my confidence in the one 'take-away' message in the book.

Interesting then, but not much help in everyday living - except to make us aware of some of our shortcomings as everyday mind readers.


My Struggle, Book Four: 4
My Struggle, Book Four: 4
by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars volume iv of Knausgaard' life dealing with the years from 16 to 18, 10 Jun. 2015
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Very much as in earlier volumes, Knausgaard gives us initially the start of his experience teaching as an 18 year old in a school in Northern Norway, moves back to his experiences at school himself and reviewing records and his family experiences with his mother and father (now separated) and his grandparents as a 16 and 17 year old, then returns to the narrative of his year at school and completes it.

As in earlier volumes, he paints an uncomfortable self-portrait. As his father starts to descend into alcoholism, he too is having a problem with binge drinking (severe enough for his mother to temporarily throw him out of the family home after a party he has unwisely held there, trashing the place) and is careless with money (spending money his grandparents have given him to pass on to his brother as a Christmas present, for example and being - perhaps accidentally - banned from visiting them for sponging off them too much). That said, it remains exceptionally vivid and searingly honest and altogether compulsive reading.

And the US edition remains, as in earlier volumes, a pleasure to read.


The Infidel Stain
The Infidel Stain
by M. J. Carter
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Second adventure of Blake and Avery takes a while to catch fire..., 29 May 2015
This review is from: The Infidel Stain (Hardcover)
Avery rejoins Blake, a few years on from their first adventure - both are now back in England - to uncover a serial killer in 1840s London. They encounter life both high and low and in particular the Chartist movement and an earlier 'infidel' group of free love anarchist and anti religious tendencies...

This took rather longer to engage the attention than the first novel in the series (at least it did for me) but develops into an intriguingly plotted imaginative reconstruction of a London very different from the present day. Blake and Avery remain convincingly drawn - and I look forward to the third novel in the series - which is apparently in preparation.


The English and their History
The English and their History
by Robert Tombs
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £22.75

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Always interesting and on the 20th century, a page turner, 28 May 2015
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A long narrative history of England drawing on and synthesising the work of other historians. The story starts with the creation of an English people through immigration and conquest and of an English identity and language. It moves through the Middle Ages - where the wellbeing of the people depends on the quality of the King, then on to the Tudors and religious conflicts culminating in the civil war. Then we have the 18th century with scientific discovery and wars on the continent especially with the French. Then Victorian times - empire, reform and industrial revolution. And the 20th century with two world wars, the end of Victorianism round about 1963, and modern times. Tombs looks at big themes as he goes such as empire and the sense that England has declined in the 20th century - we have ceased to be 'top nation'.

I felt overall this was a remarkable achievement. I learned a lot - that priests were required for trial by ordeal - and they eventually ceased to play ball; how much harm a poor mediaeval monarch could do; how unpopular Cromwell was at the time; the extent and influence of the peace movement in the 1930s; what actually happened in the Suez crisis. And so on.

The book also prompts reflection: actually people can put up a colourable case for almost anything - and sometimes myths win out over reality (the U.S. War of Independence not that nobly motivated; the First World War not obviously pointless). The English come across as having done a fair share of pretty awful things - but maybe less, even so, than other comparable nations.

One final reflection is why we go to war - namely it is about power and being top nation, and never on the basis is a utilitarian calculation, whether this is the napoleonic war, the First World War, the Falklands, Suez or Iraq. On this last Tombs seems to me to lose his usual objectivity - but perhaps we are a bit close to it to know for sure...

Very strongly recommended.


Daniel Martin (Vintage Classics)
Daniel Martin (Vintage Classics)
by John Fowles
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars not as gripping a read as his earlier novels, 22 May 2015
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Daniel Martin starts with a highly evocative description of a scene of haymaking in which a young Daniel Martin participates, prior to leaving home for Oxford, and later playwriting and scriptwriting. The novel is told in non-chronological parts, and with some episodes written by the woman, Jenny, with whom Daniel is currently having a relationship in Hollywood, a young film actress. The main story, however, is about Daniel, his love life over the years and particularly is a stocktaking for him at age 45 or so, and for others he has known at Oxford, including his first wife and her sister, as they approach middle age and all feel they haven't done perhaps what they might have done with their lives and as they have adolescent and young adult children of their own, living in a different time and place….

This is a highly philosophical novel, in which much of the action derives from a 'gratuitous act', as the author puts in in a section heading, committed by the sister of Daniel's first wife in Oxford many years before the start of the main action, but which now many years later precipitates the return to England of Daniel from Hollywood to take stock of his past…and which follows its own inexorable logic as the novel unfolds.

I enjoyed this rather less that all the other Fowles novels and short stories, perhaps because I've come to it last, but perhaps because it simply doesn't quite have the edge-of-the-seat plotting and story-line and is not quite so psychologically gripping as his earlier work. The dilemmas of the characters here are very much of their time and place - though midlife crises no doubt will continue to plague humanity…There is still much here that is memorable, however, and Fowles' world-view continues both to attract and to challenge the reader - at least this reader.


Neverhome
Neverhome
by Laird Hunt
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.39

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The American Civil War as seen by a foot soldier and by women at the time, 14 May 2015
This review is from: Neverhome (Hardcover)
A novel in three parts. In the first, 'Gallant Ash' goes to war, having donned male garb, being more suited to war than her husband. In the second part, she falls on harder times during the war, including being locked up in an insane asylum. In the final part, she heals somewhat and returns home, somewhat in the manner of Odysseus though with a less happy outcome in the round. In the meantime, we learn of her past with his husband and the details of the death of her mother.

This is something quite unusual and different and imagining the life of a foot soldier in the American Civil War and also the lives of women of that time is quite an imaginative feat. I didn't however find myself carried away in quite the way I had hoped by the narrative. And having read some account of the American Civil War in the Library of America volumes which excerpt contemporary writings about the war, including from serving soldiers on the one hand I don't doubt the historical accuracy here, on the other I know I've never read anything historical that's quite like the novel we have here. So: cautiously recommended.


The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District
The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District
by James Rebanks
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engrossing account of community, family and the life of shepherding in the fells of the Lake Distrcit, 3 May 2015
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James Rebanks book takes us through the shepherd's year - summer brings shearing, autumn brings sales, winter brings keep the sheep alive in difficult conditions, spring brings lambing and more shows. Meanwhile he also tells us his family story - his love for his grandfather, his respect and love for his father, his wife and children, his schooldays, and later life at Oxford and outside the farm (briefly though he make it is clear that it is what has made his life as a farmer financially viable). Alongside this, he places this family life in the life and ways of the community - a way of life since time immemorial that remains in the Lake District because the land is so difficult to farm, and because Beatrix Potter gave some of the land and farms to the National Trust many years ago on her death. We learn in passing about the foot and mouth outbreak - devastating emotionally though it does seem to have given his family farm the opportunity to reflect and make a fresh start.

Rebanks pulls off the balancing act between these different elements of the book beautifully. It's consistently gripping - and very enjoyable indeed to read. I hesitated a little before buying - wondering if a book about shepherding could possibly hold my attention. In the event it did, and I read it from cover to cover very quickly. Strongly recommended.


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