Review: Number 11 – Jonathan Coe

coe number 11Number 11 is Jonathan Coe’s sequel to his prize-winning 1994 novel, What a Carve Up, which was serialised on BBC radio.  Coe’s novel, The Rotters Club was also serialised on BBC2 television in 2005.   Wikipedia notes that What a Carve Up  “is considered an example of a post-modern novel, employing multiple narrative styles, different perspectives, movement between first- and third-person narrative voices and a highly fragmented timeline”.  As one might expect, Number 11, has exactly the same qualities, and while a superficial reading may find the book to be disjointed, erratic in style and perhaps in need of a thorough edit and tidy-up, it makes perfect sense in the context of its fore-runner.

The only problem with the book is that while it will delight Jonathan Coe fans (I am one), without a knowledge of the intentions of the author (and his previous work) it may be a little bewildering.   Some readers may find themselves thinking that while the book is amusing, it may not be worth the bother.

The book opens with a section called The Black Tower.  An eight year old girl Rachel and her older brother Nicholas are wandering around the Yorkshire town of Beverley on a winter’s day.  They are visiting their grand-parents while their mother and father are having a weekend away trying to get their marriage back-together.  The go into Beverley Minster as the light is failing, and Nicholas plays a terrible trick on his sister leaving her terrified and upset.

We then move forward a number of years where we find Rachel again terrified out of her skin and writing;

I never would have imagined that, in the very midst of a city as big as this, there could be a house enfolded in such silence. For weeks, of course, I’ve been having to put up with the sound of the men working outside, underground, digging, digging, digging. But that has almost finished now, and at night, after they have gone home, the silence descends. And that’s when my imagination takes over (it is only my imagination, I have to cling to that thought), and in the darkness and the silence, I’m starting to think that I can hear things: other noises – – –  I’ve not tried to write anything serious since my first year at Oxford, even though Laura, just before she left, told me that I should carry on with my writing, that she liked it, that she thought I had talent. Which meant so much, coming from her. It meant everything. Laura told me, as well, that it was very important to be organized when you write. That you should start at the beginning and tell everything in sequence.

And so the story really begins . . .


Jonathan Coe book-signing in Rome

There are several sections to this book.  We read of Rachel and her friend Alison returning to Beverley a few years later for a week’s holiday.  This time, the visit has another undertone of horror after an encounter with “The Old Bird-Woman” who terrifies both young girls until Alison’s bravery forces them to confront their worst fears.  This is interleaved with an account of the apparent suicide of weapons-inspector Dr David Kelly, as heard it on the radio news and also as interpreted by Rachel’s grandfather who is convinced that David Kelly was murdered.   The merging of a these two narratives, one fantastic and another topical have a big impact on Alison as she develops an adult mind.

The next section moves forward a few more years and concerns Alison’s mother, a minor celebrity due to an earlier singing career.  Val has sunk into a life of poverty and mild depression.  Her job as a library assistant is coming to an end and money is short. Suddenly out of the blue she is invited onto a programme which seems to be identical to I’m a Celebrity Get Me out of Here and jets off to Australia.  The experience is humiliating and only adds to Val’s depression and Coe seems to be highlighting the way that the media can raise some lives up very high while quite capriciously wrecking others.  This is hardly a new theme, but he makes the point well.

In the third section we see Rachel now at Oxford University and paying a visit to her lecturer Laura’s home.  The David Kelly theme comes up again when during a long conversation, Laura says,

Their political innocence. And that’s what David Kelly’s death represented for our generation. Up until then, we’d been sceptical about the Iraq war. We’d suspected the government wasn’t telling us the whole truth. But the day he died was the day it became absolutely clear: the whole thing stank. Suicide or murder, it didn’t really matter. A good man had died, and it was the lies surrounding the war that had killed him, one way or another. So that was it. None of us could pretend any longer that we were being governed by honourable people.

Laura’s father was obsessive about old films and we now read an extended section about his quest to find an obscure title from the 1950s. Movie history is another theme in the book and later, the final section will develop into a sort of extended B-movie as Coe plays with our heads by introducing a horror movie theme into what until then has been a relatively rational story.

He also throws in another section later on about two policemen which seems to have been taken from an old Ealing comedy.  At one point a murder enquiry leads to an award dinner with bizarre elements which I can’t quite place anywhere but no doubt have a reference to a 1950’s film

From the centre of each table, a circular section was removed, like a little trap door, by hands at first invisible; and through each resulting aperture a man’s head appeared. Sixty different men’s heads, at sixty different tables. The rest of their bodies remained beneath the tables, hidden from view. A ripple of surprise and admiration went around the room. At table number 11, the head was crowned by a mop of red hair. The head swiveled around slowly through 360 degrees, and each of the twelve guests found themselves being stared at in turn by a pair of piercing green eyes framed by large, owl-like horn-rimmed spectacles. ‘Good evening,’ said the head. ‘My name is Dorian, and I will be you’re talking menu tonight. I will be here all evening, to tell you about the food, and to answer any food-related questions.

what a carve upYou have to take these passages as ironic, harking back to earlier television and movie themes from the 1950s and 60s.  Coe is not throwing these incidents in to his novel randomly – they all hark back to some cultural reference which will be more or less obvious depending on your knowledge of early television and B-movie cinema.  Be assured, there are horrors yet to come but by that stage, near the end,  I was both dazzled and annoyed, having found the only way to get a handle on this book was to make notes of things that came to mind as I read it and then try to make sense of them at the end.

The number “eleven” theme is only partly-realised throughout the book and only in a seemingly random manner. This is Coe’s 11th novel.  The Mad Bird Woman lives at a house numbered eleven.  Rachel takes an eleven hour flight to South Africa.  The London house where much of the action takes place as eleven floors (and something awful can be found in it).  Alison’s mother rides round and round Sheffield on the Number 11 circular bus route.  Eleven is also the number of a storage unit and also the featured table number at the prize giving.

On the whole, as a Coe-fan, I enjoyed reading this book and found it intriguing and thought-provoking.  It is also annoying in various ways, perhaps a bit too clever for its own good.  In order to achieve some of his objectives, Coe makes us read through some tedious passages, particularly those which are deliberately not well-written (Rachel’s twelve-year-old voice for example, or the section on the two policemen).  Having said that I am glad I read it and knowing some of the background to the book has enhanced my pleasure in reading it.  You can’t stay in your comfort zone all the time and this book will extend most readers’ horizons in one way or another.

Alex Clark in the Guardian wrote in his review, “Angry, bleak, preoccupied with establishing occult power connections to the extent that it would easily earn its place on a shelf of “paranoid fiction”, Number 11 is undoubtedly a political novel. It is also an interrogation of the purposes and efficacy of humour in exposing society’s ills, and a spoof on horror B-movies”.

Review: Let Me be Frank with You – Richard Ford

let me be frank with youA new book from a writer as renowned as Richard Ford (PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) is always welcome particularly when the main character is Frank Bascombe, sports-writer and later estate agent (“realtor” in the USA) – surely one of the most enduring characters in American fiction.

Richard Ford led Frank on to the scene in 1986 in his novel The Sportswriter in which we met Frank as he goes through an existential crisis following the death of his son.  In 1995 we could read Independence Day in which we join Frank during a holiday weekend as he visits his ex-wife, his troubled son and his current lover.  Frank returned to our attention in 2006 in The Lay of the Land, in the middle of what he calls the “Permanent Period”, that stage of life where most things that can go wrong have already gone wrong.

Then in 2014 Richard Ford published what is probably the final Bascombe novel, Let Me be Frank with You.  This is really four episodes, almost little novellas in themselves, in which Frank shares incidents which happen in the run-up to Christmas 2012 and finds whatever meaning he can from them.  It is fair to say that this is Richard Ford’s meditation on end-of-life issues and ultimately death itself.  As someone approaching the same age to Frank Bascombe, this book spoke to me over and over again and apart from the quotations in the review below, I have included some others on a separate page here for anyone who may be interested.  Do take a look at them if you have time – there are some gems there.

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Book blog revisited

After a one year break from writing about books I am now ready to start again. I stopped blogging for a while because I took on a major task of writing a website for a charity working with disabled children in Peru and then another rewrite of the same after an internal reorganisation.  I was then approached by two other organisations whose webmasters had either died or left without notice and hadn’t a clue what to do about their websites – a reminder if someone runs a website for you – think about succession planning!  The person who had died had made himself owner of the domain name and the hosting arrangement and these now became the property of his estate – you can imagine the problems of sorting that one out.

It’s not that these activities took up all my time, far from it, just that I limit my computer time to early morning and prefer to be out and about doing other things during the daytime (like taking photographs).

My home town

My home town

However, books continue to pile up and most of them get read and I think its time to start writing about them again. I continue to have an interest in European books in translation to English – even more so with the current turmoil around the continent.  But most of my reading comes from English-language writers and I intend to review several recent releases.

If you are reading this, I thank you for keeping in touch and I look forward to reading any comments you may wish to leave on my articles.

Autumn colour at Sheffield Park

Autumn colour at Sheffield Park

By the way, I’ve just moved this whole website across to so that I can let someone else look after the tekkie things of making sure it’s always up and running properly and thoroughly backed up.  I used to do all this myself but was worried that one day a small mistake on my part would kill the whole thing.  The new site still needs some tidying up in terms of links and images and I’m working through it to get it back to as it should be.

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Review: Backgammon for Losers – Simon Hill

I am in the process of transferring this site to a new host at  Please be patient with me while other posts are loaded and the site design is improved.

bgBecause Backgammon is a dice game, most non-players think it is a game of chance. Whereas Chess is won solely by analytical and strategic skill, people tend to think that backgammon is a sort of glorified Ludo with a simple objective to get all your pieces “home” by repeated throws of the dice. However, if they have the sort of mind that is challenged by repeated failure and wants to find out why they are losing, they will soon discover that there is actually far more to the game than they ever imagined.

If you want to win at backgammon you will probably find your answers in Backgammon For Losers by Simon Hill – perhaps the best book on the game I have yet to read (and I have read most of them!). This attractive and well-produced book takes you through from the very basic rules of backgammon to the upper reaches of backgammon strategy where mathematics and risk-anaylsis come into play.

Part of the problem is that backgammon is very easy to learn and a child of seven or eight can play the game quite adequately. The basic set up of the board and the rules of play can be learned in about 10 minutes or so. All goes well until you encounter a serious player who has thought about strategy and learned how to deal with whatever the dice throws at him or her.  At this stage, if you want to continue playing the game and turn to Backgammon for Losers you will be able to learn about the best opening moves for every possible dice throw, the strategy for early, middle and end games, how to develop a game plan, tactical play, calculating the odds and and many other strategic choices which will transform your game.

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Review: F – Daniel Kehlmann

9781848667341Having previously enjoyed Daniel Kehlmann’s book Measuring The World, I was pleased to receive his new novel  “F”.  I found it to be a complex piece of work; on one level the story of three brothers in their journey from childhood to adult life, and on another level, a philosophical exploration of the meaning of existence and our quest for authenticity. At the heart of the novel is the relationship with a father with his sons; identical twins Eric and Ivan and a third son Martin who has a different mother. However, this is no family saga, for at its heart are some disturbing questions about human motivation.

The book opens with Arthur Friedland, an unpublished writer, taking his three sons to see a stage hypnotist at a local theatre. The show begins with adults being called out of the audience onto the stage where they suffer the usual indignities at the hands of the hypnotist. But soon, Arthur’s son Ivan is called up.  Despite his attempts to resist the commands of the hypnotist (lift your foot! forget your name!) he finds himself obeying the hypnotist’s every word, feeling consciously helpless to resist. When Arthur himself is called up the hypnotist is unable to affect him in any way, a hint perhaps of the distance Arthur keeps from everyone he becomes involved with.  After the show, Arthur drives his sons home and then walks out his son’s and their mother’s lives, not to return until years later.

The book moves forward a number of years and we read of the three boys as they begin to enter adult life. The focus shifts to Martin who has become a Catholic priest. All his life, Martin has been obsessed with the Rubik’s Cube puzzle which his father gave him years before and has gone so far as to enter and win various competitions.  Martin is also seriously overweight and seems unable to resist buying chocolate bars, consuming two at a time, an annoyance for the people who come to confess their sins and have to endure not only the clicking of the Cube but also munching sounds as they tell Martin about their promiscuous lives. Despite Martin’s skill at the Cube, he seems to be unable to gain the experience of God which would make his priestly calling real, but soldiers on with his calling, not realising that his perseverance is in fact the faith he is seeking.

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Review: The Leipzig Affair – Fiona Rintoul

Leipzig-Affair-for-web-708x10241985 was not a good year to live in The German Democratic Republic.  While the country was still in the grip of an oppressive communist government, the wealth and freedoms of the west were becoming ever more visible thanks to the population’s exposure to western radio and television.  Only the most loyal communists could continue the pretence that the government of Eric Honecker was leading the country to prosperity and economic equivalence with the west.  Citizens needed a rare type of party commitment to ask with any degree of sincerity, “why would you want more than three brands of shampoo in the shops?” when packages from the west contained unheard of bounty.

The book is the story of Magda and Robert, two young people from both sides of the almost unbreachable political divide of West and East.

After a period of rebellion against her government, Magda has seen that there is no future in resisting the powerful state with it’s STASI secret police and it’s control of all job opportunities.  She is now training to be an official translator while continuing friendships with her old crowd of radicals and planning for the day when she will be able to flee to the West.

Over in Scotland, Robert is writing a thesis on Heinrich Heine and wondering whether to study iu West or East Germany.  Although the Heine archive is in Dusseldorf, his application to study there gets lost by a drunk lecturer and he instead gets offered a student exchange in Leipzig in the communist East.

A communist-leaning lecturer, John Bull-Halifax asks Robert to take with him four pairs of Levi jeans for Magda, a contact from a previous visit.  Once in Leipzig, Robert arranges to meet Magda in a train station bar and is immediately struck by her beauty.  He hands over the jeans and Magda invites him to a friend’s 30th birthday party, poor Robert begins a relationship which will induct him into the smoke and mirrors world of East Germany, where nothing is as it seems and informing and intrigue bedevil every relationship.

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Review: Piano from a 4th Storey Window – Jenny Morton Potts

pianoI have read quite a few books based in Brighton from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock to the police procedural thrillers of Peter James. Robert Dickinson presented a dystopian vision of a Brighton of the future in which social order had disintegrated (The Noise of Strangers), and Robert Rankin described a Brighton Zodiac with carriageway constellations criss-crossing the city (The Brightonomicon). I now have another fine novel to add to my Brighton collection – Piano from a 4th Storey Window by Jenny Morton Potts (buy paperback or Kindle)  which while being full of local colour and locations, also offers the story of a full-blown, head-over-heels romance with highs and lows both heavenly and hellish along the way.

Marin Strang is a Spanish teacher who’s life hasn’t quite worked out as she expected, leaving her single and existing on temporary teaching contracts, rootless and at a loose end for much of her time. Marin was brought up in a family of strict Jehovah’s Witnesses but one which mixed adherence to religion with real relationship difficulties which blight her to this day. She has been “dis-fellowshipped” by the JWs but has the remnants of a relationship with her ageing father who remains a loyal member.

“Marin’s childhood was the ideal preparation for solitude, finding her membership of the sect separating her from her natural friends at school. She developed,

 – an isolation to shield her from occasional major hurt. Or an isolation which drip fed daily minor hurt. She’d had so much practice at being on her own, she should manage it with ease.

Following a painful breakup from her last boyfriend, Marin finds herself wandering around The Lanes in Brighton (a quaint shopping area famed for its boutiques and quirky shops). She stops for a coffee at a café called Number 8 and catches a glimpse of an enticing social melée revolving around the café, particularly when she sees and hears Lawrence Fyre, a tall, unkempt, but charismatic individual who owns Sargasso Books in The Lanes.

Mr Tall’s tawny hair draped across his shoulders and sharp bones were poking at his clothes. His shirt, well, capacious, was the kindest description and it was almost white but there was a suggestion in the (crushed) fabric that it may have been a vivid colour once, decades back. With his back to her, she could comment internally no further but she heard herself say very quietly, ‘Turn round. Just turn around. Go on.’ This, you can enunciate without moving your teeth. Continue reading