I’ve had several reviews posted at Shiny New Books lately, so I shall take the opportunity to plug them here as well.
Bournville by Jonathan Coe
I’ve read nearly everything that Coe has published and reviewed four of them for Shiny (see here). He has favoured themes: many of his most-celebrated novels are concerned with deciphering Englishness, particularly around the boundary between working and middle classes, stories of ordinary folk told with a social sensibility and wry wit.
Bournville is just that! Subtitled ‘A Novel in Seven Occasions’, Coe has found a unique way to tell the story of one extended family who live in the village built by the Cadbury family for their workers through seventy-five years and three generations. The seven occasions run from VE day on May 8th 1945 to its 75th anniversary in 2020, with Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, England’s World Cup victory, Charles’ investiture as Prince of Wales, Charles and Di’s wedding, and Diana’s funeral in between. Each of these events is a landmark sending ripples through the country and forming the climax of each section of the book.
Bournville could have been a novel like the idyllic cottages that Cadbury’s put on their chocolate boxes in the 1950s and 1960s, but Coe has resisted for the most part, giving us just glimpses of witty twee now and then. Instead, after the new beginning that VE Day brought, he celebrates progress and inclusion as the years go by yet doesn’t shy away from historical difficulties inherited from the war and the end of Empire. One of his best.
Viking Books hardback, 353 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)
The Elvis Mysteries: Kill Me Tender & Blue Suede Clues by Daniel Klein
Daniel Klein is more recently known for his volumes of philosophy and memoir, but between 2000 and 2004 he penned four crime novels featuring Elvis Presley as an amateur detective! Being fairly recent, they aren’t Dean Street Press’s usual reprint fare, but I am so glad that they’ve brought them back into print, for the two I’ve read so far are wonderful.
To have the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll as your lead is an audacious move, but Klein has picked a particular period in Elvis’ life which could really fit this kind of distraction. Elvis is recently returned from Germany after his spell in the US Army, he’s missing his late mother Gladys, he doesn’t get to see his fiancée Miss Priscilla much, Graceland feels empty yet is always full of old friends and hangers-on. There are only the movies which he no longer enjoys really, so Elvis is at a loose end.
In Kill Me Tender, he is driven to investigate the deaths of two teenaged girls who headed chapters of his fan club in the Southern states. In Blue Suede Clues, the action takes place on the movie lot where a stunt man is framed for the murder of a wannabe starlet. The Elvis that Klein depicts is a lovely young man, Godfearing and good-mannered, with a strong sense of morals. He has yet to become the jaded addict of later years. These books are hugely entertaining, well-plotted and fast-moving at just over 200 pages each, and they have a super sense of time and place. Most of all, I think Klein has done his hero justice in his depiction of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. I couldn’t help myself from falling in love with him!
Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time by Sheila Liming
The New Year always brings with it a slew of self-help books about becoming the better/fitter/healthier/wealthier you. I look at these books and think – really? Why now? Thankfully, Sheila Liming’s timely book is not the kind of self-help tool that demands those kinds of actions. Instead, it’s a manifesto for the pleasures of just hanging out.
Over the last decades, we’ve become addicted to staying connected, and we’ve lost the art of killing time by hanging out: not necessarily doing anything, but interfacing in real life with people. The pandemic didn’t help, did it? In her book, she examines many different ways of hanging out, using personal anecdotes and scenes from college life to illustrate them and she peppers the text with quotes and discussion of literary works of both fiction and non-fiction that back up her own stories and ‘create a conversation’ around the subject. From parties to meeting strangers, from musicians jamming to enforced camaraderie with colleagues at conferences – all kinds of hanging out is examined and dissected. I loved all the literary references, from renowned US food-writer MFK Fisher to Edith Wharton to even Irvine Welsh and many more. It will likely appeal to those who enjoy Olivia Laing’s books. Reading this book was not what I expected at all. I really enjoyed it, and got plenty of food for thought from the lively text, and Liming sounds a fun person to hang out with!
Melville House hardback, 224 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)