Showing posts with the label fiction

Freedom - Jonathan Franzen

I'm pleased to confirm that Freedom is the masterpiece that everyone says it is, and don't have much to add except "If you like The Corrections ... you'll love this!".

Like The Corrections, Freedom is a family saga embedded in world affairs, with the Iraq war and environmentalism taking the place of the biotech bubble and post-communist Europe. The family is again from the midwestern American middle class, and again its centre of gravity moves east during the course of the book. The similarities and echoes might be tiresome if it weren't almost a decade since I read The Corrections. As it is, it feels fresh.

All this pigeonholing obscures the fact that the Berglunds are just as much a fully-formed and original a family as the Lamberts. The voices are if anything even more distinctive, though the decision to structure part of the book as an autobiography of one of the characters slightly undermines this. Patty's writing is so close in style to the narrat…

I Shall Wear Midnight - Terry Pratchett

I Shall Wear Midnight is the fourth Discworld novel about trainee witch Tiffany Aching. The first three were marketed as trainee Discworld books for younger readers, but Midnight has the size and heft of a standard one. Observant cover-judgers will also note that it says 'A Discworld Novel' instead of 'A Story of Discworld'. Only the chapter divisions hint at its YA past.

I have to confess that I gave up on the Tiffany Aching series after the second in the series as it was a little too determinedly written for children. But the Doubleday marketeers apparently want me to think again and who am I to turn them down? I'm glad that I did so, as I Shall Wear Midnight is a great read that can stand tall among its peers. I have repented and will be buying Wintersmith at the earliest opportunity.

Maybe, though, it felt more grown-up simply because Tiffany has grown-up. She is now 16 and is the witch in charge of the Chalk region. That she is both recognisably the same Tiffa…

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

In the wake of the government's decision to cut £18bn from the welfare budget as part of its madcap experiment on the UK economy, there could hardly be a more appropriate time to review a book which reminds us why the welfare state was set up in the first place.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a story about a firm of builders and decorators in an English town at the turn of the 20th century. Britain is at the height of its imperial power, and never has it enjoyed so much wealth and abundance. But for the workmen of Rushton & Co life is a constant to struggle to survive. Even when times are good and there is Plenty of Work, they have barely enough money to house and feed their families. When the winter comes and work is all but impossible to find, they live a perilous existence, pawning everything they own and begging for credit from shopkeepers.

Robert Tressell chronicles the workmen's hellish lives in highly realistic detail, drawing on his own experiences to do s…

Advanced, Forthright, Signifficant

Reviewing Molesworth is a dangerous game. As Philip Hensher points out in his introduction to the Penguin edition, it's all too tempting to try to imitate Molesworth's unique narrative voice. And you only have to glance over at some of the Amazon reviews to see how unwise this is chiz. But the failed attempts highlight what an achievement that voice is: 400 pages of note-perfect schoolboy ramblings that will leave you wondering whether Willans and Searle really made it all up or whether they just pinched an unwitting pupil's exercise books.

Molesworth (which I have borrowed from the lending library of Mrs Tomsk) is a collection of four books set in a 1950's prep school called St Custard's ("built by a madman in 1836"). Nigel Molesworth is the self-proclaimed "goriller of 3b", and an acute observer of school life. Naturally he spends much of his time decrying the oppressive teachers (particularly the headmaster Grimes and Sigismund the mad maths …

A Place You Can Figure Out If You Think About It Really, Really Hard

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is the second book I've read by Haruki Murakami, the first being Norwegian Wood. The two share many similarities in style (engaging descriptions of everyday events, mellifluous prose) and characters (easy-going protagonists called Toru with unstable lovers, secondary characters who have only a tangential relationship to the story but provide plenty of colour). But where Norwegian Wood is restrained and cohesive, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is big, messy and very surreal.

Toru Okada's story starts mundanely as he looks for a missing cat, which triggers a succession of loosely-connected meetings with curious people. The plot is almost as hard to summarise as it is to understand, but it centres on the fate of Toru's wife Kumiko and her brother, mixed in with grim tales from Japan's troubled history that seem to echo in the present. Toru meanwhile takes the time for some deep soul-searching and his aimless wanderings bag him a peculiar job. Eventu…

Flashman's last hurrah

If you're familiar with the Flashman books you won't need a review of Flashman on the March, just a note that this time our hero is in Abyssinia.

If you're unfamiliar with the Flashman books this is maybe not the place to start, as it's the last in the series. Having said that, like all the books it is a fully self-contained story so you could start here if you really wanted to. I started with the fifth in the series, Flashman in the Great Game, and it didn't do me any harm. The order of events in Flashman's life is not the same as the order in which the books were written anyway. But if in doubt, it's worth starting with the first, if only to find out how Flashman's illustrious military career began.

Flashman is the bully from the Victorian novel Tom Brown's Schooldays, and Fraser's conceit is to imagine what happened to him after he was kicked out of school for drunkenness. It's not necessary to have read Tom Brown to follow the Flashman …

On the Oregon Trail (via Newark)

As I was saying before I rudely interrupted myself several times: I visited America for the first time ever in November, with two free days to explore the city of Portland. You could argue this is not sufficient to draw deep and general conclusions about American life, but that won't stop me trying.

The first thing that struck me about Portland was how big the hotel we were staying in was. I was on the 12th floor, which was less than halfway up the building, and there was another tower of a similar size across the street. My hotel room was also insanely huge, and I'll leave the TV set to your imagination.

The second thing that struck me was how nice the beer in the hotel bar was.

Describing everything in America as bigger is of course a tired old cliché, and not really true either as there's a hotel that's just as high in Manchester. But there was a definite sense of bigness about the city in general which I think is caused by it being oddly spread out. The city centr…

Unseen Academicals and the meaning of sport

There's nothing like a hardback book to make you wonder: "what's the point of hardback books?". They're more awkward to use and less portable than paperbacks, they take up more than their fair share of space, and they're expensive. They're grandiose relics, like stately homes in a world designed for suburban semis, except you don't even get a nice cup of tea and a slice of cake when you stump up for a hardback book.

They'd be harmless, though, if it wasn't for the hardback-exclusivity of new books. This actually depresses total book sales, at least from me, because the media review books as soon as they come out, but if a review actually convinces me to buy, I then have to wait up to a year for it to come out in paperback, by which time I've forgotten all about it. And unless it makes the Waterstones 3-for-2, I'm unlikely to chance across it again. Nice work, publishers!

The one advantage to hardbacks is that they are impressive. They…

The Card

After the feast, the wafer-thin mint. Arnold Bennett's The Card is just as funny as A Fraction of the Whole and its mood is refreshingly upbeat.

I picked up The Card on a visit to Didsbury with Mrs Tomsk at the start of summer. We stopped off at a tearoom that not only did a mean sausage sandwich, but transitioned seamlessly to a second-hand bookshop at the back. This is what heaven must be like, presuming God is a tea-loving bookworm.

One thing the holy high street would not stand for, however, is political posturing. The bookshop side was at first glance unthreatening, even welcoming. But the European election campaign had begun, and the proprietor was not discreet in his affection for the UK Independence Party. Posters and leaflets were everywhere, all inevitably featuring the 1953 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. I wonder if he would appreciate his presence in a bookshop being reduced to flicking V-signs for the greater glory of UKIP.

The proprietor, of course, can d…

A Fraction of the Whole

Has any prize done more damage to the medium it celebrates than the Booker Prize? Somehow, somewhen, it gave birth to the cliché of the unreadable "Booker book", a po-faced account of a middle-aged widowed playwright, say, who ventures into the mountains to discover that the secret of life is to renounce plot and spend your days in aimless introspection. In short, boring.

Much of the fault lies with the rules. Each publisher is allowed to submit no more than two books, which keeps the numbers manageable but also forces the publishers to second guess the judges. The obvious strategy is to submit the most portentous books they have - the Booker books. So the cliché feeds itself. And for as long as these monsters win the gongs, they send a clear message to would-be booklovers: literature isn't for the likes of you.

It comes as quite a surprise, then, to find that many Booker prizewinners are actually genuinely good books. And they can even be (whisper it) enjoyable to rea…

The Master and Margarita

A visit to Murmansk, the grimly fascinating Soviet-era port, leaves you marked in two ways. First, with a healthy radioactive glow. Second, with a desire to read Russian literature. Actually, the second is not strictly true. What I really wanted to read was a thrilling Arctic adventure featuring submarines and derring-do, something like an early Tom Clancy, minus the American triumphalism. And I still do. Suggestions please.

Unfortunately, our local library was understocked with Soviet naval thrillers, so I raided Mrs Tomsk's library instead, and came up with The Master and Margarita. While it may not tell you how to break through the GIUK gap, it does illuminate the everyday nightmare of life under Stalin. It does this through a mixture of comedy, satire, religion and fantasy, a concoction so subversive that the introduction focuses mainly on how amazing it was that it ever got published, even if it did have to wait 26 years for the privilege.

The most arresting characters in th…