Liu Xiaobo & Shi Tao

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Two acclaimed Chinese writers remain in prison despite international calls for their release. In recent months, PEN has launched new campaigns on behalf of Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo (LR, July 2009) and Shi Tao (LR, February 2006), to coincide with the change of leadership in China. On 27 April 2005, Shi Tao, a journalist, […]

Pilot Episode

Posted on by Tom Fleming

After three comic novels about the embittered ghostwriter Gerald Samper, James Hamilton-Paterson returns to the more serious type of fiction that has shaped his career. Under the Radar (which could serve as the title of a memoir by this critically lauded yet low-profile author) is set mostly in the first half of the 1960s, when […]

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Rubble Trouble

Posted on by Tom Fleming

The ‘aftermath’ in Rhidian Brook’s excellent third novel is that of the Second World War. But rather than add to the glut of fiction set in bombed-out 1945 Berlin, Brook charts original terrain by unfolding his drama in Hamburg in 1946 at Stunde Null (‘zero hour’), as the city’s hungry and homeless survivor-inhabitants start again […]

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Fat Chancer

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Lionel Shriver shares quite a lot with Jonathan Franzen, besides being an American-born novelist of the same generation. Both made late breakthroughs around a decade ago; and both write realist, substantial, neo-Victorian novels about social and ethical problems, tending to illuminate these problems through the prism of a single family.

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Maine Men

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Elizabeth Strout, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her 2008 novel Olive Kitteridge, has an extraordinary talent for homing in on the dropped stitch in the family fabric, and family is what The Burgess Boys is really about. There are unnecessary diversions, but she always comes back to a family’s idea of itself, and the […]

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What Lives Beneath

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Patrick Flanery’s first novel, Absolution, was a delicately wrought portrait of the relationship between a biographer and an acclaimed novelist set against conflicting memories of the opposition to apartheid in South Africa. On publication last year it was justly lauded for its dexterous balance of the fictional and the historical. The same cannot be said […]

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Stella Performance

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Clever Girl, Tessa Hadley’s seventh book, has its share of sensational aspects. There are no fewer than two murders, a heroine with a rich romantic life (marriage, affairs both straight and lesbian), a foundling child (and two other sons by different partners) and a supposedly dead father back from the grave. But, as in Hadley’s […]

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In Search of the Good Life

Posted on by Tom Fleming

It has been eight years since James Salter released Last Night, a collection of short stories barely 130 pages long; one has to look back to the appearance in 1975 of Light Years, his mid-career masterpiece, for an original novel (Solo Faces, his 1979 novel about mountain-climbing, started out as a screenplay for Robert Redford; […]

Indian Summer

Posted on by Tom Fleming

The Round House, Louise Erdrich’s 14th novel for adults, is a thriller in which events take place on the North Dakota Ojibwe reservation already familiar to her readers. Set in the summer of 1988, the novel describes the effects of sudden violence on a close-knit family consisting of 13-year-old Joe, his mother, Geraldine, a tribal-enrolment […]

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An Ordinary Rendition

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Joseph Heller was once asked by an interviewer, an impudent fellow, surely, how it was that after Catch-22 he had never managed to write anything on a par with that first book. Heller in his reply displayed the chutzpah and sense of timing of an old-style Jewish comedian: ‘Who has?’ he shot back. It was […]

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People Watching

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Mass Observation (MO) was founded in 1937 by Charles Madge, a poet and communist, and Tom Harrisson, an anthropologist and freethinking liberal. The motive they shared, as members of the upper-middle class, was the desire to break down the barriers that separated them from the mass of their fellow citizens, the working classes. Both believed […]

Rafts on a Sea of Grass

Posted on by Tom Fleming

In an age of specialists, Christoph Baumer is a rare creature: a generalist. Explorer, archaeologist, adventurer, enthusiast, historian, photographer – no one could be better qualified to tackle a subject so vast in time and space. He must also be a book lover, for this, the first of four volumes on the subject, is a […]

On the Precipice

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Charles Emmerson has set himself an exceptionally difficult task. Global history is fashionable, but it is very hard to do well. Like a soufflé, which won’t rise without whipped egg whites, global history falls flat without a thesis or polemic. At its best – in the hands of historians at the top of their game, […]

Liberty or Dearth

Posted on by Tom Fleming

As every schoolchild once knew – and will again if Michael Gove transforms the history curriculum so as to portray Britain as a ‘beacon of liberty for others to emulate’ – there were three parliamentary reform settlements in the 19th century. The Conservative government’s Reform Act of 1867 and the Liberal Reform and Redistribution Acts […]

Esprit de Corpse

Posted on by Tom Fleming

For all the agony of grief, it usually has a time limit. As Peter Stanford reveals in this original, engaging book of the dead, graves are visited for an average of only 15 years before falling into neglect. Stanford noticed this as he took his dog for walks in the cemetery next to his London […]

Grave Matters

Posted on by Tom Fleming

According to recent surveys, around half the population of Britain still believe in some kind of existence after death. But there is no longer any consensus about what that existence might be, beyond ‘fuzzy hopefulness’, as Carl Watkins puts it. The Undiscovered Country, an exploration of changing beliefs about death and the afterlife in Britain […]

Compass Points

Posted on by Tom Fleming

About a third of the way through this book, John Edward Huth asks why it is cold in the winter and hot in the summer. This is not a trick question and I will give you a clue: the answer involves the sun. But does it get warmer in summer because the earth comes closer […]

Silent Movie

Posted on by Tom Fleming

  The scene requires you to cry and you want to. What you need is buried somewhere deep in the woods by the lakeside, stored   in the sap or lodged in the branches there between shoulder and rib-cage when you move like this or carry your hand to your mouth.   It helps to […]

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I May Be Some Time

Posted on by Tom Fleming

‘I don’t know of anyone in comparable middle-class peacetime circumstances who did what my father did.’ Michael Christiansen’s unique crime was walking out on his wife, baby daughter and four-year-old son, Rupert. It was 1959, a period when divorce was still ‘a dirty word, literally unspoken in polite society’. Rupert’s mother, living in the middle-class London […]

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