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Phineas Redux (Penguin Classics)
Phineas Redux (Penguin Classics)
by Anthony Trollope
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.69

5.0 out of 5 stars A triumph, 31 Aug 2014
First a warning: Phineas Redux is the fourth of the Trollope's Palliser novels and, while the six novels in the series can otherwise be read independently, this is an exception, forming also the sequel to Phineas Finn. If you have not read Phineas Finn, then, you need to begin there, and you may also stop perusing this review, which will be found to contain spoilers by anyone who has not read the first in the pair.

I cannot claim to have read all of Trollope's forty-seven novels, but of those I have read, this has been the most exciting. Our hero Phineas, having lost his wife to childbirth, returns from Ireland to run in a fresh election. As soon as he sets foot in London, he is plunged in the maelstrom of electoral intrigue, ministerial rivalry, and party machination that makes parliamentary life. The Conservative leader, Mr Daubeny (i.e. Disraeli), has attempted to pull the rug under Liberal feet by entering a motion to disestablish the Church of England. Phineas, meanwhile, cannot stand the formation of a Liberal cabinet to be thwarted for too long, for he depends on the revenue a ministerial post promises to bring. But the second of the Phineas Finn novels, while it is as strong as the first in its depiction of parliamentary life, also ranges far wider. Murder accusations, a cliffhanger of a trial, vitriolic press scuffles all become intertwined with the political game. Phineas's impossible involvement with Laura Kennedy and the scandal caused by her bigoted husband also weave into the plot, and stand in between Phineas and the mysterious, beautiful, and wealthy socialite Madame Goesler. Phineas Redux is a complex novel with an extraordinarily rich plot, and it as full of suspense as it is verisimilar in its reconstruction of contemporary London life. I found it simply exhilarating.


Music For Torching
Music For Torching
by A. M. Homes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Slow-burning, 21 Aug 2014
This review is from: Music For Torching (Paperback)
A.M. Homes is a writer with a fine eye. Her novels capture ordinary psychology with humour and a good sense of the apposite. Music for Torching, though, felt just a little unreal to me. The novel begins as Paul and Elaine attempt to burn down their house by tipping a barbeque. Paul has been unfaithful, and Elaine, the stay-at-home mother of two boys, is aimless and demoralised. Forced temporarily to leave their home, the couple, and the family, flail for a handle on their lives. But as they weave through neighbourhood dinner parties, comical work meetings at Paul's NY office, and fresh affairs, cracks soon appear through the veneer of respectability. Fine: yet set in the 1990s, this has a dated feel about it. It isn't just that the protagonists use landlines, not mobiles, and never check anything on the Internet. The novel has been hailed as a critique of suburban America. But is conventional, middle-class America perhaps something of a writer's myth? Something convenient for laughing at, but perhaps not quite as ordered and conformist as the more bohemian artist would like it? Or is it that with job losses, reduced incomes, and mortgage defaults, suburban America isn't quite what it was back in the boom times? The work scenes, notably, suffer from a lack of contemporary credibility. The book, finally, is penalised by a weak ending. This remains a good read. It is entertaining throughout, and might have deserved four stars with a better ending. But it is not Homes's best novel.


The Imperfectionists
The Imperfectionists
by Tom Rachman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Gem of a first novel, 18 Aug 2014
This review is from: The Imperfectionists (Paperback)
Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists is half novel, half collection of short stories. Its overarching plot is that of an international, English-language newspaper based in Rome, running from its foundation in the 1950s to its modern fall to the barbarian forces of new media. Each chapter, though, zooms in on the life of one of its participants: reporter, copy editor, accountant, devoted reader, moneyed board member... Nor is the newspaper the only thread running through these portraits: all are people faced with imperfect life situations, forced to make do with a reality far different from the simpler epitomes of the printed word. Rachman is a gifted writer, and the chapters are full of poignant detail, enriched by the choice of Rome as a setting. The newspaper's own story, at first murky, grows on the reader and it eventually interacts with the various characters' fates. And the author, incidentally, seems to have insider knowledge of journalism. Do not be put off by the comparison with short-story collections: a highly original piece, this books quickly becomes a page-turner.


The Annals of Imperial Rome (Classics)
The Annals of Imperial Rome (Classics)
by Tacitus
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.39

4.0 out of 5 stars Annalistic, 21 July 2014
Though I am no classicist, I have read quite a bit of original Greco-Roman history, from Thucydides to Cassius Dio, and I was looking forward to Tacitus, perhaps the most reputed Roman writer and Gibbon's favourite source. I fear however that part of Tacitus' reputation relies on his style, whose uniqueness gets lost in an English translation. Nor had I realised, firstly, that significant parts of the Annals are missing, and secondly that the book is in format a chronicle, not a history.

Covering the scandal-ridden years AD 14-66, the Annals takes the reader through the reign of Tiberius, the last years of Claudius, and most of Nero. The reign of Caligula, the early Claudius years, and the last of Nero are missing, and one must turn to Suetonius for that. That, with a few exceptions, Tacitus chose to tell his story year by year, or consulship by consulship, is meanwhile no-doubt invaluable to historians, but it makes the book more difficult to follow and less coherent to the general reader. The Annals do have an overarching theme, namely the corruption of absolute power, both among those at the top and among courtiers and aspirants. Yet as an account they are burdened with countless obscure affairs whose protagonists are hard to recognise, and by the marches and counter-marches of military campaigns whose significance is not always established. By contrast, though Thucydides also follows a loosely year-by-year structure, I found his narrative far more absorbing. I am thus only giving the Annals - shockingly, I know - four stars. At the same time, this is well worth reading and is filled with engrossing reading, such as the Germanicus campaigns or Nero's ruthless assumption of total power. And I am turning to the Tacitus Histories, covering the years AD 69-96, with unabated eagerness and anticipation.


The Believers
The Believers
by ZoŽ Heller
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars Good but somewhat directionless, 21 July 2014
This review is from: The Believers (Paperback)
Zoe Heller is an acute observer with a keen sense of the humorous, and The Believers fails neither to amuse nor to tell. The novel follows the fate of the Litvinoff family while its head Joel, an ageing New York lawyer and civil rights champion, lies in a coma after a stroke. His wife, the irredeemably bolshie Audrey, battles with two daughters that are losing the faith: one to Orthodox Judaism and the other to an extramarital affair, and with an addict of a son who threatens to rediscover simple, earthy American values as he makes a rural escape. All this makes for some pointed scenes and a few good laughs. Yet The Believers is undermined by the lack of a strong plot, as nothing else takes place but the Litvinoff's rather listless petty tribulations. As a book it is never boring, but I found it not as strong as the London-based Notes on a Scandal.


The Reluctant Fundamentalist
The Reluctant Fundamentalist
by Mohsin Hamid
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

4.0 out of 5 stars Reluctant home truths, 3 July 2014
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, telling the story of a brilliant young Pakistani's disillusionment with America, caused a stir when it came out. Its revelations, though, are probably not that new to anyone outside the US. There are people who dislike the great superpower, and it isn't just that they are fanatics, or that they hate liberty, but they are actually discontented at American policies and acts around the world. Surprise, surprise. Hamid is a skilled writer, and this novella has a proper plot, with proper characters; it is not a political tract. As is clear from the beginning, the main protagonist, Changez, is suspected of having joined a fundamentalist cell. But this is after he has gone through the promising beginnings of a career at Princeton and an investment banking firm in New York, and experienced a doomed love affair with a local girl. Flawlessly written, this makes for a finely spun tale. At the same time, I enjoyed Hamid's other work, How to Get Rich in Rising Asia, better. My issue with The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the novella format: there was more to say, much more, and going for a full-length novel would have allowed for a richer work, both along the political and the psychological dimensions.


The Reality Dysfunction: The Nights Dawn trilogy: Book One: 1 (Nights Dawn Trilogy 1)
The Reality Dysfunction: The Nights Dawn trilogy: Book One: 1 (Nights Dawn Trilogy 1)
by Peter F. Hamilton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Big disappointment, 6 Jun 2014
I am a big fan of Peter Hamilton. This is the first book in his highest-rated trilogy on Amazon, and I find Amazon reviewers usually get it right. So much bigger was my disappointment with The Reality Dysfunction. Sure, this has great stories and good action scenes - Hamilton is a gifted storyteller - hence the three star-rating I am giving. But I found the novel, and especially the future it is based in, lacked the coherence and degree of conviction one normally finds in this author. And crucially, the premise is unimpressive. This is basically one big interstellar zombie story, no more. Fans of Hamilton may yet enjoy it, but if you are new to the author, I would recommend the Void trilogy, not this.


How to Manage Your Slaves by Marcus Sidonius Falx
How to Manage Your Slaves by Marcus Sidonius Falx
by Dr. Jerry Toner
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.49

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Subversive self-help, 5 Jun 2014
First, do not worry, How to Manage Your Slaves is no apology of slavery. On the contrary, it is an explicit portrayal of that brutal institution and its role in the Roman world. It is also true to the sources: the tongue-in-cheek, self-help format repackages disparate primary texts to make them into coherent chapters for the reader. Toner's latest work explores all the facets of Roman slave-ownership: from acquisition to management, from legal rights to private abuse. Narrated by the fictitious, cranky, and old-fashioned Marcus Sidonius Falx, it is an easily read and often humorous volume, at least as much as the subject allows. It also is a reminder that Roman civilization was in large part dependent on slavery, and that much of the civic infrastructure we still admire was built by slaves. Finally, it allows for the peculiarities of Roman slavery, showing that not all slave regimes are the same. Some (a minority) of slaves were better off than free men or women, especially the domestic slaves of high-ranking individuals. Many Roman slaves were manumitted, though as Toner shows, the motivations for that were more complex than simple generosity. Some even went on to make fortunes with the help of their patrons. How to Manage Your Slaves is an honest and hard-hitting contribution to Roman history, combining originality with invaluable source references.


The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation
The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation
by Andrew Wilson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Ukrainian primer, 28 May 2014
Ukraine has become topical and is likely to remain so, yet few outside Eastern Europe really know much about it. Andrew Wilson's book is therefore essential as the reference history on Ukraine, or rather on the Ukrainian national identity. For Ukraine, though it has had multiple predecessors, enjoyed only a very sketchy and intermittent existence as a state until the late twentieth history. Kievan Rus was perhaps to it what the Carolingian Empire is to France or Germany. The seventeenth-century Hejtmanate was short-lived, faction-ridden, and in thrall to the outside powers of Poland and Russia. And the post-WWI Ukrainian republic was soon subsumed into the totalitarian and murderous Soviet Union. Yet through the centuries a Ukrainian language and culture survived, to morph into national aspirations with then advent of modernity, and this is the story that Wilson tells (hence the title The Ukrainians, rather than Ukraine).

Wilson's book is thorough and well-researched, and it is clearly written. Though it contains a lot about the historical past, it is weighted towards the last twenty years, which Wilson, otherwise a University College London lecturer, has evidently witnessed at first hand. It is also cautiously argued and avoids taking sides. A few caveats are nevertheless required. First, The Ukrainians tends to be beholden to the predominant style of cultural history, approaching culture in large measure through the arts. The problem is that one cannot explain how Ukraine came about in its current geographic expression without understanding how a Ukrainian language (or family of dialects) and way of life endured where they did. Novels and abstract paintings are fascinating material, but they barely touched the many Ukrainian villages where, through thick and thin, a bedrock of Ukrainian identity survived through the ages. Wilson does not tell the story of that survival. Second, the last chapters show the mark of multiple editions, and they could have been re-written more substantially as the dust settled on the first few post-independence years, to the reader's benefit. These are nevertheless minor objections, and The Ukrainians is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand what is happening in this politically important country and region.


Notes on a Scandal
Notes on a Scandal
by ZoŽ Heller
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars Captivating, 28 May 2014
This review is from: Notes on a Scandal (Paperback)
Sheba Hart, hailing from a well-to-do family from north London, married too young and to an older man, and she devoted the better part of her life to her two children, one of them disabled. When she joins the St George's comprehensive school as a pottery teacher, it is meant as a new start. But the classes, filled with unruly teenagers from a social background that is alien to her, prove too much for her to handle, and she ends up having an affair with one of her underage pupils. The story is told from the point of view of her colleague and friend, the English teacher Barbara. But Barbara, an elderly spinster, soon proves as dangerously clinging as anyone else at St George's.

Notes on a Scandal, opening with Sheba's very fall, is nevertheless a page-turner. Zoe Heller is a true master, keeping the pace through her plot's unrelenting progression. And Barbara as narrator is in equal measures creepy and compelling. Her wit, her awe-inspiring negativity make for hilarious asides. Both puppet-master and victim, she drives the story as much as Sheba, wrapping every scene in dark but irresistible sarcasm. Notes on a Scandal is a brilliantly sombre piece, faultlessly written. This is the first Zoe Heller novel I have read, but I am keen to check her other works.


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