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on 25 January 2001
Anyone who has travelled on the public transport will have played the game: look at the person sitting opposite and try to guess who they are, what they do or what they are thinking. Geoff Ryman obviously played this game a lot. Only he has transformed this simple idea into an acclaimed new novel, leaving him exempt from the nagging question on all our minds as we read 253: 'why didn't I think of doing that?' Geoff Ryman shares with us a colourful array of thoroughly original characters. Two-hundred and fifty-three of them to be precise. And he is precise, every time. "A Bakerloo line tube train with no one standing and no empty seats carries 252 passengers. The driver makes 253." So he devotes exactly 253 words to each of the characters who've embarked on this unexceptional journey. We are offered a glimpse of each passenger's appearance, an essential insight into their background, followed by the exact thoughts they are having at the time we meet them.
Justin is a freelance journalist posing as a homeless person. Estelle wears an X-files T-shirt and is obsessed with Sadam Hussein. Harry Wade resembles a swollen cherub and finds nothing has made sense since childhood. And just who is that curious old lady who tries to get everyone to dance...?
Ryman creates characters more captivating and involving in 253 words than some authors manage in a novel of as many pages. Exposing all ages, nationalities and personalities, the tube train is a microcosm, a snapshot of modern London.
Read 253 on the tube and find yourself staring at the passenger opposite as a couple of hundred words begin to form in your mind...
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on 14 May 1999
This book is the most unusual I have EVER read. Absolutely NOTHING happens. The guy has the audacity to just write a book about 253 folk sitting on the tube doing nothing, and carries it off superbly. Either he has loads of friends OR a superb imagination. All the characters are so realistic, and after having read this, you'll never look at a bus full of people the same again. The most original piece of work in a long time, not a lot of depth but totally gripping and thought provoking.
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on 28 July 2010
In London you cannot really avoid the underground, ok you can but you know what I mean, and getting on the underground means that you surround yourself with other people daily. People you know nothing about and yet don't you occasionally find yourself wondering who they are and what their stories might be. Well `253' is a novel, though in some ways it reads like a succession of very short stories that can interweave, that looks at one particular train during seven and a half minutes between Embankment and Elephant and Castle on one particular day and a very fateful journey.

As the blurb itself states "a Bakerloo line train with no one standing and no empty seats carries 252 passengers. The driver makes 253" and this is the story of each one of those people as they go through what is a daily routine to them and we step into their thoughts (all done in just 253 words per character) and learn a lot about them and why they have ended up in that particular train surrounded by those particular people. What Ryman does which only makes the book all the more clever is that on the train are people who know each other and so as the book goes you get additional twists to certain tales you have already seen.

I did think writing 253 characters in the same amount of words would make the book somewhat repetitive and the fact each character is summed up in the sections "outward appearance", "inside information" and "what they are doing or thinking" would make it all rather formulaic and possibly a little bit dull. It wasn't at all. Each character is very individual from Estelle who is in love with Saddam Hussein, Justin a journalist posing as a homeless man, Jason who has just discovered he is made for older women, James who anaesthetises ill Gorilla's for a living... I could go on and on there are so many marvellous characters and tales to choose from.

I do think part of the success with the book for me was that I didn't read it as a novel. I would read about a carriage full of characters or just one or two between other things because if you read it in one go or maybe it was the only book you read for a week I think the charm could wear off and that would be a real shame as this book is brilliant. In fact what proves its brilliant further is that as someone who doesn't like footnotes or when an author steps into the work to give you extra titbits, I was fascinated by Ryman's.
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on 9 October 2001
253 is one of those rare books that once i'd started reading it i couldn't put it down until i'd finished it. It's an unique, original, crazy piece of literature. 253 people provide 253 stories all linked by the tube train they are on. My favourite story is the one about the woman who goes around telling people her husband is an informant.. If you only ever read one book in your life then read this. You'll not be dissapointed. It only costs a few quid and it would be money very very well spent.
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on 20 June 2000
I will never be able to travel the underground again, without thinking of this book!
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be able to tap into every one's thoughts around you? To know not only know who they are but what they are thinking at that very moment? Wouldn't it be fun? Well read 253 and you can. Geoff Ryman has taken an incredibly obvious idea for a story and turned it into a piece of amusing, fascinating, and often moving work of fiction. You find yourself traveling with these poor souls, not just along the Bakerloo line to Elephant and Castle, but also through their colourful, intricate and twisty lives. Although it's not a flowing novel, Geoff has managed in few words (253 exactly for each character) to provide a synopsis of each person, their thoughts, emotions and other relevant information. As you tumble towards the final destination, you begin to realise you have seen all these characters at some time on the tube yourself! My personal favourite being "Who?" With an unexpected conclusion for all involved, 253 is well-planned and intriguing book that captures your imagination and plays havoc for your next journey on the wondrous London Underground.
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on 29 October 2013
The layout of the book is a bit odd, and i wasn't really sure about the relevancy of a lot of the information. It's a good idea and i really liked the sound of it from reading the back, but i just couldn't get on with it at all.
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on 31 October 2000
I think my fellow reviewers (above) have missed the point. Yes, 253 IS extremely imaginative, well written, etc... But so are hundreds of other books on
What makes this book unique is the fact it was originally published online. "As have hundreds of others!" I hear you cry... Yes, but with the others, the webpage is a metaphor for paper.
The relationships between people, places and events on this particular tube train are (on the web version) hyperlinked, thereby adding an extra dimension not present in other online novels, or well written novels in general.
Furthermore, the non-linearity (sp?) of the book is very different from conventional novels.
However, I personally believe that the website is not as well designed as it could have been, and that 253 is easier to read away from a computer screen. So buy the book.
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253 is a problematical novel in some ways. It is a collection of 253 persons - their outward appearance, their `inside information' and what he or she is thinking or doing. All in a total of 253 words. Sounds a bit gimmicky, but in fact it is a brilliant accomplishment completed with tremendous zeal and skill. The problem is that it becomes a bit samey as we go along. Very few of the people described really stand out. This is probably part of the book's authenticity. On the other hand Ryman throws in some lovely and intriguing passages in his footnotes. For instance, the ghost of William Blake who emerges upwards from the slime and gloop of the underside of the underground. Ryman also provides some timely and entertaining asides, such as the advert for the 253 Guide to Homely English - which tutors readers in how to be understood, without using all those complicated long words used by intellectuals - the scores for complexity of language running from 170.37 for The Sun to 367.35 for Rememberance of Things Past by Marcelle Proust.

It's very clever, very funny, and in the range of its characters it encompasses the full ethnic, social and economic mix of London life. I read it all the way through - and it has an ending as a story, as well as 253 internal stories of angst, love, despair, delight and fear. It's hugely enjoyable, but perhaps best taken in three or four smaller doses.
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on 26 February 2006
One of the greatest books I've read.
It sounds terrible - one of those pseudo-mathematical exercises in writing much beloved of French experimental writers - but it isn't like that. Geoff Ryman writes brilliantly and each of 253 characters immediately involves you. I've read and re-read it.
Simply stunning.
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on 23 November 1999
It gives me a real headache to think of the amount of planning which went into such a well organised and entertaining book. One of the things that struck me though was even after putting it down, there is still so much un-digested information to take into account. For instance the outward appearance, if you just read this part and allow yourself time to delve into the semiotics of dress, then you have already stereotyped the character without knowing anything else, which clearly reflects on everyday life, only here we are allowed to know what the character does for a living and even what they are thinking, it's marvellous. Also impressed with the gimicky pages between carriages and also the ease with which it can be picked up and put down. READ IT!
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