Write to the Point by Sam Leith review – a useful, persuasive guide to English usage

Language has rules but no umpire – and the standard approach changes all the time

Language has rules, but there’s no umpire: this is the starting point for Sam Leith’s guide to correct or, more precisely, standard English usage. He goes on to explore how those standards shift and evolve with time, preference and situation, but Leith is neither dry nor academic. He offers succinct advice for those who want to write anything from a letter of complaint to a blog post, confidently and clearly. Presented in conversational style, it’s an interesting counterpoint to Simon Heffer’s Simply English, to which Leith refers on the very first page. While Heffer revels in pulling up “barbaric” crimes against language, Leith is more measured and believes that, while knowledge of “the rules” is useful, an ear for what sounds best in the right context is even better. The final sections, covering language ...

Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides review – men behaving badly

Husbands and fathers harbour dark thoughts in the novelist’s witty collection of short stories whose characters prove hard to love

In the perfectly paced, middle-aged, middle-class drama that completes Jeffrey Eugenides’s first collection of short stories, a famous physics professor “watches his life implode” after an ill-advised one-night stand with a high school student who has a trick up her sleeve. We’ve already been treated to a country music radio consultant with a restraining order against his family, and a music teacher about to get a visit from the bailiff for defaulting on the payments for his clavichord. It’s fair to say that, in Fresh Complaint, men are well intentioned enough, but also pathetic and faintly absurd.

There are plenty of women in these stories, written over the past 22 years, but Eugenides is particularly adept at piercing the darker, unsaid inner thoughts of husbands and fathers. Charlie is, ...

Munich review – inside a compelling conspiracy on the eve of war

Robert Harris is on sure ground in this brilliantly constructed spy novel set amid the politicking of Chamberlain’s last-ditch negotiations with Hitler

It’s one of the defining – and in hindsight humiliating – images of the 20th century: Neville Chamberlain stepping off the plane from Munich in September 1938 clutching a paper signed by Hitler and, later that day, declaring “peace for our time”.

The Munich agreement came against a backdrop of ultimatums from power-hungry leaders, devious negotiations and – unknown at the time – a conspiracy to overthrow Hitler with a plot straight from a spy drama. The perfect setting, then, for another thrilling historical novel from Robert Harris.

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The Last London by Iain Sinclair review – compelling and perceptive

In an amusing volume that draws a line under his enduring fascination with London, Sinclair confirms his standing as a modern-day Pepys

If it really is to be Iain Sinclair’s final reflection on London’s “iteration of potentialities”, then The Last London is best seen as a career-spanning retrospective: a coming together of everything that has made this great chronicler of the English capital such a compelling and perceptive guide. Funny, too – this collection of walks and group expeditions through London has laugh-out-loud moments, not least when one of the bearded hipsters on two wheels whom Sinclair relentlessly mocks crashes out of his commuter peloton into a canal. More seriously, the author asks us to think afresh about the London we think we know, Sinclair’s extraordinary prose finding drama and meaning in the mundane and overlooked. Comparisons with Pepys are tempting – and in the end, apposite. When late 20th- ...

A Thousand Paper Birds by Tor Udall review – magical realism in Kew Gardens

A debut novel that’s both heartbreaking and uplifting in its exploration of loss Jonah stands in his empty flat. The silence stretches painfully – his wife has died suddenly in strange circumstances and he’s “unmoored in a place that should feel like home”. Jonah retreats Kew Gardens where he seeks solace in retracing the walks he took with his wife. There he finds a cast of characters – some vividly real such as artist Chloe, who makes the origami birds of the title, some achingly not so – who, over the course of a year, help and hinder his chances of processing his grief. Tor Udall’s debut novel is a masterful exploration of love, loss and the healing power of the natural world. Like Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, it uses fable, mystery and a poetic sensibility to get at the nub of loss, and although ...

How to Resist by Matthew Bolton review – protest and thrive

The living wage campaigner shows how to effect change in this inspiring seven-step guideIf there’s anyone worth listening to about the politics and strategy of protest, it’s Matthew Bolton. After all, this is the man who led the hugely effective campaign for the living wage, and here he sets out a persuasive case for being proactive, rather than moaning about the state of the nation on social media. How to Resist is genuinely a “how to” guide, the road to successful campaigning set out in seven steps. The snappy, conversational tone and impressive up-to-date references (it opens with a look into Labour’s surprising results in the general election) make Bolton’s book feel like a return to the golden age of the pamphleteers - though, thankfully, it’s not laden with overt party political statements. Instead, How to Resist argues that even if people feel they are a tiny part ...

Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish by Tom McCarthy – review

Fifteen essays illuminate and revel in such culturally diverse subjects as Tristram Shandy and Zinedine ZidaneThere aren’t many critics who would make a convincing case for the brilliance of Belgian writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint by highlighting a 10-page essay on French footballer Zinedine Zidane. But then, that’s Tom McCarthy’s entire career in microcosm. His novels revel in the tangential, so it’s no surprise that his essays on literature and culture, 15 of which are gathered here, are similarly in thrall to the way seemingly disparate elements of the mainstream and avant garde speak to each other. If these explorations of, for example, the importance of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (a novel, of course, about digression itself), or James Joyce’s Ulysses can trip over into dense critical theory, there’s also a poetry and wry beauty in his short piece about the life of a “dodgem jockey”. In the wake of the ...