Charles Dickens: A Life, By Claire Tomalin
Love Virtually, By Daniel Glattauer
Walking the Amazon, By Ed Stafford
Tokyo Underworld, By Robert Whiting
The Uncoupling, By Meg Wolitzer

Paperback reviews of the week

Charles Dickens: A Life, By Claire Tomalin

Penguin £9.99


Two hundred years after his birth, Claire Tomalin has brought Charles Dickens to life once more. The inimitable Boz emerges from this colourful account as nothing less than a force of nature; not just a novelist, but a traveller, journalist, actor, philanthropist and sometime mesmerist. He was also a husband and father of 10 children – most of whom failed, understandably, to match his high standards.

Dickens had an unpropitious start. His Micawber-like father was often locked up in the debtors' prison, and Charles was sent at the age of 12 to labour in a boot-blacking factory, an experience that was to inform his peerless depictions of the London working poor. He rose to become a parliamentary reporter and columnist, and later, the world's most famous writer of novels, received by Queen Victoria and garlanded on trips to America.

Tomalin is particularly good on Dickens and the opposite sex. She condemns his cruelty to his wife, presents compelling evidence that his affair with the young actress Ellen "Nelly" Ternan was consummated, and notes rightly that his novels are "undermined by his inability to present" believable female characters. But Dickens's tendency to think of women as helpless victims did at least result in a concern for their welfare, and we learn of his "extraordinary" efforts to establish a refuge for prostitutes.

Admiring but clear-sighted, illuminating but never so freighted with detail that it loses its pacey narrative thrust, this is a truly exemplary biography.


Love Virtually, By Daniel Glattauer (trs Jamie Bulloch and Katharina Bielenberg)

Maclehose Press £7.99


While trying to cancel a subscription, Emmi inadvertently sends Leo an email. He responds with a sarcastic comment. A conversation develops, and they become about as close as two people can get without touching. They defer meeting in person, partly to prolong the mystery, and partly because Emmi's husband is getting a tad suspicious.

Daniel Glattauer's book was a bestseller in Germany, and it's easy to see why: it is tense and brilliantly paced. But the form is not entirely new, simply an update of the epistolary novel for the Google generation. Compare Love Virtually to the works of Richardson and Laclos and you'll find that fictional lovers have been writing to each other with the same mixture of lust, longing, and jealousy for the past 200 years. Plus ça change.


Walking the Amazon, By Ed Stafford

Virgin Books £8.99


That no-nonsense title says it all, really. Between April 2008 and August 2010, Peterborough-born former Army officer Ed Stafford walked the 4,000-mile length of the Amazon river from its source in the mountains of Peru to the Atlantic ocean, braving floods, snakes, caimans, and drug cartels.

An astonishing feat, to be sure, but Stafford is a better explorer than he is a travel writer. He admits to focusing more on maps and inventory than on his surroundings, and it shows in his somewhat cursory descriptions of the Amazon and its people. The blokey tone ("kayaking is for girls") can get a bit grating, too.

Still, his commitment to highlighting the destruction of the rainforest is admirable, and it's to be hoped that his adventure – and this book – will help motivate conservation efforts.


Tokyo Underworld, By Robert Whiting

Constable £8.99


The seedy atmosphere of occupied Tokyo, run in tandem by American soldiers and local gangsters, has inspired artists from Akira Kurosawa to David Peace – but the truth was often stranger than fiction.

Here Robert Whiting looks at how Japanese politics in the post-war era was inextricably linked to crime, and highlights the role of US expats in the underworld. He focuses on the remarkable story of Nicola Zappetti, who left Harlem for Japan to become variously a wrestler, a diamond thief, a chef and, finally, a wealthy property tycoon with links to the Yakuza.

The tone of the book is muddled – Whiting can't seem to decide whether he wants this to be a rigorous sociological study or a rollicking true crime exposé – but it is fascinating nevertheless.


The Uncoupling, By Meg Wolitzer

Vintage £7.99


The war of the sexes reaches the New Jersey suburbs

During a high school production of Aristophanes's play Lysistrata – the one where the women of Athens go on a sex strike to protest against the Peloponnesian War – a strange magic starts to work on a sleepy New Jersey town. Wives reject their husbands, girls split from their boyfriends, and domestic bliss turns to icy rancour. Will opening night break the spell? Meg Wolitzer's latest novel is a quirky, meandering affair. Her attempts to draw parallels between conflicts in modern Iraq and ancient Athens don't amount to much, and the climax might have been lifted from a treacly Robin Williams film. But her prose is elegant and her humour nicely pitched.

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