Old reviews from Feb 2011: Jones – Lukas – Nicholls

Jones Lukas Nicholls

A novel of ‘Great expectations’ – Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

With its lovely cover, and the promise of Dickensian fun in paradise, I was easily lured into this novel.  I’ll admit that having missed most of the hype about it when it came out, I was expecting a soft and lightly humorous novel along the lines of the The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.  It didn’t take long for these fanciful notions to be dispelled and replaced with less cosy and rather greater expectations!

The story is narrated by Matilda, looking back at the events that happened on Bougainville, her Pacific island home when she was fourteen.  It’s the 1990s, and there is civil unrest brewing on the island, which has yet to reach the end where Matilda lives.  School has been shut for some time and everyone is surprised when Mr Watts decides to reopen it.  Mr Watts, whom the kids all call Pop Eye, is the last white man living in the village.  He promises to introduce the children to Mr Dickens – and initially their hopes are dashed when Mr Dickens is found to be a long-dead author. When Mr Watts starts to read Great Expectations to them, one chapter a day it piques their interest, for Mr Watts turns out to be a natural storyteller.

Matilda and the other children take Pip to their hearts.  The book allows their imagination to fly beyond their island boundaries and confirms to them that there is another world out there.  Matilda’s god-fearing mother is suspicious of Mr Dickens and the faithless Mr Watts, and their war of words is a highlight of the novel.  However civil war intervenes with the arrival of the brutal ‘Redskins’ who have seen a word Matilda spelt out in seashells on the sand – ‘Pip’.  Demanding to see Pip, things rapidly turn nasty and the novel takes on sombre tone, and Mr Watts will prove that he is a good and decent man.

The parallels with Dickens abound, but I must admit my limited familiarity with Great Expectations really comes from the classic black and white film with John Mills as Pip rather than the book, which I read at school. I think that if you know the Dickens well, this novel will fascinate on a different level – without that, I did feel inspired to read the Dickens properly sometime soon.

It did evoke a picture of a life very different to our own successfully I thought – it would have been idyllic if not for the war. When the insurgents turned up, the pace upped a notch, and in the later stages there was a certain amount of convenient wrapping up at the end, which fell a little flat for me.   It was an enjoyable read, and if a book can make you want to read Dickens, that must be alright! (7.5/10) 

Source: Own copy.  Lloyd Jones, Mister Pip (John Murray, 2007)

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Beautiful and enjoyable but underdeveloped – The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas

The story of Eleanora Cohen, a ten year old savant, sounded irresistible and would have been if the story had developed its full potential.

Eleanora never knew her mother, but grows up to have a thirst for reading and knowledge doting on her father. When he has to go on a business trip to sell carpets, Eleanora decides to stowaway and escape her (wicked) stepmother, who had stopped her reading, and thus Eleanora’s adventures begin. No sooner is she reunited with her father and installed at the home of his business partner, than she loses him too, and the poor girl is all on her own in late 19th century Instanbul. Luckily Moncef Bey, her father’s business partner, becomes a surrogate father to her, warning her not to ask what he does when he goes out. Her tutor, a Reverend, turns out to be a spy for the Sultan, and tells him about the wise but sad little girl and her guardian and she is summoned to him to the palace…

The imagery in this novel is beautiful, and the flock of purple and white hoopoes that follow Eleanora everywhere including across the sea are an lovely and exotic detail. The setting in Stamboul with the beleaguered Sultan feels quite ‘fin de siècle’. The problem is that Eleanora ends up rather bland; her grief when she loses her father strips her emotional core from her, indeed she stops talking for a long period of time too. Moncef Bey is not enough of a rebel – realistic but not so exciting. The Sultan is interesting, but spends most of his time thinking or trying to escape his mother.

The first half of this debut novel promised much, but not enough happened in the later stages to make it a completely fulfilling read. (6.5/10)

Source: Review copy – thank you.  David Lukas, The Oracle of Stamboul (Headline Review, 2011) hardback, 320 pages.

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When Em met Dex – One Day by David Nicholls

It may have a contrived plot, and be the sort of chick-lit-ish book written by a bloke that many blokes will actually read, but One Day is not an ordinary book. Barring a slightly flabby middle, it was an all-absorbing read that twanged all my emotional heartstrings…It charts the lives of Emma and Dexter, starting on graduation night when they drunkenly fall into bed together, realise that they may have something, but with the rest of their lives just about to start, they swear to be friends and keep in touch. Then we keep up with them over the next twenty years through all life’s ups and downs as they keep passing in and out of each others lives.  However we just get a snapshot – just one day out of each year on the anniversary of that first meeting in 1985 on St Swithun’s Day, July 15.

That’s all I’m going to say about the plot, as I don’t want to give anything away – of course you hope that they’ll get it together, just like in When Harry Met Sally.  The ‘one day’ device may be contrived but it works because we are drawn to Emma and Dexter right from the off and there is some sparkling repartee between them, this quote is from 1995 and Dex has taken Em out to a ‘in’ Club-Restaurant …

‘I eat out most days now. As a matter of fact, I’ve been asked if I want to review for one of the Sundays.’
‘Cocktail bars. Weekly column called “Barfly”, sort of man-about town thing.’
‘And you’d write it yourself?’
‘Of course I’d write it myself!,’ he said, though he had been assured that the column would be heavily ghosted.
‘What is there to say about cocktails?’
‘You’d be surprised. Cocktails are very cool now. Sort of a retro glamour thing. In fact -‘  he put  his mouth to the empty martini glass ‘-I’m something of a mixologist myself.’
‘I’m sorry, I thought you said “misogynist”.’
‘Ask me how to make a cocktail, any cocktail you like.’
She pressed her chin with her finger. ‘Okay, um … lager top!’
‘I’m serious , Em. It’s a real skill.’
‘What is?’
‘Mixology. People go on special courses.’
‘Maybe you should have done it for your degree.’
‘It would certainly have been more fucking useful.’

David Nicholls is probably the new Nick Hornby.  So if you like him, you’ll probably enjoy Nicholls, (though I’ve yet to read Starter for Ten – although I enjoyed the film).  This novel was clever, moving and fun – recommended for a light but thoroughly engaging read.  (9/10)

Source: Own copy. David Nicholls, One Day (Hodder, 2009) paperback, 448 pages.

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