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 from Amazon Vine.

To buy from, click below:
The Oracle of Stamboul

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)
I bought this book.

Read some other reviews:  Simon S here, and Jackie here.

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To buy from, click below:
One Day
Starter For 10 [DVD] [2006]
When Harry Met Sally [DVD] [1989]

A Ffunny evening with the Ffabulous Jasper Fforde

I couldn’t resist the ‘Ff’s.  I bet some authors would get fed up of people doing that, but I think Jasper Fforde a) wouldn’t mind because he will know that I love his books, and that is what matters, and b) does it himself on his website

Jasper was on day two of his book tour promoting his latest – One of Our Thursdays is Missing, the fifth Thursday Next novel. He talked to a packed St Nicholas church in Abingdon complete with pneumatic drills and grinders digging up the road outside doing nighttime repairs, (the sort of quirky coincidence that might happen in one of his books we thought). But despite the background noise, he kept the audience thoroughly entertained with a largely off-the-cuff talk involving much hilarity, and it was lovely to see an author positively encourage questions from the audience, rather than dread them.

He took us through his writing experience and how it took ten years and several books to get published. His third, The Eyre Affair was his breakthrough book, and then it took a  whisper campaign with a larger number of proof copies than usual with a  ‘Don’t ask, read it’ tag by the publisher to raise awareness as Fforde’s books tend to defy easy description.  He calls this the ‘Jasper Fforde Role-playing Game’ – try to describe one and it’s nigh-on impossible.

He told us how The Big Over Easy was the first book he wrote – a satirical whodunnit about the apparent suicide of Humpty Dumpty; but it wasn’t published until 2005, after the first few Thursday Next books. When he looked it over then, he could see why it didn’t get published the first time and engaged on a re-write. So he urged new writers to use the rejections and keep practising and learning how to be worth publishing.  In fact he was full of great tips for aspiring authors, and urged people to be their own worst critics.

Talking about how he writes he said, self-deprecatingly, that he just wrote and figured out how he wrote them later.  However, he did admit to setting himself ‘narrative dares’ thinking of some wild and wacky themes and challenging himself to write them.  When asked about where the name Thursday Next came from, he told us he wished he’d known it truly was a phrase in Romeo and Juliet, but actually it was something his mother tends to say rather than next Thursday.

Moving on to Shades of Grey, newly out in paperback, he said that this was a departure for him – no hiding behind existing characters. It’s been more of a slow burner saleswise than his previous works because of that it seems, but actually it’s my favourite because of its originality,  (review coming very soon as I read it last week).  He had this idea for a dystopian world where everything is governed by visual shades of colour, and how he could change the rules of engagement in society.  Volume II in this trilogy is due out in 2013.
He’s also been delighted with the success of The Last Dragonslayer, which I reviewed here.  He liked the idea of insane wizards and magic that fizzes and phuts.  Although written more with a teen audience in mind, it’s being read by many adults too.  A sequel will be coming next year.

The queue for signing was long, but worth it.  He was such a nice guy. We chatted briefly, and he posed for a picture, and stamped my books with his own custom stampers (Civic Duty – have you done yours? in Shades of Grey, and a Council of Genres Reading Visa for the new book) – How Ffab is that!  Oh, and he gave out postcards too.

With three Thursday Next books plus the Nursery Crimes pair in my TBR, I’m looking forward to a long reading relationship with Jasper.  If you’ve read any of his books, do go and see him if he comes round your way, you won’t be disappointed.  If you haven’t read Fforde and fancy some zany metafiction – Oh ‘Don’t ask, read it!’  The Eyre Affair is a good place to start, or Shades of Grey if you prefer dystopian fare.

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To buy books from, click below:
One of Our Thursdays is Missing (Thursday Next series vol 5)
The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next) (Thursday Next series, vol 1)
Shades of Grey
The Last Dragonslayer
The Big Over Easy (Nursery Crime Adventures 1)

Celebrating 50 years of Penguin Modern Classics

Penguin are very good at celebrating their anniversaries.  Previously we’ve had the Penguin Sixties and then the Penguin Classics 60s back in the mid 1990s for the company’s sixtieth birthday – each series featuring sixty little pocket-sized books which were 60p each, and an eclectic mix they were too.  I remember visiting loads of different bookshops to try and collect the lot – of course they brought out a boxed set slightly later, but I think I managed to get all of the orange spined 60s, and nearly all of the black classics.

Now the Penguin Modern Classics series is fifty years old, and Penguin have produced a variation on their previous celebratory sets. They’ve produced a set of fifty small volumes by fifty authors, each featuring a selection of short fiction. For more detail and the full list, see the Penguin web site here.  But don’t they look nice?  Keeping the style of the latest incarnation of the series with white spines, silver covers with the distinctive font, and black and white author photos on the back.  Nice box – want one!  (Homer drool).

I was delighted to receive two of them to review. Having perused the list I picked H P Lovecraft then asked for a random pick…

I am trying these days to read more of the authors that have influenced so many others and Lovecraft is one of them.  The high priest of ‘weird’, his short stories are dark Gothic fantasies, horror with some fairy tale elements or science fiction thrown in.  These are the first I’ve read, and if the three in this little volume are anything to go by, I’ll enjoy reading more and think I’ll need to acquire the anthologies listed below!

The Colour Out of Space written in 1927 – is a classic Sci-Fi horror tale of a meteorite that falls in a farming valley and gradually poisons everything around it.  The dread engendered by this tale’s narrator is palpable and terrible – pure evil poisoning and sucking the life out of all living things within its grasp.

The Outsider is more of a fantasy, and strangely brought to mind a miniature of Mark Z Danielewski’s magnificent modern horror novel House of Leaves, in which a door in a house is found with a never-ending world going down, down, down. In this short story a twisted creature discovers a door leading up from his dark subterranean castle.

Lastly, in The Hound, a grave-robber takes one amulet too many and is driven mad by a curse.  Less ‘weird’ than the preceding two tales, but still highly atmospheric and charged with dark energy.

I loved the ‘weirdness’ of these tales – that word is perfect for them. They were fantastical, bleakly pessimistic, dark in tone as well as lacking sunshine, and rich in descriptive language.  Lovecraft is a hit (8.5/10)

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Now for Robert Coover – an author of whom I knew absolutely nothing at all.  Turns out he’s an American professor at Browns, now in his 70s, and Wikipedia told me he’s considered a fabulist and an author of metafiction.  New takes on fairy tales I adore, and I’m very fond of Paul Auster’s metafiction – so I was looking forward to the three short stories here too (all taken from his 1969 collection Pricksongs and Descants) .

The title story tells a tale of what happens in a circus freak show when the Thin Man wants to put on a little muscle to impress the Fat Lady who is going on a diet for him.  A rather sad fairy tale.

The last tale in this trio, A Pedestrian Accident,  is narrated by a man who has been run over by a lorry.  He lies dying while weird people argue around him – or maybe in his pain he’s hallucinating.  Nasty actually, and contains several moments of pure comedy which will make you wish you hadn’t laughed!

It is the second story in this set which is a masterpiece though – The Babysitter.  A teenager arrives to babysit for Dolly and Harry Tucker who are going out to a party, leaving her to get two tricky youngsters bathed and off to bed and deal with a hungry, pooey baby. The Dad fancies the girl.  She’s wondering whether to invite her boyfriend Jack over once the kids have gone to bed, what to watch on the telly and whether to have a bath too or not.  Her boyfriend’s mate Mark is trying to persuade Jack to let him soften her up for him, they should both go over to the Tuckers’ house.  This story is all about sex – more particularly thinking about it.  They all fantasize about the girl, and as they all work themselves up, their fantasies all become more and more outrageous, paralleled by the girl imagining increasingly outlandish stories about the children until you’re not quite sure what is real and what isn’t.  Proper metafiction – absolutely brilliant!

Having now investigated Coover a little, I’m dying to read his novel Gerald’s Party (1986).  Where a drunken party carries on around the corpse of a dead actress – Cocktails, sex, and violence.  Sounds slightly like a louder American version of Mike Leigh’s wonderful Abigail’s Party, which Channel 4’s reviewer said: “Abigail’s Party still ranks as the most painful hundred minutes in British comedy-drama.”  ‘Little top-up anyone?’

So Robert Coover – Another new author and another hit for me (8.5/10)

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All this means of course, that I just must have the full set of Penguin Mini Modern Classics!

To order from
Mini Modern Classics Box Set
The Colour Out of Space (Penguin Mini Modern Classics) by H P Lovecraft
Romance of the Thin Man and the Fat Lady (Penguin Mini Modern Classics) by Robert Coover

Most of Lovecraft’s stories are conveniently anthologised in this trio of Penguin Modern Classics:
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird StoriesThe Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories
House Of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski
Pricksongs & Descants (Penguin Modern Classics) by Robert Coover
Gerald’s Party (Penguin Modern Classics) by Robert Coover

The start of another great crime novel series

Cop Hater by Ed McBain

Ed McBain is the author who really created the police procedural novel, with his series of fifty-five 87th Precinct books written between 1956 and 2005. In the introduction to Cop Hater, he tells how he came up with the idea of a squadroom of police officers, all with different characters, whom together would make a ‘conglomerate hero‘.  Thus was the 87th Precinct born, set in a fictional city similar to New York.  Different policemen star in the novels, and as in real life, they will come and go from the squadroom, with one detective in particular, Steve Carella, holding a central position.

McBain is a pseudonym of Evan Hunter, the author of Blackboard Jungle (1954) in which a new young teacher has to deal with unruly pupils in a New York High School.  Hunter took a new pen-name for this series as he was advised that publishing crime fiction under the Hunter name could dilute his success; arguably he went on to achieve even greater popularity as an author as McBain.

Cop Hater is set at the height of a sweltering summer – everyone is suffering from the heat and humidity, even the cops – especially as they know that with the heat comes open windows, raised tempers, and more crime for them to deal with.  The novel starts with a man getting up to go to work on the evening shift. But he’ll never get there – for a gunman shoots him in the back of the head. The corpse is no ordinary  body either – ‘Mike Reardon was a cop‘.

Steve Carella leads the investigation which faces difficulties from the outset as there were virtually no clues.  Then events take on a more frenzied turn when another cop is murdered, and then a third.  It must be a ‘cop hater’ – who will be next? Carella is then put in a difficult situation when a journalist prints Carella’s off the record remarks and puts his girlfriend in danger leading to a final twist that I never saw coming.

The drama is backed up by wonderful descriptions of solid policework, taking casts of footprints, blood typing and spatter analysis – telling us how its done without being too heavy-handed, (remember this is the 1950s, so no DNA testing or computers here).  Anyone who’s seen the later TV series  Hill Street Blues, or NYPD Blue will be able to picture the squadroom, complete with typewriters, and the bar separating the desks at the entrance.  Carella is  a solid, dependable and likeable detective with a surprisingly tender side to him in his relationship with Teddy, his girlfriend.  The other policemen are also well-drawn and complementary, and those who survive will come to the fore in some subsequent novels.  I definitely want to read more 87th Precinct novels. (8/10)

I bought this book.  For another review read Jenny’s at Shelf-love.

To buy from, click below:
Cop Hater by Ed McBain

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) I bought this book.

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To buy from, click below:
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
Great Expectations (Oxford World’s Classics) by Charles Dickens
Great Expectations [DVD] [1946] starring John Mills, directed by David Lean.

Anne Frank seen through Peter’s Eyes

Annexed by Sharon Dogar

It’s a brave author that takes a revered true-life text and then tells the same story from a different character’s point of view.  Sharon Dogar has done so with her third teen novel telling the familiar story of Anne Frank through Peter van Pels’ eyes.  Peter was the teenaged son of the other family that hid in that Amsterdam annex with the Franks and their daughters Anne and Margot.

Peter, now just eighteen years old,  lies dying in the sick bay at Mauthausen camp, having survived the march from Auschwitz. He remembers his time in hiding …

But the memories persist; they push at the edges of my resistance. They spill.
There was a girl, wasn’t there? There was a place.
A place where the leaves fell like golden coins from a tree into the water as we watched through the attic window … and before that there was a home, a street, a world, a girl I loved …

Then we’re back with the sixteen year old Peter who is resentful at having to go into hiding.  His girlfriend Liese and her family were taken, and lovesick Peter is overcome with longing for the girl he yearns to see again, but knows in his heart that she is gone. He’s doubly annoyed at being stuck with Anne too, whom he thinks rather silly.  But gradually he overcomes his animosity and they become very close, but then he will lose her too.

Peter comes over as a typical teenaged boy – full of hormones, very self-concerned, struggling with wanting to be out doing things instead of cooped up.  The author is very good at capturing this adolescent angst – but so much so that we never get to grips with rest of his family and the Franks apart from Anne.  We never get to meet Miep either – who did so much for them on the outside and kept Anne’s diary safe.

Once they were betrayed and taken from the attic, the story leaves Anne and her diary behind, and becomes the imagined story of life in the camps.  Otto Frank looked after him at Auschwitz, but Peter chose to march to Mauthausen thinking he had a better chance of survival – he died days before the camp was liberated.  In this latter section, the text switches freely between past and present to give us a  bleak picture about what it was like to survive there.

There is much to like in this ambitious novel, and the writing is good, but I felt it was too much in thrall to its primary source. Viewed as a coming of age story as much as a holocaust one however, teenagers may get a lot from it.  Having previously read Sharon Dogar’s first novel Waves, which I enjoyed very much, I would certainly read more by this young author. (6.5/10)

To buy from, click below:
Annexed, Waves – both by Sharon Dogar
The Diary of a Young Girl: Definitive Edition by Anne Frank
Book supplied by Amazon Vine.

I’ve been selected to be a giver …

I’m rather excited, I got an e-mail just after midnight last night (didn’t read it until this morning though), telling me I’d been selected to be a giver of books on World Book Night which happens in the UK on March 5th following on from World Book Day on March 3rd.

People were asked to apply to give away 48 copies of a particular book from a broad selection of 25 titles.  You had to choose a title from the list, say why you picked it and who you would give it to.  They needed a massive 20,000 volunteers to give away a million books between them and it’s great to hear they got more than the minimum.

I was delighted when I spotted that my book of the year from 2010 happened to be in the list, so I applied for that and was delighted to get my first choice.  I have definite plans on how I aim to give out my 48 books – I’m going to keep it local, but am not going to say any more for now.  I’m very much looking forward to it though.

What are your thoughts about World Book Night?