Charles Dickens – Nicholas Nickleby [REVIEW]

Title: Nicholas Nickleby

Author: Charles Dickens

Type: Fiction

Page Count/Review Word Count: 817

Rating: 4/5

Alrighty, time for another chunky review courtesy of Mr. Charles Dickens. In case you haven’t got the memo, each of my reviews has the same number of reviews as the book has pages, and considering that this one has 817 pages, we’re in for a treat.

Not that I read the printed version. I quite like Dickens, but I’ve found that he’s much easier to read via audio book than via the printed word. There are a few reasons from that, but the biggest issue I’ve come against is that the hefty word count of his books tends to mean that they’re printed with tiny print to save cash, and that gives me a headache. When you combine small fonts with Dickens’ verbose writing style, you’re in for a world of pain.

Nicholas Nickleby is Dickens’ third novel, and it’s another of the ones that was initially serialised. The good news is that unlike something like The Pickwick Papers, it’s not super obvious. Oh sure, you can tell if you’re looking for it, but it’s at least a little subtle, perhaps in part because it wasn’t based upon a series of illustrations like Pickwick was.

The idea behind this one is that young Nicholas Nickleby loses his father and finds himself at the head of the family, responsible for financially supporting his mother and sister. It’s a very Victorian idea and the perfect concept for Dickens to take on, and it also does a pretty good job of providing him with a number of jumping off points.

That’s important, because you need something like that when you’re working on a story that’s serialised. I don’t think it was as effective of a MacGuffin as the Pickwick Papers, because that relied on people actively going out of their way to have adventures that they could tell their friends about. Nevertheless, it did the job.

We also get a decent cast of supporting characters along the way, including good old uncle Ralph Nickleby, who reminded me of a prototype of Ebeneezer Scrooge. We also get some incredible names throughout the book, from Wackford Squeers to Newman Noggs.

Now, I’m not going to attempt to summarise the plot, because it’s a huge, sprawling novel that just keeps on going. I actually feel a little sorry for anyone who has to teach this to people, because I don’t know where you’d even get started. I guess you could take a look at some of the themes that it covers, but then there are more themes here than there are in Street Fighter II and so it’s tricky to pick just one.

For the most part, though, we’re dealing with the typical Dickensian stuff, and if you have an idea in your head of what Charles Dickens liked to write about, the chances are that you’ll find elements of it here. I particularly liked the way that he looked at Victorian schooling and the way in which adults can mistreat children for a paycheque, such as when someone adopts a child for the financial support and then locks that child in a cupboard beneath the stairs, Harry Potter style.

There were bits of dialogue that I loved too, including a reference to a gammon which a little research suggests is the source of the way that we use it today to refer to nutcases on Facebook. It goes a little something like this:

“‘The meaning of that term — gammon,’ said Mr Gregsbury, ‘is unknown to me. If it means that I grow a little too fervid, or perhaps even hyperbolical, in extolling my native land, I admit the full justice of the remark. I AM proud of this free and happy country. My form dilates, my eye glistens, my breast heaves, my heart swells, my bosom burns, when I call to mind her greatness and her glory.’”

It’s little things like that which act as a reminder that Dickens is still relevant today, and he’ll continue to be so for many years to come. Sure, this might not be quite as iconic as some of his other books (I’m looking at you, Oliver Twist), but it still shows that the guy was a writer who had his finger on the pulse of the society that he lived in. His works are timeless in that they tap into a timeless aspect of what it means to be human.

Characters like Newman Noggs might have ridiculous names that sound as though they belong in a pastiche of Dickens, rather than in reality, but don’t be fooled. Their names are cartoonish, but their characters feel as real as they come. I’ve met people like the ones that Dickens is writing about, and I’ve heard stories about the ones that I haven’t met. So there’s that.

Learn more about Nicholas Nickleby.

Barack Obama – A Promised Land [REVIEW]

Title: A Promised Land

Author: Barack Obama

Type: Non-Fiction

Page Count/Review Word Count: 784

Rating: 4/5

Well, here we go. We’ve got a heckin’ chunker on our hands with this one.

A Promised Land is essentially Barack Obama’s memoirs of his presidency, and the funny thing about reading this one was that I picked it up not too long after reading Becoming by his wife, Michelle. There are quite a few cases where the two of them wrote about the same events, and so it was cool to see both of their perspectives.

I also had the benefit of reading this one via audio book, which was read by Obama himself and which came to life because of it. The combination of his easy writing style and his personal narration meant that it felt almost like I was having a friendly chat with him over a coffee as he reminisced about his time in office.

It also covers his initial run for the presidency, as well as a little stuff on how he became a senator. That makes for interesting reading, though perhaps more so if you’re super into politics. I mostly enjoyed that because I could contrast the American system with the British system and look at how they were similar and how they differed.

At times, it got a little surreal. Because he’s no longer active in politics, he didn’t pull any punches, and that meant that he gave his honest thoughts on subjects like, say, Vladimir Putin. Perhaps less controversially, he also talked about people like Sarkozy, Merkel and Gordon Brown, the latter of whom I’d forgotten about completely despite the fact that he was prime minister of the country that I live in.

Obama also wrote about some more personal subjects, from his reluctance to quit smoking to the way that he and Michelle raised their kids. I think it was important for him to do that, because it helped to humanise him and to remind us that whatever else he might be, the former president is just a guy like any other. But with better public speaking skills.

It also shows how the presidency requires a whole army to function, whether we’re talking about campaign aides helping to support the initial run or whether we’re talking about the chefs and secret service members that keep the White House ticking over. It was also fascinating (and a little scary) to read about the football, which is essentially a briefcase full of nuclear codes that has to follow the president around wherever he goes in case he needs to launch some nukes.

Now, I’ve read Obama’s earlier books, and while they were both okay, they didn’t quite have the same oomph that this one did. I imagine that part of that is because he had a lot of help from his editors on this one, as well as plenty of time to draft and redraft and the benefit of learning from his earlier two efforts. At the same time, it’s unfair to compare them because they set out to do different things.

If I’ve got my facts straight, which doesn’t always happen with me and my book reviews, then this is only the first half of what’s set to be a two-parter, because he started writing the book and found that it just kept on growing. He talked about that in the opening pages, which cover how the book itself came about and what the writing process looked like.

For me, as a writer, that was another great reason to pick it up. True, it’s interesting to learn about the presidency, but it’s more interesting to learn about how other people put metaphorical pen to paper. No two writers go about things in the same way, and it seems that Barack is very much a discovery writer, as well as a student of the Douglas Adams school of thought who loves the whooshing sounds that deadlines make as they go by.

I don’t think that you have to be an Obama fan or a supporter of his policies to enjoy the book, although I’m sure that it helps. If you happen to be a republican, it’s still worth reading to get a better understanding of how the political system works and to see the ways in which the two parties occasionally end up working together.

That occurs most notably with Obama’s response to the financial crisis, which takes up more than anything else during his presidency when it comes to page time. Let’s just hope that we’ve learned the lessons that the crisis had to offer us. Otherwise, we’re in quite a lot of trouble.

Learn more about The Promised Land.