on 22 March 2009
I raced through this book in a few sittings -- it held my attention, even when it annoyed me. Everything is nicely done -- Laurie's journey from misfit fatty to Oprah-esque daytime-TV queen; the evocation of Darkwood as part 100 Acre Wood, a dash of Potter (both Beatrix and Harry), some Spiderwick and a hint of Narnia. But it fails to grip, partly because the voice (or voices) falter; mainly because the author does not give his prose the space to let his imagination -- and his story -- come to life. The book is paced at an ambitious jog, but the finishing line is always in view. I wanted to get lost in the story, but I couldn't.
There's nothing wrong with Mr Toppitt, but neither is there anything outstanding. In comparing the book to Jonathan Coe's What A Carve Up! the publisher makes claims for Mr Toppitt that not even its wildest fan could justify.
In Charles Elton's debut novel, "Mr Toppit", Luke Hayman's father Arthur has immortalised a version of his son as Luke Hayseed, the main character in a series of children's books that sell moderately well until Arthur meets a violent death on the streets of London. Arthur's demise, and the intervention of a visiting American tourist who publicises the novels on her radio show, combine to send the sales of the books into the stratosphere and their villain, the title's Mr Toppit, into the global public consciousness. The fallout for Luke and his family from the effects of fame, wealth and public interest in their lives forms the basis for this novel.
I liked the sound of this book and was looking forward to reading it, but whilst "Mr Toppit" has an intriguing premise, a strong opening section, and some amusing sequences, overall, it is a disappointment. The characters feel underwritten as well as quite cliched; Luke's troubled, drug-consuming elder sister, the aggressively rude German family friend, the overweight American with an overbearing mother and so on. Unfortunately Luke is the weakest character of all, seemingly not possessed of any personality whatsoever. Perhaps the idea is that he has been overshadowed by his fictional counterpart, but the result of a Luke who narrates most of the book, yet does and feels little of any note, is a distinctly uninvolved reading experience. In truth, none of the characters are developed beyond cardboard cutouts, except in the noticeably stronger middle section of the book where we are taken back to the early days of Luke's parents' marriage, a sequence I particularly enjoyed and found to be the most believable part of the novel - I was disappointed that Charles Elton did not return to this thread.
There is not really much of a plot in "Mr Toppit" to speak of and the structure of the book struggles a little as it meanders around a series of satirical set-pieces without ever really telling the reader anything new. The depictions of the darker side of fame and the reality of the TV and film industry feel particularly familiar ground. Certain sequences, namely the family scenes in the aftermath of Arthur's death and his funeral, and Luke's sojourn in Los Angeles, simply go on too long whilst taking the reader nowhere. The book trundles towards an ending that is flat, and disappointing.
One final point is that whilst it does have some funny lines, in a few places the humour in "Mr Toppit" is a little embarrassingly forced and is too obvious to hit the note the author was presumably aiming for. In other places, scenes are obviously meant to be much more dramatic or meaningful than they seem on the page, and certain lines more insightful than they come across.
I really wanted to like this book but I just could not get caught up in it.
on 8 February 2009
I think the marketing hype for this book hasn't done it any favours: a spoof ad in The Times on the day of publication, impressive website dedicated to "The Hayseed Chronicles" - Mr Toppit would have been an instant best-seller without any of the clever dick stuff. It's almost impossible to categorise because it crosses or touches on many different genres, but it quite simply one of the best books I've read for years; brilliant characterisation, clever plotting, an achingly touching 'hero' in Luke Hayman and also funny, funny, funny. A brilliant, subtle satire on celebrity culture and a very realistic portrayal of a family more dysfunctional than Jonathan Frantzen's Apparently it took Charles Elton 15 years to write Mr Toppit, I just hope he pulls his finger out and delivers his next a bit quicker.
The original premise of this book intrigued me, and I found the hardback cover (Mr. Toppit on the dust jacket, with the Hayseed Chronicles underneath) a gorgeous idea. Unfortunately it did seem to be the best bit of the book.
After a promising start, I must admit this book became a bit of a gruelling read for me. I didn't connect with any of the characters, starting with the main narrator: Luke Hayman. Luke's narration is detached, lack-lustre and disinterested. He doesn't speak much, he just watches, but he seems to miss all the vital points. Or he doesn't see them as important. Since he is the main voice in the book, I felt this was quite a big factor in why the overall story didn't work for me.
The character of Laurie just irritated me. I wanted someone to tell her to go away, or ask why she felt she had a right to be there, or do this, but everyone just accepted her. Rachel and Martha were vague figures who never truly came into focus, except in cliches - drug-taking, troubled daughter; unfaithful, disappointed wife. I constantly felt as if there was a deeper story here (something about Jordan, perhaps) but it never quite arrived.
As for the Hayseed Chronicles themselves, the characters of Luke Hayseed and Mr Toppit, to be honest I felt the connection was hazy and feeble. It certainly didn't cause Rachel's problems (though early on when Luke remarks that Rachel was never in the books, as if she didn't exist I hoped that would go somewhere. It never truly did, except as a very tenuous reason for why Rachel was so desperate for attention. But that could just as easily have been inherited from Martha), which were in existence before Arthur's death, and therefore predated Laurie's interference and the success of the books. In fact, for something supposed to be at the heart of the family breakdown, the books drift in and out and never make a point.
This book started off well, drifted, then steadily petered out, coming to an end of nothingness. Nothing was resolved, nothing was revealed, it just ended at a point that could have occurred almost anywhere else in the story.
I expected more, wanted there to be more, but it sadly didn't quite deliver. Which is a shame, because no matter how much I disliked the characters, I did stick with it to the end. There's potential here, I just don't feel it was reached this time around.
on 22 March 2010
I'm mystified by some of the sniffy reviews of this book. It's one of the best books I've read in the last year and remarkably assured for a debut novel. Maybe it's too quirky for some people, but I loved the book. It's difficult to make a book this original and different a page turner. But this is what it is. And it's very funny, poignant and a great read.The hero Luke is a wonderful character, surrounded by some of the most weird and dysfunctional people I've ever read about. I can't wait for Charles Elton's next book.
on 20 June 2009
I won't bother to summarise the plot since other reviewers have already done that. The descriptions in this book are very good - the London Streets, the Hayman's house, the Darkwood, Laurie's home - he brings them all to life very well. Unfortunately most of the characters, whilst they're easy to picture, aren't interesting enough to make me want to spend time with them. The only character I felt any connection to was Laurie - and she seems to undergo a massive personality change towards the end of the book. This is supposed to be the story of family secrets, but the secrets aren't dark enough to carry the book (they're not even particularly secret, since they're easy enough to guess long before the end). I reached the last pages and thought 'is that it then?'.
on 15 September 2009
I was so disappointed with this book. I was really looking forward to a great read. From the blurb it sounded like everything I could want in a storyline but sadly, it fell flat for me. It just meandered along and didn't hold my interest at all. I didn't care about the characters or whatever secrets they were going to uncover - which in the end didn't turn out to be suprising or paricularly dark. In fact, the only saving grace for this book was the beautiful artwork on the cover.
on 24 February 2009
Luke Hayman has become world famous after his father Arthur Hayman's death (this happens early on so am not spoiling the plot) when his series of children's books `The Hayseed Chronicles' go from being books that shift a few copies to books that become stratospheric selling bestsellers. The reason he becomes immortal is down to the fact his father called the main character, a young boy, Luke Hayseed. The Hayseed Chronicles also tell of a dark evil character called Mr Toppit who never actually appears, though his ominous presence drifts in and out of these tales, until at the end of the 5th novel when he comes out of the Darkwood `for everyone'. This to me promised a real mystery, which the book didn't really deliver.
What it did deliver was two things. The first an insightful look at the trappings of fame, from those like Luke who really don't want it but have it to his sister Rachel who craves it but isn't mentioned in the novels. Luke's story seems to reflect the story of Christopher Milne and his fame from The Winnie The Pooh books. There is also Laurie a woman who was with Arthur when he died and who suddenly becomes part of the family before going back to America and becoming part of the train of events that make The Hayseed Chronicles one of the biggest selling series of children's books the world over.
The second thing that the book delivers is a fantastic family drama in the form of the Hayman's and all they have go through when Arthur dies and then when the books become so well known in particular Rachel `the unknown sister' who after her fathers death becomes dangerously obsessed with the books and their subliminal meanings and what could have happened next. It also looks at skeletons in all family's cupboards and focuses on the fabulous Martha who is such a wonderful character even if she is cold, self obsessed and quite distant.
As for the plot... Hmmm, a puzzling one as I didn't feel everything got quite wrapped up, which I know some books shouldn't and I don't expect all things to work out to a happy ending but I felt like some loose strands along the way were never quite chased up. I also had difficulty when Elton describes how people react to certain world famous scenes from the book that he never really describes them to the reader. I felt that more scenes from the book could have been entwined in the novel and also thought you could have had five interludes where the synopsis of each of the series was thrown in.
The characters, as well as their dilemmas and dramas in this book are undoubtedly what made it such a great read for me. I loved Martha as I mentioned and I loved Laurie's cantankerous mother Alma equally. I also found the character of Laurie fascinating and in some ways her back story was the one that I found the most interesting as it deals with how childhood shapes us, which can also apply to Luke's character.
Overall a very interesting debut novel and one that I would recommend to people who like a good family drama, just don't be expecting the gothic story that the cover suggests.
on 16 June 2009
Mr. Toppitt by Charles Elton is the tale of an emotionally-troubled boy called Luke, who spends his life dealing with the pressures of being the inspiration for the main character in the world's most popular series of children's' books, The Hayseed Chronicles, which are written by his father. (Think the muse for Harry Potter, with "issues".) This is an interesting concept for a novel, and Elton does a great job of creating a sympathetic story around Luke and his immediate family, written from the perspectives of all members of the family. These individual memoirs and stories gradually build into a patch-work version of Luke's family's history, through which various secrets and lies are revealed.
Luke's visit to a family friend in the US shows him that much of what he was trying to escape in England is only set to follow him across the pond (quite literally in one case), and he has to deal with his problems head-on. Running away can't help him; in fact, it only sets to make things worse for him.
Elton does a great job of interweaving passages from the Hayseed Chronicles into Luke's own experiences. The concept of the Hayseed Chronicles seems beliveable as a literary series, and doesn't strike the reader as just some random passages stuck in for good measure. The title of this novel refers to an unseen character within The Hayseed Chronicles, whose presence is hinted at throughout and makes an interesting spin that Luke's life will forever be overshadowed by his father's books.
Warmly-written and satisfying, I enjoyed this book immensely. The hard-back edition is beautifully presented with a dual cover, showing the artwork for both Mr Toppit and The Hayseed Chronicles.
on 13 April 2009
I got the impression this was originally intended as a sub-Poliakoff television drama. Consider the evidence. The characters are uniformly a bunch of caricatures and grotesques. They behave in an unbelievable heightened manner and do lots of bits of business that seem intended to flatter or (faintly) amuse the lowest common dominator of the viewing - er, reading public. (Example: at Arthur's funeral, his friend reading the eulogy gets the name of his movie wrong. Did anybody fail to spot that coming? Hands up.)
The effect is to make it quite hard to care about any of the characters. Even the bereaved narrator seems so determined not to let us into his grief and supposed alienation that he might as well be writing all this as a column in the Sunday paper. There is some tell, no show. I was not at all surprised to learn the author is a TV producer.
This is what British literary fiction has come to, the inevitable final evolution from all those sterile intellectual games played by Rushdie and co. It probably sounded great as a high-concept pitch over lunch - a shame it was taken any further. And by the way, the title alone probably tells you what the book's thumping great metaphor is - and the very first line of the book makes it even more obvious - although, amazingly, it's written as though this is a matter of great subtlety.
If you're tempted, read an old book instead. Unfortunately they're always better.