• Content count

  • Joined

  • Last visited

About MisterHobgoblin

  • Rank
    many cultures : one world
  • Birthday May 29


  • Location
  • How did you hear about this site?
    Calliope introduced me

Profile Information

  • Gender
  • Location
  • Interests
    Bouncing Australiana

Recent Profile Visitors

477 profile views
  1. Inga Simpson

    Inga Simpson is not an Aboriginal writer, but Where The Trees Went is a novel that engages very much with Aboriginal culture and heritage. This is a risky path to follow; it is easy to draw accusations of cultural appropriation or insensitivity. But it is important that some white Australian writers are willing to take this risk. It is important that white Australian readers be exposed not just to authentic Aboriginal voices telling stories of their own culture, but also get to hear perspectives on how Australians of European or other non-indigenous heritage should relate to the Traditional Owners. Where The Trees Went is a highly readable novel set in two interleaved times and locations. The first narrative features Jay, a tom-boyish girl hanging out with male friends by the river in the Lachlan Valley of small-town New South Wales. Jay’s family live on a huge station and the population is sparse; their part of the river is private property so it is quite conceivable that the collection of carved, dead trees is otherwise unknown. It becomes their personal playground; their gang hut, as it were. But one of the friends, Ian – whose family run the local service station – is Aboriginal and his mother tells them that the trees are a burial memorial and it is no place to be playing. The other narrative has an adult Jayne, an art historian at the national museum in Canberra, plotting to steal an arborglyph – an Aboriginal carved tree. She is horrified at the commodification of Aboriginal culture, the collection of sacred artefacts that simply remain in storage. Jayne is horrified, too, to find herself in a relationship with Sarah, an intelligence officer with (presumably) ASIO, hanging out in trendy cafes and worrying about home furnishings. Perhaps triggered by a bushfire that ravaged the trees around Canberra, Jayne feels the stirring of old memories and the need to make a difference. Both narratives are beautiful. The childhood, told in first person, is immediate and arresting. It is personal and bursting with emotions. It is a story of love and friendship; of childhood innocence in a harsh world where adults can crush dreams. The adult narrative reads at times like a psychological thriller: tense and terse. The third person narration creates a distance between Jayne and the reader. But like the best of the twin-track narratives, the reader is frustrated to move away from a compelling story every time it switches, only to become immediately engrossed in the story that had been on hold. Overall, this is a story of love and friendship, tragedy and loss. There are themes of honour, personal debt and reparation. The novel sets Aboriginal culture firmly in the 20th and 21st Century – not some ancient thing but part of the world we all inhabit and which is relevant to all of us, regardless of our own heritage. It presents questions about how we can share a space; how migrants and their descendants can live with an appreciation of the awesome culture around us, and how we can try to live with the atrocities committed by our (not very distant) ancestors. The answers are very tentative, leaving the reader plenty of space to fill in their own answers. Where The Trees Were is a really superb, measured piece of writing that will leave an impression. *****
  2. Ryan ONeill

    Their Brilliant Careers is a work of absolute genius. Right from the author’s previous publications, through the dedication, contents age, text, acknowledgements and index it never lets up. This is a pastiche of a serious study of influential Australian writers. Ryan O’Neill has creates a seamless world where these fictional writers rub shoulders with one another and with real writers and historical figures. They interact across biographies; some characters are ever-present: the luckless Sydney Steele is a constant fixture; Vivian Darkbloom’s parties are attended by the great and the good; all the writers grew up on a diet of Addison Tiller’s bucolic short stories. Now, I am no expert in Australian literature but I understand that some (all?) of the fictional writers are drawn from real life Australian writers. This may well explain how such a complex world has been able to hang together. But it also makes this a very sharp analysis of a pitifully poor literary tradition. Of the sixteen writers, there is at least one plagiarist, two frauds, two whose works have disappeared, and one who never existed. These top writers include one editor and one biographer; and at least a couple whose output seems to have been minimal in the extreme. Their works are unoriginal and derivative, titles punning on more illustrious works by European writers. At the same time as we are given this bleak analysis of Australian literature, so too we find a bleak analysis of Australian social history. All the writers are very Anglo – one especially so – and women are mostly decorative. There are some fascists and a communist (who embraced fascism when Stalin signed a non-aggression treaty with Hitler). It paints a picture of an unimaginative, safe and isolated society – one in which books were banned and genuine innovation spurned. It is a society with a few mediocre people running things for themselves, setting up petty little battles for territory, trying to win a larger share of the minuscule sales of literary magazines and journals, oblivious to a bigger, wider and more successful world beyond. There are Easter Eggs aplenty, whether in the form of titles, anagrams, acrostics or homophones (Donkey Hotel anyone?). Genuinely funny, laugh out loud moments in the middle of a deadpan journalese narrative. I had worried that Their Brilliant Careers might be a one-trick pony. That it might run out of steam quite quickly and be repetitive padding to fill out a novel length book (a feeling I got with Roberto Bolaño’s conceptually similar Nazi Literature in the Americas). I needn’t have worried; the concept got stronger, not weaker, for each additional biography. The characters became fuller and more three dimensional; details in earlier biographies only became truly meaningful when seen through the lens of a later biography. There is a story of sorts that emerges, and it is a pretty captivating one. And given the title and subject matter, it seems appropriate that Their Brilliant Careers has been longlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin Prize. *****
  3. Ava Langdon is a writer, elderly, living in a hut in the forests outside Katoomba in the NSW Blue Mountains. We spend a day in Ava’s company – through morning, elevenses, afternoon, evening and night. We meet her in her hut, living an existence that is not much above camping. Her provisions are low; she has makeshift furniture and makeshift cooking equipment. Is this some kind of post-apocalyptic world? Has Ava, alone, managed to carry on the torch of humanity? The answer is no. It is 1974 and Ava seems merely to be eccentric. She is the weird old lady our parents used to warn us about. Today, though, we are going to see the world through Ava’s eyes, watching the small children being safely shepherded away. We are going to delight in her choice of pith helmet and golden cravat; we are going to admire her wit in putting waitresses and policemen in their correct places; we are going to marvel at her dexterity in deadheading agapanthus in the grounds of the Hydro Majestic at Medlow Bath. I know the places well, and I remember the 1970s – although I have never seen them combined I can imagine it well. This was a time of greater innocence but, ironically, also greater violence. The health and safety laws had not yet sterilised our world and neutralised the threats. This was an age where people could be assaulted for liking the wrong music, so if you were strange in any way you were not going to meet with tolerance, let alone acceptance. Thus, Ava’s world view showed all the more defiance in the face of strong societal expectations. It would be a shame to spoil the reader’s fun by detailing the many examples of eccentricity and the inappropriateness of her various exchanges and dialogues. Just accept that they are hilarious – and that you’ll be laughing with Ava as much as at her. You will see Ava’s perspective completely, be privy to her inner thoughts, but unlike a classic unreliable narrator you will also fully understand how other people react to her. There is no delusion, no trying to hoodwink the reader. The title tells us that these are the last days of Ava Langdon. We are sad that the world is about to be robbed of one of its more colourful inhabitants; we understand also that for all the nonsense – for all the overblown experts of unpublished novels and doggerel rhyme – that Ava had a story to tell. Every chance encounter was a potential novel, destined to be typed onto pink paper and sent off to an unreceptive publisher. Ava’s life reaches back into a bygone age; it is over; and apart from ten copies of both of her published novels, Ava has precious little to show for it. Her tragi-comic life has not been a success. Ava Langdon is fictionalisation of Eve Langley, a long forgotten writer. I have her magnum opus, The Pea-Pickers, on my shelf unread. This novel will definitely inspire me to read it. *****
  4. Kirsten Tranter

    Hold is a spooky little book. Shelley Muir is putting her life back together after the tragic drowning of her partner Conrad. Shelley has moved away from the coast and is now living with David, an older academic, and his 15 year old daughter. Shelley has a contract to write textbooks, giving her freedom to work from home, popping out to cafes and antique shops as she pleases.But despite appearances, Shelley is not happy. David’s minimalist furnishing has obliterated Shelley completely, she is never going to feel maternal towards Julia and her only friend Tess is a restaurant reviewer providing Shelley with access to free food and dull company.So when Shelley discovers a secret room through a door in the back of her bedroom closet, she is able to create her own personal space, her own refuge from David and his minimalism. But the room is not on the plans, and the space it occupies seems to encroach on the house next door… The more time Shelley spends in the room, the more often she visits it, the stranger her life gets. Hold is essentially a study of grief and not letting things go. It is about the dilemma of being loyal to what you have loved, and being hopeful enough to reach out for new things. It is about the pain when the new things are not that great and you know the ending might not be happy. This is a difficult read, despite its brevity. This is a novel heavy in metaphor, but it remains lucid. One or two of the ideas possibly don't bear very close scrutiny, and one or two bear more than a passing resemblance to Michelle de Kretser’s Springtime, but taken together they create an eerie atmosphere that becomes more and more disturbing as the book progresses. The writing, in fact, is beautiful and creates a tiny, claustrophobic world very well. There are repeated images that build in intensity with each telling; each time the images becomes sharper, more detailed. The biggest puzzle, though, is the chicklit cover. This is very much not chicklit and anyone expecting a romcom or sensual steaminess is going to feel mightily short-changed. Hold is about the hold of the past on Shelley. I think too that some of the spookiness may have quite a hold on the reader. ****0
  5. Will Self

    Look, I really did try to like Phone. I loved Umbrella, and Shark was on just the right side of OK. But Phone seems to be the same book told all over again, just without the plot. I gave up at a quarter of the way through.Phone opens with Zack Busner, former psychiatrist, wandering around a hotel in Manchester with his undercarriage out. It seems he has dementia. The narrative – a third person stream of consciousness devoid of paragraphing – slips from the present situation into long (and I mean long) reminiscences/fantasies – never quite sure which. These reminiscences are sordid and salacious – drugs, prostitution, spies hanging around gay bars, unhappy families. They are also hopelessly disjointed, repetitive and don’t go anywhere. This style was exciting in Umbrella where there was a unifying theme – the treatment of encephalitis lethargica. Umbrella had frequent social and cultural references to the 1960s and 1970s; it had wit and it had panache. Shark was a bit more of the same, but lacking a cogent story at its heart. But this, Phone, just has nothing to hold it together or hold the reader’s interest. It doesn’t have witty cultural references, it doesn’t have any obvious political statement to make. It doesn’t even have the novelty of an idiosyncratic narration since it has already been done twice before. Phone is a step too far, still riding on Umbrella’s coat tails. We know Will Self has done highly original stuff – but is he like the Zack Busner of this text – a faded shadow of a once great man? *0000
  6. Gail Honeyman

    It's a personal choice. But if you have a smart phone, you can get a Kindle app and read on that. It was a revelation when I first discovered it. I was with Calliope in Kyoto and we had an hour to pass before we could reasonably look for an evening meal. As we sat on a wall, I said what a pity it was that I had left my Kindle in the hotel. Calliope told me I could get the Kindle app, and since there was free wi-fi everywhere I downloaded it on the spot, uploaded my book and picked up exactly where I had left off. Now I read heaps on my phone - even lighter than a Kindle or a paperback.
  7. Gail Honeyman

    Ah well, the Kindle price is not that bad. Plus - Amazon has the hardback on offer at ten pounds - and there was a time when ten pounds was what you'd pay for the paperback. Book prices have come down so much over the past 20 or more years.
  8. Eleanor Oliphant is 30 years old, lives in Glasgow, works on accounts at a graphic designer, wears the same practical clothes every day, eats the same food and spends her weekend drinking vodka and doing the crosswords. Eleanor has no friends and no social life – beyond her weekly conversation with her mother. It’s existing, but it’s not really living. Initially it has a feel of The Rosie Project. Comedy drawn from the lack of social awareness of someone with an undiagnosed psychological disorder somewhere close to Asperger’s Syndrome. But it soon becomes clear that Eleanor’s problems are borne of childhood trauma rather than underdeveloped emotional awareness. Whilst Eleanor is gauche, she is not completely socially stunted; she has self-awareness and the capacity to learn. And learn she does. This is essentially a Bildungsroman – a coming of age story – but with an abnormally late developer. There is genuine comedy gold in the process – particularly as Eleanor finds reasons to alter her image. At times, in honesty, Eleanor’s apparent ignorance of modern culture and appliances stretches credulity, but it is easy to go along with the conceit for the sake of the humour. Yet at its heart, there are real people like Eleanor. Even in Glasgow, a city with a rough and ready reputation, there are a few delicate flowers who wince at the sound of swearing, who maintain prim and proper manners to the point of prissiness, and profess never to have stepped into a pub. There are people in every city whose lives fall into lonely ruts as a way of avoiding difficult decisions and facing up to the need for personal development. As the novel unfolds, more detail of Eleanor’s past emerges at the same time as she takes more responsibility for facing up to – and improving – her situation. The reader becomes increasingly sympathetic towards her and wills her to beat her demons. This is not a novel that relies on tricks and although there is a twist at the end, it doesn’t define the novel. What really makes the story special is the narrative voice. Eleanor is defiant even at her most desperate. She does not look to others to solve her problems and doesn’t even really want to admit to having problems. Many people are in a worse situation than her, she reasons. Even as she does emerge from her isolation, it is not to address a particular problem; rather it is a strategy to achieve a particular goal. She can be self-depricating, but never whiney. Eleanor Oliphant is a really fantastic book that affirms all that is good about modern Scottish society; it is an optimistic book that will stay with me. *****
  9. George Saunders

    I thought it was a genuine experience. By allowing ghosts to converse, we are admitting to the afterlife in some shape or form - and most ghosts are just temporarily existing between life and death. So I read it as straight that the Reverend had got to judgement and was running away from it - caught in a terrible state because he knew the outcome would be adverse but was inevitable as he had no power to change the life he had led. It also made me, as a reader, wonder what he had done in his life that was so terrible.
  10. If you mean the private messages, open the message and it will have a box marked options - you can click on Delete Conversation.
  11. Scarlett Thomas

    Scarlett Thomas is a fun writer who often manages to weave maths or science into her work. This is no exception; we have forays into thought experiments and the theory of homeopathy.The basic idea is that a young PhD student, Ariel Manto, finds a copy of a rare work by the subject of her thesis, Thomas Lumas. Not much is known of the book; only one copy is known to exist, stored in a bank vault in Germany, and there is a rumour that anyone who reads the book will die. Her supervisor has suggested she ignore the text in her doctorate, but the supervisor disappeared about a year ago… The book itself – a 19th century work called The End of Mr Y – finds the eponymous Mr Y visiting a circus sideshow and being intrigued by a clairvoyant.This all sounds like the plot of a very bad self-published work, just waiting for the zombies to appear. Fortunately they don’t, and Thomas is a skilful enough writer to bring this potential implausibility into something coherent. But instead of zombies, we have a chase across international borders by some very dodgy American spooks, refuge being sought in monasteries and mind-reading.At times the text feels over-long and some of the pseudo-science does get a bit hard to follow at times. But this is balanced by a genuinely intriguing plot whose direction is not always as obvious as it seems. There are multiple timelines and backstories all shepherded well and there are moments of sheer inventive brilliance. By the end, it all gets very surreal in a way that some people are not going to like, but I think it worked.This is a novel that is a lot of fun. It’s ideal holiday reading; enough to think about and the pages keep turning without the need to take notes. ****0
  12. Laura McVeigh

    Under the Almond Tree is a really brave novel. Laura McVeigh writes from the perspective of a teenage Afghan refugee - Samar - remembering a past life in Afghanistan before landing up shuttling backwards and forwards on the Trans-Siberian railway. Self-evidently, this is not autobiography and McVeigh may have opened herself up to accusations of cultural appropriation. The novel is also brave in the way it runs two parallel narrative streams - the present day set on the train and the past set (mostly) in Afghanistan - and rather than the usual bringing the threads together at the end, pretty much lets one overwrite the other. The execution of the novel, though, is pretty much flawless and fully justifies the huge risk. That does not mean that this is an easy book. It is intense, which makes it hard to read in long bursts and tends to make it quite hard to pick the book up again. For the first half, I wondered where it was all going and thought it might be another standard piece of refugee misery fiction. But something clicked at the half way point; the back story started to become gripping; the characters started to coalesce into three dimensions; and the train narrative started to intrigue. That was the point the novel stopped being hard to pick up and became hard to put down. Samar's voice becomes really haunting. At times she is sad, at times she is hopeful. She is never self-pitying yet still comes across as young and deeply vulnerable. She has seen the worst of humanity, yet she spends her time writing about her family playing games along the length of the train, stepping off at stations to buy food from the platform vendors, forming dangerous liaisons with the western tourists... There is a sense of purpose and direction, even if the purpose itself is not always clear. The story itself is illuminating; we see a once proud nation descend into chaos, first through the encroachment of Soviet troops and later through the encroachment of religious fundamentalism. This is handled well, and kept in proportion. We see people trying to go about their normal lives in spite of the incursions; we see them trying to normalise the situation in their own minds. When tragedies come, they are as likely to be caused by natural disaster as by war; yet when war does change the course it does so in truly devastating ways. Under the Almond Tree also conveys a great sense of place. I know the Trans-Siberian railway and the detail is spot on. I don't know Afghanistan or the Central Asian republics, but the novel is convincing and conveys, in particular, a sense of scale and barrenness. The people all feel real; whether it is Samar and her immediate family - her sister Are, her brothers Javed and Omar, her parents and grandparents - or whether it is the minor characters - the truck drivers, the refugee camp medics, the teacher, the Taliban commander, the provodnitsya on the train. Every one if them feels solid, genuine and complex. This is a really terrific novel and as it unfolds, it becomes clear just how delicate a feat of narration it pulls off. This is not quite like any other novel I can think of. *****
  13. Magnus Mills

    Magnus Mills was Booker shortlisted many years ago for The Restraint of Beasts.
  14. Magnus Mills writes short, quirky books about ordinary people in rule-bound situations. In this case, we have a number of blokes – all with blokey names: Dave, Peter, Kevin, Keith, Barry, Mike, etc. – who form a club in the backroom of their regular pub, The Half Moon, where they listen to each others’ records. And that’s all they do, listen. They mustn’t comment or judge. As the weeks go on, the rules get added to – a new rule every time someone tries to do anything that slightly deviates from the norm. And understandably, the rules don’t please everyone and rival record clubs are formed, each meeting on a different night of the week, but always in the backroom of The Half Moon. This does not amuse the true believers in the original Forensic Records Society who set out on missions of subterfuge, espionage and ultimately diplomacy.Like other Magnus Mills novls, this is a stripped down work. There is little superfluous detail; there is minimal scene setting and no depth of characterisation, no backstory and not a great deal of logic underpinning the basic premise of the story. Instead, it is a parody of officious bureaucracy with the occasional side-foray into punishment, personal freedom and the nature of social compliance. There are occasional points of intrigue – the mysteriously disappearing hours whilst the society meets; the mysterious record with the white label; and what, precisely, goes on in the Confessions hosted by a rival group. These are not explained and this will not surprise Magnus Mills fans. Oddity is expected and simply accepted.There is some humour derived from how seriously the participants take their records when many of them (those the reader will have heard of) and really quite average. And there is humour derived from these sad little men with sad little lives whose sole interest seems to be an obsolete form of musical recording. But it is quiet humour – nothing terribly sidesplitting. This is a short read, not dazzlingly different from other Magnus Mills novels, but a welcome addition to the canon. ****0
  15. Tony Birch

    I am going to hear Tony Birch speak later this month and am pretty excited.