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About MisterHobgoblin

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    many cultures : one world
  • Birthday May 29


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

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    Bouncing Australiana

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  1. Problems with posting

    You must be the last person on Earth who still signs out of websites.
  2. C*******s is Coming

    We have mince pies in Coles. And Christmas puddings.
  3. Riot Days

    Way back in 2012, Pussy Riot hit the headlines. Doubtless assisted by their memorable name, this group of masked women interrupted a church service in Moscow to protest against Vladimir Putin. Three of the group were caught and put on trial, two of them were jailed. This is the story of Maria Alyokhina, one of the jailed women. Riot Days is a short book, covering the lead up to the protest, the protest itself, a brief spell on the run, the trial and the prison colonies. Alyokhina narrates in a somewhat clipped, jerky fashion. Especially at the start, there is a real lack of any sense of why she and her colleagues are doing what they are doing, They don't like Putin, but there is no hint of why they don't like him. It is an almost childlike push back against authority for no reason. This continues through the trial and prison. Alyokhina rebels against everything. She argues and pushes back in a system in which to do so has always been counter-productive. And always it seems to be without particular reason. A battle fought over a padlock that has been imposed because of a refusal to follow an instruction. Although this defies explanation, it lifts an otherwise ordinary retelling of the Gulag Archipelago to a new level. We see how a system manages to both live by an unbending framework of rules and make things up as it goes along. It is Kafkaesque, but very real. And there is a fascinating portrait of someone who is contrary regardless of consequence - and what happens when she takes on the monolithic system. In honesty, this is not a great piece of writing. It is clunky, linear and ends abruptly. But it is so compelling it is hard to turn away. ****0
  4. Tin Man

    Tin Man bills itself as "the most moving book I have ever read". It was good, but I wouldn't go that far. Tin Man is a short novel that gives us two sides of a triangle - one told by Ellis, a middle aged panel beater at the Cowley car works, told in the 1990s and one told by Michael, a gay journalist whose life turns upside down in the 1980s as those around him fall victim to AIDS. Ellis and Michael had been childhood friends who welcomed Annie into their lives to form the third side of the triangle. Much of the novel is told in memories, so although there is a "current" story told in the moment, the back story some decades before is what matters. That back story was about childhood and youth, love and discovery. It was about forming a tight trio who could take on a hostile world dominated by stern parents and privileged students. This meandering back and forth over time can be quite tricky to navigate. It is not always well signposted and further complicated by the fragmented and non-linear nature of the "current" narrative. But at the same time, it's not a cryptic crossword and you can work it out. There are great evocations of place - Oxford, London and France - from the 1980s and 1990s when I knew them well. And it is great to see East Oxford getting featured; most Oxford novels never venture far from ivy-clad quadrangles so the mention of the Leys, South Park, Divinity Road and Headington is very refreshing. The town perspective on the university is not heard sufficiently often and Sarah Winman presented it convincingly. By the same token, I thought Michael's portrayal of the London scene in the 1980s in the grip of AIDS was really convincing. Michael, for me, was the most realised character. Even above this, the real gem was the opening sequence where Ellis's mother wins a painting (a replica of Van Gogh's sunflowers) at a raffle. This managed to convey hope and freedom from an oppressive marriage and the drudgery of poverty. The sunflower theme and colours come up as a leitmotif throughout the novel and, like the reproduction painting, are always somehow tainted or compromised. But where the novel fell short, I felt, was in its portrayal of the relationships. I never quite believed in the triangle, and never quite believed in Ellis. The other relationships seem to be well done, it is just this central one that isn't quite right. And that is a pity, because that is very much what the novel was supposed to be about and it lessened the impact of what was otherwise a really rather lovely book. ****0
  5. Smile

    Roddy Doyle does gritty, real life Dublin life with a sense of humour and a great ear for dialogue. It's what he is famous for. Recently he published a series of short dialogues on current affairs, narrated over a pint of beer in a bar (Two Pints). These were previously published in newspapers and were, at best, ephemeral. So in Smile, where we meet Victor Forde down the pub, having a series of conversations over beer, it is difficult to disengage from Two Pints and see the conversation as something more deep and meaningful. But once this hurdle is overcome, we start to see the emergence of a complex story of love lost, unfulfilled promise and a brutal childhood in a Christian Brothers school. The narrative switches between the past and the conversation in the bar, initially with Eddie Fitzpatrick, a former school student, and latterly with a group of regulars. And Victor is something of the celebrity, having once been a journalist and a social commentator on the radio himself and married (and separated) from Rachel, a celebrity chef, TV host and founder of Meals on Heels. So as you would imagine, he has stories... As the novel progresses, the intrigue builds. Eddie has always been a bit creepy, but he starts to become more and more sinister. And it becomes more and more apparent that all is not well with Victor. But the end, when it comes, is weird. That is a surprise as Roddy Doyle has never really done weird before. To start with, you kinda feel WTF? This is not Roddy Doyle as we know him. But give it a day and it will start to fall into place and it is clear that it has been done with a very delicate hand. With hindsight, some of the weirdness was always there, and when it becomes apparent it does not detract in any way from what has gone before. It is so difficult to describe without spoilers, but please please please give it a go. This is poignant and deals sensitively with one of the most difficult aspects of recent Irish social history. The final result is that Victor feels like a real person who deserves our support. And there are many more Victors out there. *****
  6. Swing Time

    Unnamed narrator, a brown girl growing up in Brent, gets the dream job working as a general factotum for an international rock star called Aimee who is really Madonna wearing a Kylie mask. The story dips back and forth in our narrator's life. There was a friendly childhood rivalry with Tracey - who lived fun the flats on the wrong side of the road. There was the job working for a youth TV company. There was the mother's political career as she became MP for Brent West. There were romances. The really constant line, though, is Aimee. This is a good insight into the world of the super-rich; the superstars with retinues, with diaries chock-full of trivia, with a quest for new challenges when everything has already been achieved. So we follow our narrator, following Aimee to The Gambia where the plan is to set up a school for girls. Aimee has the big idea, her retinue have to make it happen. It is a classic case of imposing western values on a developing country; the school is not what the community needs but, by God, it is what they are going to get. But the Gambian line starts to get bogged down with personal relationships. As the Aimee party all seem to hook up with Gambians, it gets mighty dull. Do I care that A fancies B and B fancies C? I think not. And the Tracey line is also interesting, although it is not quite clear how friendly rivalry in teenage became hostility in adulthood. Tracey is a dancer and pursues her dream. Our narrator doesn't really have a dream but pursues it anyway. There was supposed to be a significant moment, but when it is revealed it carries too much weight. There is enough in the book to make the reader smile. There is pop culture, satire, race, class, politics. But there is also this saggy, baggy middle that goes on way too long and allows the interest to wane. I didn't buy the ending at all - which required our narrator to become a disgruntled employee and for her employer to discover that fact. Both these premises were implausible. But at least it brought a long novel to a somewhat belated end. This sounds negative, but on balance the good did outweigh the bad. But if only there had been a stronger editor... ***00
  7. Days Without End

    For me, this was the Book Without End. It started so brightly. Two young boys willing to wear dresses and dance to entertain the miners in some wild west saloon. It's nice. It's different. It's unusual. It earns the novel a second star. But then the boys grow up and can no longer pass as women, so they go off a-soldiering. They meet some Indians and kill them. They meet some more Indians and don't kill them. They meet some more Indians and kill them... It was just so repetitive. And being honest, I never really bought the narrative voice either. It sounds arty and forced. Let's be arty and poetic, but toss in some grammatical tics to remind us all that we are dealing with burel men whose rude speche we must excuse. This is not a long book, but I struggled to get a third of the way through it in a week. Every time I thought of picking it up, I got a sense of dread. And every time I put it down, I felt that it was an hour of my life that I would never get back (even though, I suspect, these hours lasted no more than 15 minutes apiece). So, a third of the way through, I decided to stop. Some who have read the whole damned thing tell me that the last couple of chapters are quite good, but they agree that the vast middle meanders. This is the point where I have made a pact with myself not to read any more Sebastian Barry. I enjoyed Enais McNulty and Annie Dunne, but more recent stuff has felt tired. I feel as though Sebastian Barry is writing for himself and not for me. That's his prerogative, and it is clearly working for him and for Booker judges, but I'm not going to be part of it any more. Sorry Sebastian. **000
  8. Reservoir 13

    I loved Reservoir 13 but I'm really not sure why. Do you know those letters that friends used to send at Christmas with all their news? The kind of hypnotic/soporific way all the news blends into one storyline, the banal and the significant presented with equal weight? Because that's pretty much what Reservoir 13 is, times thirteen. Rebecca Shaw, a teenage girl, goes missing. Each chapter of the novel reports another year since her disappearance, depicting the life of the village and its surrounds. There are couplings, fights, feuds. There are foxes and fieldfares. There is a rhythm to the year's cycle, broken by the human action in the village and on the moors and around the 13 reservoirs that surround the village. Despite the passage of time, it is timeless. And as every year passes, the memory of Rebecca Shaw and her disappearance dim. But every couple of years, some trace of her turns up, often unnoticed. Children grow up. Marriages are made and broken. One of the villagers is naughty and goes to prison, then returns. There is nothing of any great consequence to the world, although the little pieces of nothing are enormous for those involved, for a while. People are born and people die. The novel is a masterpiece of holding multiple threads together, drip feeding them over time as matters progress and then letting them fade when they are done. Some of the lines run for years; some are over and done quickly. The characters feel real, the place feels real, the reader feels almost like God watching over it all. It really is spellbinding, even though it is so inconsequential. This is the bit that I cannot fathom: the writing is pedestrian and journalistic (almost Robinson in Space-like); the suspense is minimal; the plot is thin. So how and why did this get so much under my skin? I don't think this is the best book of 2017, but it must be quite close up there. It is unusual without being demonstrative. It's not quite like anything I have read before. *****
  9. Solar Bones

    It is difficult to do anything new with the Irish village novel, even with the coming and going of the Celtic Tiger. It is a well trodden path going all the way back to John McGahern, Liam O'Flaherty and back to Somerville and Ross and William Carleton. You know the thing, slightly quirky individuals, oppressive priests, scary schoolmasters, licentious publicans, etc. Yes Mike McCormack does manage to wring some life from the theme, principally by narrating in a stream of consciousness voice. His big trick is to write the novel as a single sentence - although in fact he doesn't, he just uses a lot of conjunctions and eschews full stops and capital letters; there are plenty of dead ends where these would appear in any other novel. So, a quirky narrative style. It is used to zip back and forth in the life of Marcus Conway, a civil engineer who is refusing to sign off the foundation slab of a new school building because it was poured from three different concrete mixes. This brings a touch of the urban to the pastoral. And it opens the door to exploring local government corruption, the plight of the construction industry in post-GFC Ireland and the extent to which a man should stand up to authority. And there are forays into Marcus's younger life, courting, young children, school. At times, it gets quite engrossing. The problem, though, is that the narrative style does not allow any theme to resolve as it has to segue into something else, and it leaves the reader no natural pause to stop and reflect on what has happened. The result is a general impression that the novel is good, but without leaving much of a lasting impression. You need mental pauses to process and remember stuff and Solar Bones doesn't give you that. The end of the novel contains a reveal - fairly pointlessly - that I suspect is a device Mike McCormack employed to avoid having to bring the various narrative strands to a conclusion. I won't say what it is, although I doubt that knowing it would change anything about the experience of reading the novel and it was included in the publisher's blurb on the original micro-press edition. Solar Bones is a solid book that leans quite heavily on being quirky rather than entertaining. However, it never quite reaches excellence and I'd hesitate to recommend it either as a story or a social commentary. ****0
  10. Caspar Gray, secondary school teacher, lives in a bland suburb of Sydney, happily married to Jane but kids haven't happened. Caspar and Jane are approaching their seventh wedding anniversary, about to add the seventh annual photo to mark the occasion.But Caspar knocks Jane's handbag over and a condom falls out. Since Caspar and Jane are trying for a baby, this is a bit of a surprise. So over the period of a week, Caspar goes from denial, to paranoia, to free fall. Watched by his students, his colleagues, his neighbours and his dog Wallace, his life unravels.At first, the writing feels a little clunky. It's a male book: written in a blokey, jokey way. This can come across as a bit crude and slightly immature - in a kinda Beavis and Butthead way. After a while, though, something clicks and the reader starts to empathise with Caspar. He's actually quite a complex character who is a good mate, a loving husband and soppy for his dog. But he is also pig-headed and quite willing to cut off his nose to spite his face. The other characters are less complex and only really seem to exist when Caspar is in the room. Les Zig successfully conjures up the places; the residential areas, the pub with the TAB, the shops with the drug dealer. And he does atmosphere with the tension ratcheting up and up as the novel progresses.This is an interesting and compelling read; I'll be interested to see where Zig goes next. ****0
  11. This Thing of Darkness

    We have a suburb in Melbourne called Fitzroy, named after Captain Fitzroy. I smile every time I hear it mentioned, remembering this book.
  12. The Underground Railroad

    @jfp I know we tend to have polar opposite views on novels. You hate the ones I love and you love the ones I hate. I see you are reading Swing Time right now. Will we meet in the middle on three stars for this one?
  13. Autumn

    Yet Ali Smith is fiercely Scottish. I acknowledge that a novel doesn't have to lead with a narrative, but I think the skill required to carry a plotless novel is immense and I don;t think Ali Smith manages it. A novel has to have something about it that keeps the reader reading and in Autumn I couldn't find it.
  14. Home Fire

    Home Fire is that rare beast: a novel with really important points to make while also being a cracking read. Through the eyes of five characters, we get a dissection of what it means to be British-Asian in the current world. Initially, we meet Isma, resuming a career in academia in the US after bringing up her orphaned younger siblings in London. Picking up her former life does not start well as she is detained by security at Heathrow Airport and misses her flight. Then we meet Eamonn, the son of the British Home Secretary Karamat Lone. His father, as a Muslim politician, is keen to distance himself from extremism by introducing ever-more draconian laws to contain the “threat”. Eamonn is a spoilt rich kid who finds contact with other British Pakistanis way more confronting than mixing with the white, public school elite. Then, the high point for me, we travel with Parvaiz, Isma’s younger brother, to Raqqa to join the Caliphate. This is a portrait of hope, naivity and a desperation to belong to a family, shattered to smithereens when reality bites. But thanks to modern anti-terror laws, there is no way back from such a decision. In very few words, Shamsie created a living, breathing world and a highly conflicted character who goes on a major journey of self-discovery.Then back to Britain with Parvaiz’s twin sister Aneeka, and the final two chapters in the company of the Home Secretary himself, Karamat Lone. Lone is a monster, a self-serving egotist who has no understanding of - and even less care about – the impact of his policies on those affected by them. Even when they touch his own family, he is willing to sacrifice their rights for his own political career. And what is the point of that career – the power – if he only uses it to try to perpetuate it?Home Fire is, apparently, a modern day Antigone. But I think that does the novel a disservice. This is not a recasting of an ancient Greek play; it is not derivative. It is a searing critique of the conflicts of identity; of personal interest and family loyalty within a community that is being vilified on a daily basis. How far can it be right to punish an easily identifiable group for the transgressions of some of its members; how far should those who do transgress be dealt with through the existing judicial system or how far can it be right to expel them from the system altogether.This novel spans half the globe, offers five very different stories, and poses difficult questions. There is not a wrong word in this tight narrative, spanning ultra-realism through to the absolutely surreal. By the end, the story is in a slow motion, dream-like sequence. And the ending is absolutely not expected. Home Fire is a really fantastic novel but, if it has one Achilles Heel, it could be its fixation in the present moment. The novel relies on the current public mood, the current legal (and illegal) situation, the current conflict in Syria. Move on five years – perhaps less – and what seems to immediate now may seem very fleeting and out of date. I hope the future is not as bleak as Home Fire would have us believe. *****
  15. Autumn

    Once upon a time, Ali Smith and I were besties. I loved her books, she loved my reviews of them and we smiled at each other at book festivals. Those were the days. Then, Ali Smith wrote The Accidental. This had a rollicking riff of an opening chapter-ette. It was like the Trainspotting Choose Life riff. It rocked. And somebody said to Ali Smith - you are a fantastic writer and you should do more of that. So she did. Now someone needs to tell her that she is good, but not that good. Her writing is not strong enough to carry a plotless book, despite more than one attempt at it. First and foremost, she is a storyteller. So in Autumn, we have a short collection of ideas; a girl who befriends her neighbour, then she visits the neighbour as he grows old and she finds him a bit of an embarrassment. There are references to Brexit - so perhaps we see Mr Gluck, the neighbour, as a bit like Europe. Basically good but people just want to move on. Hmmm. And once this metaphor lodges, you can't shift it. There's no story, no character development. Just a lot of lists and riffs. As the end approaches, very slowly for a book with so few pages, it starts to dawn on the reader that there is no big idea that is going to tie it all together. It just ends, as suddenly and pointlessly as it began. There are plenty of cultural references along the way - a TV show that is Bargain Hunt in all but name, the Multi-Coloured Swap Shop phone number, Jo Cox getting murdered, but none of it seems to be taking us anywhere. I know some people have raved about this book but I really cannot see it myself. I see Ali Smith's next novel is called Winter. Maybe it offers even slimmer pickings than Autumn.