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MisterHobgoblin

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  • Birthday May 29

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    Melbourne
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    Melbourne
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  1. Stuart MacBride goes weird. OK, he's done weird before with Halfhead - a sci-fi manuscript he had written before he became famous, but this one is a police procedural that, like Flann O'Brien's Third Policeman, goes very weird indeed. And I'm not sure I liked it. DS Lucy McVeigh is an ambitious young detective, based in Oldcastle (which in an amusing break in the fourth wall is described as the murder capital of Scotland) and assigned to re-heat the cold trail of The Bloodsmith, a serial killer who likes to drain the blood of his victims. If DS McVeigh is to use the opportunity to make the step up to DI, she needs to keep one step ahead of the office politics as well as solving the mystery. At first we imagine that DS McVeigh is a brilliant but maverick officer, but as we progress it seems she is quite willing to bypass procedure altogether. She is a deeply flawed heroine. This perhaps explains the presence in her life of the Professional Standards investigator - who may be picking up the pieces from a past incident but seems to have more than a passing interest in the current investigation. And then there is the curious stalker that DS McVeigh keeps spotting on the periphery of her vision. There is a plot twist that comes at the three-quarter point but even the most obtuse reader will have spotted that things were not quite right well before it is revealed. This surreal direction makes us reassess what we have seen before, but I am not convinced there is a genuine and consistent connection between the people before the twist and after it. Maybe that is part of the weirdness. The overall effect, though, is that a novel that does not quite manage to sustain the suspension of disbelief. In all honesty, there are times it drags a bit. Stuart MacBride is a great crime writer whose work is generally gory, humorous and interesting. This one has the gore, but it is not MacBride's best work. ***00
  2. This is a strange little novella - part psychological mystery and part documentary. Kayleigh is a former moderator for an online social media giant (think Facebook) who has been approached by a researcher looking for the inside dope. Kayleigh explains how she was attracted by the slightly higher pay rates than those offered by other call centres she manually reviewed reported videos and memes against rigidly pre-determined criteria. The guidelines left no room for common-sense, it was just the application of mindless formulae to decide what should stay and what should be taken down. All while being measured against strict performance criteria - 500 reviews a shift, 90% accuracy and no longer than 7 minutes away from her desk on a toilet break. Interesting though it is to see this illustrated, it is not going to surprise anyone. Against this backdrop, we see Kayleigh's relationships and friendships.In particular, we see her form a relationship with her co-worker Sigrid, and watch as it disintegrates in a mess of paranoia and anaesthesia to normal social boundaries. Kayleigh and her colleagues are exposed so regularly to bizarre social media content that it becomes normal. Constant exposure to the m most noxious conspiracy theories result in the moderators accepting them as the truth. They apply the social media guidelines of acceptability to their own encounters - whereby violence is perfectly acceptable if it is merely implied, or has an educational purpose, or was contained in a different post to the consequences. This half-life world is cleverly done. The moderators never know quite what they are encountering in work or in life - is it real or staged? Is the narration faithful or unreliable? Is Kayleigh deceiving the researcher who is interviewing her or is she deceiving herself? We Had To Remove This Post is a short work that can easily be read in a single setting. There is not much room in it for deep character development and, apart from Kayleigh, none of the characters really has enough space to develop an independent existence or narrative arc. At the same time, the brevity of the work doesn't quite give the reader time to miss this extra depth. It is only at the end that there is a bit of a sense of having been preached to; of research having been turned into fiction rather than the story leading the way. Overall, this was a good way to pass a couple of hours but I'm not sure how much it offered beyond the investigative texts it references at the end. ****0
  3. I loved Peter Hanington’s first two novels and I had high Hopes for A Cursed Place. Unfortunately I think he delivered only in part. A Cursed Place reacquaints the reader with Patrick Reid, now flying solo for BBC Radio 4, reporting on the student protests in Hong Kong in 2014. His erstwhile mentor, William Carver, has stepped away from the front line to teach journalism in a London college and they have fallen out of touch. Meanwhile, a huge corporation, Public Square, is doing dodgy things at one of its mines in Chile – and doing even dodgier things with the data collected from their internet search side of the business. Just like the previous novels, the scene setting I gorgeous. Especially during lockdown, the opportunity for the reader to travel so effortlessly to Chile, Hong Kong, California and London is priceless. The dust of the desert, the pressure of journalism to copy deadlines, the oak panelled boardrooms of the BBC and the campus style offices of a tech giant – they feel real. The Umbrella protests give the action a clear definition in time and reawaken actual memories. But. Spoiler alert. A Cursed Place is clearly only half a novel. The major narrative strands are unresolved. At the end, the bad guys are still doing bad things; the BBC is in partnership with the corporate evil; the dynamite evidence on the memory stick that drives the whole story has not been revealed; and the student journalist has uncovered more unrevealed dynamite in corporate reports. The power dynamic between the two main baddies is unresolved, the henchmen remain on the loose, Soledad – the Chilean girl with the power to bring down the house of cards remains on the run in a Santiago bus station; and the various good guys who are being pursued do not seem to have done anything to bring the chase to an end. Apart from closing with the words “to be continued” there is not much more that could have been done to lead into a sequel. Then there were the issues in getting to the non-ending. Characters seemed to behave in quite illogical ways. Jags, the Public Square security man sent to Chile to kill troublemakers at the mine, for example. Why did he work with a local partner when he professed to prefer working alone? Why did he have to kill his partner in crime? Why did he then have to engage with the dead man’s family? Why did he decide – after a lifetime of contract killing – to put his own life on the line to protect his late associate’s daughter? Why did a global internet company even care about the mine? And why would they suddenly decide to create a museum next to the mine? Why would Fred Curepipe, the gazillionaire owner of Public Square, engage in international conspiracies rather than follow the more conventional route of creating a legacy through benefaction? And why would he and his wife Elizabeth swap the good-guy/bad-guy roles half way through? And there’s the role of journalism, of the BBC. I know journalists have a high opinion of themselves (and Peter Hanington is a serving BBC journalist), but is an expose on the Today Programme about data harvesting really going to send an army of hitmen into action around the world, harassing the families of behind-the-scenes radio production crew? Besides which, after the partisan role the BBC played in the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum, are we really expected to believe in Radio 4 as the last bastion against misinformation and misuse of data for political ends? The novel is perfectly readable, pacy and engaging despite some of the rather cliched characters. Even if the plot is trite – some kind of mash up between James Bond and Dave Eggers’ Circle (and others of that ilk) – it is entertaining enough. I will read the inevitable sequel, but I still feel short-changed by this one. **000
  4. In ten years' time, it is to be hoped, Covid will be a distant memory. People will look back at that time and ask: did people really do that? did people really think that? The Fell is the third Covid novel I have read, and the only one of the three to have been faithful to the scale of the virus - that is a virus which had an enormous impact on our lives, but with a mortality rate of between 1-4%. Sarah Moss alone seems to have had confidence in depicting the impact it has had on our psyche without having to exaggerate the deadliness. So in this short novel, we find single mother Kate isolating at home with her teenage (and autistic?) son Matt after exposure ti the virus. They live in a small house backing onto The Fell, and they are claustrophobic. Kate steps out for an illegal stroll on the fell one evening just to clear her head. Unfortunately she slips and injures herself. The Fell becomes The Fallen. Matt eventually realises Kate is not coming home and is left with no option but to break cover and ask his neighbour Alice for help. Alice is shielding, so conversations take place from behind locked doors. Alice calls out the mountain rescue, which we join through the eyes of Rob, who is worried in case the rescue messes up his weekly contact with the kids... The Fell gets inside the characters heads; it exposes the dilemma between doing the right thing by Covid and the emergency unfolding around them - the dilemma between preserving self and serving the community - between seeking help and avoiding punishment for breaking the rules. It was particularly elegant to juxtapose Alice's self-interest which came through following the rules; and Matt/Kate's self-interest which comes through setting the rules aside. The story is straighforward and the beauty is in the interior monologue; the thought processes that chime with any of us who have lived through Covid and isolation. This captures a strange moment in time, and it captures it so very well. *****
  5. Does the World need a Dystopian novel set in a future Canberra? Well, if you're looking for a post-apocalyptic landscape you could do worse than the ACT. The Last Woman In The World starts off with Rachel, a reclusive glassblower living in a remote studio next to a river deep in Eden-Monaro, visited by a distraught young mother, Hannah, and her sick baby Isaiah. The world, it seems, has collapsed. There are bushfires, there has been a pandemic, and now demons have caused almost everyone to drop dead just where they were standing. Isaiah need antibiotics and Rachel agrees to set out with Hannah, overland, to Nimmitabel where her sister Monique is a GP. For half the novel, then, this is a road trip through Nimmitabel and on to Canberra. I'll be honest, it dragged. We have seen it before - The Road, Station Eleven and others - dodging the enemy, bushfires and the rogue survivors. Then when Rachel and Hannah reach Canberra the surreality starts. The demons are there in force; while rival factions of survivors are bunkered up planning their next moves. But like the road trip, once you've got the idea it rather drags on. Oh, and Rachel drip feeds this idea of a devastating incident in her past. There are passages that are very evocative. I loved the glass-blowing studio and the scenes in and around Parliament. But it felt like there was fair bit of filler to join up these rather accomplished set pieces. Hmmm. ***00
  6. The Measure has at its heart a great premise - that everyone, overnight, received a box containing a string of a length equal to their allotted lifespan. It's improbable - and probably impossible - but taking the concept forward it offers a bullet point list of issues that could/would arise: * should people look at their string or not? * should the state have a right to see the strings? * should prospective employers be able to ask to see the strings? * should election candidates be able to use their strings for political capital? * if lifespans are predetermined, is someone culpable for ending a life? * should people with short lifespans be able to have children? * can relationships work between people with different lifespans? * should people with short lifespans be entitled to legal protections? Each one of these questions is then addressed in turn using characters specifically created for the purpose. These characters never feel as though they have any life beyond illustrating their particular dilemma. The world in front of us seems to be populated in equal measure between people with short and long strings when the real (American) world would have almost everyone with a lifespan of between 65 and 85 years. So the great idea (3 stars) kinda falls flat on execution. It feels like a series of ethical essays rather than a novel. It's perfectly readable and does provoke thought, but there is very little emotional engagement. ***00
  7. What a wonderful romp! Free Love is a comic novel set in 1967, the summer of Free Love and widely held to be the gateway from traditional values to modern thinking. Tessa Hadley provides a journey through this gateway, seen through the lives of the Fischer family. Roger Fischer is a meat and two veg kind of middle class guy - war hero - senior civil servant in the Foreign Office - father of two school age children, Colette and Hugh, and happily married to Phyllis. His friends are well connected, and his social life has revolved around country estates. The Fischers' lives are mapped out on a path to moderate success within the establishment. Enter stage left, Nicky Knight - the son of an old family friend who is invited to dinner one evening in the hope that he might hit it off with Colette, the dowdy 16 year old daughter. Nicky has just established himself in London with writerly ambitions, so the hope is that Roger could provide mentorship while Colette provides friendship. What a tangled web we weave - Nicky leaves with the wrong woman. Phyllis, seemingly on a whim, follows Nicky into 1967's bohemia - art, sex, drugs and West Indians. The characters are all grotesque. They have major character flaws, they are not terribly virtuous but they all have a likability that is enhanced by a shifting point of view that shines a spotlight on each of them in turn. Phyllis is the star: naive, romantic and self-absorbed; with Nicky the immature and shallow co-star. The supporting cast of immediate family, aunts, hippies and schoolfriend are a comic delight. They all bring piety and leave with disgrace. The narration is done with a vein of humour that sets the reader in a position of moral superiority. The scene setting feels right. The contrast between the brown affluence and the colourful poverty; the supposed shift in society - while the values actually turn out never to have been quite as far apart as all that. Roger is less conventional than he appears; while Nicky and the kids seem quite happy to jack in their free hedonism to chase careers. Novels often try to capture a momentous time through a limited car of characters - this one is that rare beast that succeeds. There feels like there is a world beyond the lives of these characters; it feels genuinely as though they are the link between two worlds and two ages. This is not a remarkable or terribly surprising story. The strength is in the way it is told. *****
  8. Thanks Tay. In truth, my life has changed a lot during lockdown and I don't seem to be reading so much - and for a while, not at all. I doubt I will be a prolific poster again, but happy to stop by and see familiar faces.
  9. My Monticello is a thought-provoking and damning indictment of race relations in the USA. Set in a near future, law and order in Virginia – and probably the wider US – has broken down. Rampaging mobs of white supremacists have taken over the streets. They have driven out black and minority ethnic groups – at least those who could run fast enough. A group of escapees end up together on a bus and at the suggestion of one of their number – a university student called DaNaisha – they land up in Monticello, the former home of President Thomas Jefferson. DaNaisha, our narrator, explains that she had worked as part of the visitor experience at Monticello. She knows her way around the extensive estate, helping the group to secure the site and bunker in. The story unfolds as a fairly standard tale of a group of misfits forced to shelter in a site that is normally used for other purposes. There are elements of The New Wilderness and Station Eleven as the group battles for survival, repurposing ancient heirlooms to address current needs. DaNaisha’s grandmother, MaViolet, is unwell and needs rest in bed, so she gets Jefferson’s bizarre box bed that straddles two rooms (you have to Google it to really get it – it is too improbable to be described with words alone). The beauty of this story is that MaViolet – and hence DaNaisha – believe they are descended from President Jefferson through the children he had with his slave, Sally Hemings. We explore Jefferson’s somewhat ambiguous relationship with slavery. He apparently called for its abolition while owning slaves himself. He had children through what seemed to be an enduring relationship with Hemings, promised the children would be freed, yet they lived much of their lives in bondage. Jefferson believed in the inherent superiority of white people and believed that if/when slavery was abolished, it would be necessary for the emancipated people to leave because he believed the legacy of oppression could only end in violence. So here we are, with Jefferson’s heirs working as tour guides in his estate, now claiming the estate for themselves and for their own purposes. This makes one wonder how we should view the founding fathers; how today’s African Americans can relate to American history; and what their legacy should be in a society that was built on their labour. There are no easy answers, and Jefferson was right, at least, in recognising that master and slave were going to struggle to create a society that was shared on equal terms given the unequal starting points. Running alongside these questions of legacy, My Monticello depicts a love triangle as DaNaisha finds herself cloistered with her current (white) partner, Knox, and her former (black) lover Devin. This offers a clear metaphor as DaNaisha has to choose between a future that is true to her heritage or one which gives her a stake in the white entitlement of successful, corporate America. She is genuinely torn, and the denouement of the story is the choice she makes. This is such a clever work, mixing despair with optimism; juxtaposing squatting with claiming of rights. DaNaisha is a bright, articulate and very imperfect spokesperson for a generation of young, black Americans trying to reconcile a painful past with hopes for a future, set against a backdrop of an America in which they are often not welcome. Please read this fantastic work. Note: it seems the US edition of My Monticello is a collection of six short works. The text I have read contains only My Monticello itself and not the other five works. *****
  10. I have read a couple of Sarah Hall’s previous novels and not quite gelled with them. For some reason I was seduced by Burntcoat’s cover and some of the spruiks from writers I respect. I went for it, but perhaps I should have run with my head, not my heart. Burntcoat is the oddly named converted warehouse used by internationally renowned artist Edith Harkness. Edith constructs major public art projects and is working on The Witch, an iconic motorway installation that might be a Scottish version of The Angel of the North – made out of burnt wood, rising from the bushes. Yes, I know. The mental image of a woman rising from the bushes does not immediately make me think of witchcraft, but perhaps I have been on too many overland holidays. This art construction project involves techniques from Japan, burning the wood to preserve it. Meanwhile, Emily shares her space with Halit, a Turkish kitchen worker, and together they shield from a deadly virus that is sweeping the world and is definitely not Covid. A million Britons will die – some from the fever and some from the residual aftereffects. Long Notcovid. And she reminisces of a past love called Ali, and a childhood marked by the illness of her mother Naomi. All this is told in a fragmentary way with non-linear narratives. For the most part, the actual narrative is lucid, but there are digressions into metaphysics that never felt worth unravelling. Sometimes this fragmentary style can be used to great effect, gradually building a complete picture. Other times it just feels like hiding a story that doesn’t cohere, hiding details for the sake of it. So here, for example, the author goes to great lengths to delay the reveal that Halit is Turkish, although frequent use of Turkish will give that away for those who recognise the language. Except, for some reason, he is also half Bulgarian. Or leaving it for some time to reveal that Ali is short for Alistair rather than being of Arabic origin – I mean, why? Or being intentionally unspecific about the geographic location. There are redeeming features. Some of the individual scenes are well constructed. Ali’s doorstep tantrum, perhaps. Edith’s slightly strange relationship with her mother. Plus, most mercifully, Burntcoat is short. Overall, though, there is just this sense that Burntcoat is trying too hard to be arty without too much real substance behind it. ***00
  11. Broadwater is a depiction of the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham through 14 inter-linked short stories. Each story is a vignette, focusing on one resident of the estate, but these characters sometimes pop up in one another's stories. Some are bleak, some are inspiring. As a body of work, they do a successful job in showing the diversity of people who live in the estate - nuances that the newspapers sometimes miss. But none of the stories is quite long enough to build a real sense of engagement. So although the stories are interesting enough in the moment, they don't particularly leave an impression. It would be great to see a full length novel to really bring one or two of the characters to life. ***00
  12. I came to The Coward as fiction - it was only half way through that I twigged that the lead character, Jarred McGinnis, had the same name as the author. That led to a chilling penny-dropping moment. We meet Jarred as he is being discharged from hospital after a life-changing accident. Jarred can no longer walk and uses a wheelchair for mobility. He has no job, no friends, no home. He lands back with Dad - who he resents as a drunkard and a neglectful parent. Jarred is rude, resentful, ungrateful and gives a clear impression that he was this way before the accident. Disability has not turned him into a saint. We see Jarred take small (metaphorical) steps to building a life, building a relationship with his father, and building social connections - often despite his own efforts to thwart the process. And there were flashbacks to a previous life which Jarred blamed himself for wrecking. This focus on Jarred, rather than on the disability, made for a really compelling and quite startling read. It broke so many conventions of how disabled characters are portrayed. And it became clear that Jarred was not going to compete in the Paralympics, was not going to become a disability ambassador or counsel small children to steer clear of drugs. Jarred was going to adapt, but he wasn't going to change. That is why the realisation that this was autobiographical was all the more spine-tingling. The honesty and bare emotion in the way he portrayed himself was so visceral. This can be a difficult read - especially when the reader sees Jarred making consistently poor choices. But there is also a dark humour and a human warmth underneath it all. By the end, and as the back story emerges, you almost feel for Jarred... *****
  13. The Yield is a complicated novel wth multiple strands. 'There is the story of August Goondiwindi, returning from Europe to her Indigenous community for her Pop's funeral. The community has been sold out from under them to a mining community and this is a source of tension between the community and the white landowners. Then there is a dictionary of Wiradjuri language that Poppy was composing when he died. The definitions give examples of usage which tell their own story of the community and its history both before and after European settlement. And then there is correspondence from the German Minister who founded the community in the late 19th Century, initially as a place of refuge for the Indigenous people from the massacres that were taking place all around. In between these stories, we know the sorry history of Australia and we can join the dots. There are no easy answers. The story of August is strong and immediate. There are family skeletons; there is the conflict between life in modern Australia and remaining faithful to Tradition. There are also questions about the role of white Australians as the narrative is taken forward - do they have a place in the Indigenous story, and on whose terms? Certainly not on the terms of the curators of museums who want to value Indigenous culture from behind velvet ropes. Parts of The Yield are compelling. But, for this reader, the dictionary was an interesting concept but an interruption from the story. Yes, it all came together in the end, but the journey felt like hard work at times. The dictionary approach has been done before (e.g. The Dictionary of Snow by Sarah Emily Miano) and I have yet to see it flow - there is a necessary jerkiness to the story and a difficulty with pacing. But as a technical mechanism to link the past to the present, it does succeed. The Yield won the 2020 Miles Franklin Award and is well worth the time (and sometimes effort) to read. It will be interesting to see where Tara June Winch goes next, and whether she can carry a less tricksy narrative. ****0
  14. There's something about writers writing about writers that fails to spark. Slightly more successful than writers writing about composers, but it's a close call. The Magician is a novelisation of the life of Thomas Mann. I suspect that Thomas was a Mann of his times - famous in Weimar Germany, awarded by the Nobel Committee, feted in America during the war, and his works were apparently purchased in such quantity to make him hugely rich. He rubs shoulders with the great and the good; on the Rooseveldts' guest list, feuding with composers, and touted as a future President of a post-war Germany. And for all that, he seems to live on in name only. I'm not sure that anyone (at least in the anglophone world) still reads his works. So we have a story of the writer set against a backdrop of world politics. The plight of the family - a large family with Jewish connections and more than the standard 10% quota of homosexuality - trying to maintain their ruling class entitlement as the order crumbles around them. The writing flows well, but the events are more interesting than its witnesses. Mann himself is portrayed as a fence-sitter, unwilling to condemn Naziism for fear of personal reprisals while seeking sanctuary overseas. But this is perhaps an unfair portrayal. Mann was actually quite vocal in his condemnation of fascism and (I understand) quite overt in his themes of homosexuality in his writing. This, with the consequence of making him a target of the McCarthyites. But this really feels glossed over in favour of a conveyor belt of little dramas brought by his many children, siblings and acquaintances. The pacing of The Magician is odd. The pacing is led by family events, leaving matters like the war to slip by almost unnoticed while other world events that coincided with family drama are unfolded very slowly over many pages. That might have felt more natural if Thomas Mann had been portrayed as a more swash-buckling character but as it was, it felt as though we were focusing somewhat on the side-show. Colm Toibin has a gentle narrative style, and nothing jars. At a sentence level this makes for a pleasant read. I just can't help feeling that the style lends itself more to ordinary folk (and judges) on the east coast of Ireland, exploring their feelings, rather than following major historical figures and world events. I preferred this to The Master, but how I'd like to go back to the The Blackwater Lightship. ****0
  15. True Crime Story purports to investigate the historic disappearance of Zoe Nolan, a first year university student. It takes the form of an investigation led by budding crime writer, Evelyn Mitchell, and comprises interviews with her family and associates, found documents, and a correspondence between Evelyn and Joseph Knox, her mentor on the project. It feels like one of those talking heads TV documentaries but with this sinister stream of metafiction running through it. The technique allows the story to kick off at full pelt; there's no lengthy lead-in or scene setting. The story itself is creepy as anything, and the drip feeding of information as Evelyn uncovers it adds a timeline that seems quite independent from the actual events surrounding Zoe's disappearance. This is so well done; I could find no seams or cracks in the plot. The real proof of the pudding was my urge to read right up to the last word, then go back to the beginning to see it all over again. This reportage style is not new, but I cannot remember having seen it done better. *****
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