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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. Why so many Russians?

    They do say the old ones are the best!
  2. The Water Cure

    The Water Cure is set on an island in a post-apocalyptic near future. Three sisters, Grace, Lia and Sky live in a health spa hotel with their mother and King, their stepfather. Their guests are all damaged women, seeking cures from the sun and radiation and other horrors of the mainland. The radiation has not reached the island, offering the family a refuge from the horrors of the real world. And one day King dies. And three men arrive from the mainland. And mother disappears. This feels like a transposition of a 19th Century Irish manners novel into another era. The sisters might as well have been living in the big house, an Anglo-Irish family refusing to fraternise with the servants and sheltering from the growing rebellion outside the gates. The girls are expected to engage in all sorts of treatments and cures - the rituals and manners of the aristocracy - to protect them from the coarseness of the men in the fields. Then, in the season of their debut, they are expected to transform from children into wives. And just like the manners novels, we find ourselves thrown into a maelstrom of sibling rivalry; we find the blend of excitement and terror at being cut loose into adulthood; we find power games between young women and red blooded men. For the first section, before the men arrive, the narration switches often between Lia and Grace - with some sections narrated in third person - and it is intriguing. This, to be fair, is the time when it still seemed we were in a dystopian future and the novel was to be about the world that had been created rather than a character study supposed to reflect a universal and severe family. Then, when the men show up, the pace changes and the line between fantasy/dream and reality blurs. The narrative focus shifts only occasionally and the pace slows to a crawl - ironically since the characters seem to do a lot of running around for its own sake. There is a really repetitive feel; it is stated over and over again that the sisters must not touch the men for fear of contamination, yet still they are driven to touch. By the end of this section, it is no longer terribly clear what is happening at all; there are violent thoughts and violent acts but it feels pretty directionless. The ending is the pretty much inevitable conclusion that everything has been slowly working up to. I am sure some people will like this book. Read at a simplistic level, it could be taken as a battle of the sexes. The isolation of the women could be seen as a uber-feminist kind of utopia - except that the women don't seem happy with it and still live under the shadow of King. And I am sure some readers will be able to find a climate change angle to fit with their world view. Maybe I wilfully read this to fit in with my fascination with Irish politics. So maybe it is a bit of a universal truth template just waiting for readers to overlay their own personal agenda. The trouble is, as a template it is probably a bit of an imperfect, forced fit. And in its own rights, it is all a bit confusing and unevenly paced. **000
  3. New Kindle advice needed!

    The Paperwhite is pretty much as good a device as there is. The Oasis looks to be slightly larger, has a larger screen (is the screen size of a Paperwhite really too small?) and is a couple of grams lighter. The Oasis has a larger memory but I don't feel that I have even come close to reaching the limits of the Paperwhite. The Oasis looks like a new generation simply for its own sake, to cost more than the Paperwhite for people who have to have the latest thing.
  4. Milkman

    Milkman is a stream of consciousness story narrated by an unnamed young woman living in an unnamed part of Belfast (probably the Ardoyne), some time in the late 1970s. By way of context, the intensity of the killings in the early 1970s – especially the civilian deaths – had subsided; there had been population movement and people had retreated into small, “safe” pockets exclusively populated by people of the same political tradition (which was also generally correlated to people’s national identity and religion). Both unionists and nationalists still thought they could win the war through armed conflict, and the political voice of Sinn Féin had not yet come to the fore. The Hunger Strikes were still a couple of years into the future and most people could remember a time before the British Army was deployed to assist the civil power… So the novel is almost a love story set in this quite specific time period. Our narrator lives in a Catholic enclave of North Belfast. She reads 19th century novels while walking, which marks her out as a bit odd. Her maybe-boyfriend is a car mechanic from another unspecified Catholic district of Belfast. She is from a large family, four-ish brothers and three sisters and Ma. Da is dead. Our narrator talks to herself extensively in a colloquial Belfast voice that hinges on repetition and over-explanation. It is a sarcastic voice, cynical about the sectarian conflict and the motives of those who engaged in it. She narrates in euphemisms: the Sorrows, Renouncers of the State, Defenders of the State, the country across the water, the country across the border. People are second sister, the real milkman, chef, the tablets girl, Somebody McSomebody. Similarly places are not names and although most are recognisable – the reservoirs and the parks is Cavehill Road; the ten minute area is Carlisle Circus; the usual place is Milltown cemetery – the euphemisms allow liberties to be taken with the geography. The resulting text is very dense, often circular (at the very least non-linear) and pretty intense. It is like Eimear McBride crossed with James Kelman. The story is one of personal love and personal tragedy set within a dysfunctional society. Our narrator wants to be with maybe-boyfriend, but is admired by Milkman (a senior ranking paramilitary) and Somebody McSomebody (a wannabe paramilitary – was this a time before spides?). In a world where normal law and order does not operate, where law is made by the paramilitaries and is mutable, where whispers and innuendoes constitute evidence, this is a dangerous space. Our narrator knows the perils and even the most mundane activities – jogging by the reservoirs, buying chips, learning French, winning a scrap Blower Bentley supercharger – can be fraught with danger. Her quirky narration and eccentric world view manage to create deliciously black comedy from these dangers. Milkman is a timely novel. This period of the late 1970s has been largely airbrushed out of both world and Northern Irish history. Nowadays the Republican movement has been rehabilitated. They are seen to champion human rights and to lead the equality agenda. Its history is seen to be the ballot box in one hand and the armalite in the other. Their community justice is seen to have been a viable – almost legitimate – alternative to the RUC and the state agencies. It is often almost assumed that those who lost their lives (apart from in the early 1970s) had been “involved”. But what we see is a violent society with kangaroo courts based on self-interest and hypocrisy, arbitrary expulsions, witch hunts, suspicion. Paramilitaries tyrannise their own communities but the communities seem to lap it up. Each fresh atrocity is just casually dropped into conversation. More than anything, our narrator, her family and friends needed stability and predictability. What they got was the law of the jungle. And we know from history that they had 15 more years of this ahead of them before the first signs of the re-emergence of normality. Of course all this is viewed from a nationalist vantage point but we can safely assume that the situation was mirrored in the loyalist community across the road. And Milkman is also relevant to current developments as we start to see the emergence of an anti-political movement based on extreme and ill-planned actions. Brexit as a response to immigration and crime. Walls and travel bans and flip-flopping between nations and leaders being best friends and beyond the pale. If Milkman has a failing, it is that the meandering narration can frustrate the reader. There are few natural pauses, there can be a feeling that we have already covered this ground, ideas and phrases repeat. But they do add up to a work that is strong enough to carry the frustration. Milkman is a mature work that does say something new (or at least say it in a new way) in a field that has been ploughed often before. *****
  5. Introduce Yourself

    Third time lucky! Hope you have a great time here on BGO.
  6. Washington Black

    When we first meet George Washington Black, he is a field slave at the Faith Plantation, Barbados. The Plantation is taken over by Erasmus Wilde, a cruel and vindictive master who treats his animals with more respect than his slaves. Thus begins a well-told but fairly routine slavery+cruelty story. Then Washington’s fortunes change when Erasmus’s brother Christopher comes to stay. He is an idealist and inventor; he needs an assistant to help him build a giant balloon in which he hoped to cross the Atlantic. He is invited to live with Christopher, to call him Titch, to eat fine food and speak his mind. Wash struggles to accept these freedoms, perhaps mindful that they only exist as long as Titch is prepared to let them exist. Then a paradigm shift and we are with Titch and Wash aboard a trading ship plying its way to Virginia. The captain and medic seem somewhat nonplussed to have given refuge to an obvious runaway slave. We have a historic maritime novella, reminiscent of Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea or Ian Maguire’s The North Water. It is well done and there is a sense of menace and tension. Then we have a stay in Arctic Canada looking at marine life. Then on to Nova Scotia where Wash finds romance but lives in fear of recapture. Then to London, trying to engage with Titch’s aristocratic family. Then to Amsterdam. Then to Morocco. [BEWARE - POTENTIAL SPOILERS] This is a plot driven novel with vivid detail. Esi Edugyan evokes four different worlds in vivid colours. But, the story never quite convinces. The characters don’t have a great deal of depth despite having plenty of action. Even Wash, the narrator, really just feels like an everyman. The main characters all do things for no obvious reason. Why does Cousin Philip shoot himself? Why does he visit Erasmus at all when he has such an unhappy history with the man? Why does Mr Wilde pretend to be dead? Why did Titch walk away from Wash? Why did John Willard keep trying to track Wash when there was no longer a bounty to be had? Why would Erasmus place such a large bounty on a slave in the first place when he thought them no more and no less than livestock? The shifting across different worlds also produced what felt like several different stories with several different atmospheres – almost like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, with only the slenderest of threads to hold them together. And given the issues of character motivation, each subsequent section became slightly diminished. The final section, England (although much of it was in Morocco) felt confusing and didn’t really provide the resolutions it set out to achieve. This doesn’t make Washington Black a bad book. Much of it is compelling, visceral. It is never less than readable and the progression from Barbados to the sea to Canada to England to Morocco is innovative for a 19th Century historical novel. There is something steampunk about the ballooning; the slave section is as good a slave narrative as any; the journey at sea is rollicking. There is an air of menace and tension through much of the novel - although this starts to dissipate in Nova Scotia and is gone by London. There is a sense of how a black person might have fitted in to various different communities. There are questions about the nature of freedom, particularly when bound by societal expectations, station of birth, and the threat that freedom might be taken away. But there is an abiding sense that this has fizzled after a really stunning first half. How does that all stack up? Being generous, perhaps four stars. ****0
  7. Everything Under

    Everything Under is a transposition of an ancient Greek legend into modern-day England. I did not know which legend when I read the novel which allowed a slow dawning to take place. Other reviewers have named the legend and I cannot help feeling that knowing where things are heading would make the reading both simpler and less satisfying, Therefore, I will skirt around much of the plot. Having said that knowing the direction of travel would make the reading simpler, it must be said that without this knowledge, the reading is far from straightforward. There are 8 main sections, each broken into subsections headed "The River", "The Hunt", "The Cottage", etc. These are in fact parallel narratives that continue through the novel. They are opaque in terms of who is narrating and when they take place. This is further complicated by some characters having more than one name and more than one role; and the general absence of names through much of the work. Timelines seem to clarify and then blur again. It is not easy to see how the narratives inter-relate and for the first quarter (at least) of the text, there is a fog of confusion. There are river boats, a senile woman, a lexicographer, a cast of people who live on the canals and in the woods... With time, little chinks of light are let into the narrative. Piece by piece, things start to fall into place. By three quarters, most pieces are in place and by the end, it is mostly transparent. It is as if the fog has lifted and some of the things that happened in the fog don't look too well in the clear light of day. Everything Under is actually a really dark and menacing work. That doesn't make it unlovely, though The description of the houseboat community is brilliant. I took this to be set in Oxford - where our lexicographer works - but perhaps that is adding two and two and getting five. The descriptions of unconventional childhoods, of fluid gender identity, of ambiguous sexuality are all fabulous. There are abandonments - walking away from children, walking away from families. There is the kindness of strangers mixed in with the threat of monsters - the canal thief and the Bonak. Everything Under feels perfectly balanced. The gradual reveal makes the book progressively easier to read and makes the reader feel smart as the penny drops, time after time, just before a significant detail is revealed. There is delicacy, there is complexity. I loved Everything Under. My only reservation is that the parallels to the Greek legend slightly diminish the experience and make something bizarre and quirky feel a bit contrived. As some novels grow in power after they have been put down, this one feels a little as though it is losing its edge. But that's just me; I am sure others will feel differently. It's still a bit of a masterpiece. *****
  8. Introduce Yourself

    A warm welcome to new (and returning) members from Book Club Forum
  9. There There

    I love novels that immerse me in a culture I don't know and give me an insight into lives that I am not living. There There is written by a Native American author (or Indian, as he would have it), narrating the stories of various members of the Native American community in and around Oakland, California. It is a poor community, largely urbanised, largely invisible to wider America. As the popular conception of Native Americans doesn't extend much further than the silent, sink-throwing character in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, members of the community are widely mistaken as hispanic or just undefined people of colour. What we find is a subculture within (and around) a neglected city, living in the shadow of its more successful neighbour. The characters we meet include ageing hippies, a documentary film maker, gangsters, a drug peddler, alcoholics, community workers, absent parents and abandoned children. Some are proud of their heritage, others are embarrassed by it. Some embrace their tribal regalia, others think it feels like dressing up as Red Indians, and still others are not even aware of their ancestral roots. In looking at their stories, the reader is invited to consider what it means to be Indian. Do you have to register? Do you have to know your tribal history? Do you learn to read the land or is it innate? How is the land even relevant when you live in Oakland? There is a narrative arc where the various characters are all heading to a powwow in the Coliseum. They all have different reasons for being there - most of them not strictly pleasurable. In fact, the powwow sounds like a pretty dreadful thing: drums, dancing competitions, food stalls and lots of milling around. There's a huge commercial angle and a giant sense of obligation. There are grants and an organising committee, but never much sense of what the powwow is supposed to be. And it doesn't end well. But the real strength of There There is this window into other people's lives. Most are compelling if somewhat compact. Perhaps there are slightly too many gangsters and their story is a little hard to follow. Overall, though, the sense of having been born into poverty and trapped in a world of low expectations brings the many short stories together into a coherent whole. Add some small doses of editorial comment, history and some great metaphors... In particular, there's a story of the white guy settling into someone's apartment and turning it into an office which is a great metaphor for colonial settlement. There There is a short, accessible read with multiple narrators and points of view. It is socially important and gives a voice to a community that many readers will never have known they have not previously heard. It is a story that is set in the present day and is completely relevant to 2018, but also probably relevant to decades past and decades still to come. Thoroughly recommended. ****0
  10. Red Birds

    Red Birds. Major Ellie, a US airman, has ejected from his plane in the desert. It’s never quite clear which desert – sometimes it is near Mosul, at others it is near Kandahar. Major Ellie has to find water and a way out pretty damn quick. So it is fortuitous when he is discovered by Mutt the dog, and Mutt’s owner Momo, a fifteen year old boy who lives in the refugee camp. The first section of the book feels familiar. It’s a desert survival/refugee camp narrative just like many others. The Kills comes to mind. The section (and indeed the first 80% of the novel) is told from alternating perspectives of Ellie, Momo and Mutt. Ellie as he searches for water; Momo trying to find entrepreneurial angles following the closure of the US army hangar that had offered jobs; and Mutt generally philosophising and giving expository monologue. Even if this section is following a well worn path, it follows it well. The second section finds Ellie staying with Momo and his parents. We meet Momo's parents, Father Dear and Mother Dear. We learn more about the community, more about the American occupation, and more about Momo's brother, Bro Ali. This section doesn't work quite as well. There feels like quite a bit of padding, killing time before we can move the novel to a denouement. Momo worked better as an independent character than as a junior member of a family. And things start to get weird. The lines between current and back stories seem to blur. In the final section, the characters all head off to the hangar and madness reigns supreme. New narrators come forward and tell what feels like a chaotic story. By the end, the reader is left with just a sense of bewilderment. Picking back over the story, there is a logic to it; there is a clearly definable point at which things got weird, and a way of tying this to the strange red birds that appear every now and then. This is cleverly done, but the technical brilliance perhaps comes at the expense of narrative drive and the overall reading experience. It is difficult to feel we know the characters or exactly what drives them. They sort of unravel. Perhaps this is a depiction of the ambiguity of a war that is waged on nations supposedly to support the people against their own tyrants. Perhaps it is about sides in a war being mutable, changing constantly as bargains are made and broken. Perhaps it is about the futility of fighting to improve lives that are inherently temporary. Red Birds shows signs of a great writer with a great imagination. The beginning is great and overall there is a sense of satisfaction at seeing what Mohammed Hanif has done. I'm glad to have read it, and could give a qualified recommendation to others. But there is also a feeling that this could and should have been brilliant. ***00
  11. Defectors. 1961 - a community of Western double agents, exposed and living in exile in Moscow. Notorious back home, avoided in Moscow. As one of them says, Moscow is the kind of place where you keep top yourself. So they meet up every night in hotel bars, discussing old times and trying to trap one another into making damaging statements. The spectre of Stalin hangs over everything; nobody quite sure whether Khrushchev’s new freedoms are real or not. The exception is Frank Weeks. A former CIA agent, he has found a new role as a senior KGB officer, moving with apparent ease and confidence in Soviet Society. He speaks with confidence about the rules that the KGB must follow - hidden rules, unfair rules, but rules that he knows and navigates. Frank has written a book about his life before and after his defection some 12 years earlier. Both the KGB and CIA seem willing to let the book loose into the wild, but Frank has asked his brother Simon, a publisher in the States, to come to Moscow to edit the text. This provides Simon and Frank with an opportunity to renew family ties while Frank’s KGB batman Boris providers a curious mixture of concierge and surveillance services. And needless to say, there is a Cold War plot of intrigue and betrayal that is well done. The real strength of Defectors, though, is the portrayal both of the limbo faced by the western defectors, and by the privileged life of the KGB within the “bubble” they have created for themselves. They have access to luxurious restaurants, theatres, dachas, travel, the finest rooms in the finest hotels, cars, trains, hairdressers... They live with an acceptance that they are watched; they know and befriend the watchers. They accept that they may have to report on friends and colleagues and sometimes this will not end well, but they convince themselves that this is a necessary thing that would have happened anyway. And they also have to accept a rigid pecking order and clearly scaled privileges that come with increased status. The secondary strength is the gradual ratcheting up of the suspense. What starts out as a very gentle - and literal - walk in the park becomes more and more tense until we reach a truly heart stopping and frenetic end. All the time, trying to guess who is on which side. That’s the thing with double agents - you can never tell which side they are on, and perhaps they themselves never really know. At least one of the characters - Gareth Jones, a gay British dandy - just seems to enjoy betrayal for its own sake. Defectors is a bit of an anachronism, being a Cold War thriller nearly thirty years after the lifting of the Iron Curtain. But in focusing on the Western defectors, it does something new; it breathes life into an already over-populated and rapidly dating genre in a way that would make Le Carre envious. ****0
  12. Why We Sleep

    Why We Sleep is a genuinely interesting and accessible read about what sleep is and why it is so important. It highlights the paradox that getting ahead in modern life seems to involve a lifestyle that minimises sleep, even though doing do is absolutely deleterious to both performance and health. There are interesting chapters on how sleep can be helped and hindered, and lessons drawn from sleep disorders. There is plent in this book that I can use - and have used - to improve my personal and professional life. But, and it is a big but, Why We Sleep falls into the same trap as many popular books written by scientists - of being verbose and repetitive. Sure, it is easily understandable and even the big words are carefully explained. But looking through any paragraph, half of the content is padding. And looking at the text as a whole, there is so much repetition and overlap between chapters. In my estimation, this rather long book could have been condensed into something between a third and a half as long with no loss of content or sense. Why We Sleep is a worthwhile read - the strength of content outweighs the shortcomings (longcomings?) in delivery - but Matthew Walker has managed to create a 3.5 star book from 5 star material. ***1/2
  13. A to Z Game

    J K and L seem to be missing... ... so Joe Dolce - Shaddap You Face
  14. The Shepherd's Hut

    Yes, Dirt Music is one of Tim Winton's best known novels.
  15. A to Z Game

    Zaire (OK, I know it is called DRC these days) to see mountain gorillas and Nyiragongo lava lake. Next game: One Hit Wonder musical acts