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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. The Shepherd's Hut

    I've never read Tim Winton before and didn't quite know what to expect. I'd heard he was a literary surfer (yes, literally, a surfer), and did great description, but also that his material was not particularly plot driven. Perhaps a Western Australian John Banville. And The Shepherd's Hut was a pretty astonishing surprise. Yes, there's plenty of description, but no surf. Jaxie Clackton is a teenage boy on the run from the authorities, somewhere in mid WA. His brutal father is dead and Jaxie is worried that he'll cop the blame, so he heads out into the bush with a vague plan of meeting up with his girlfriend Lee somewhere up north. So, yes, we get really evocative images of desert, woods, salt lakes, ridges and dirt. Very little water, which becomes a bit of a theme. There are roos and emus and euros. Ants and flies. Sheoaks and jam trees and spinifex. This barrenness never once got boring thanks to Jaxie's engaging voice. Jaxie is headstrong, has bushcraft and trusts nobody. He has been brought up in a world with no love, and he expects violence and treachery wherever he goes. But lost in the desert, he has to follow the dusty trails of vehicles from which he is hiding. This dilemma, this calculating how far he can trust civilisation is at the heart of the story. Plus, Jaxie's determination to survive. When Jaxie's tracking leads to the shepherd's hut - and the man who lives there - he has to decide how far he is willing to trust a stranger. The novel is tightly plotted right up to the last paragraph. There is resolution. But there is also so much ambiguity. There are hints about Jaxie's past that suggest it might not be as straightforward as he tells it. There are hints about the shepherd's background that are never really resolved. There are remnants in the desert of previous settlement that are also never resolved. It is done in a way that is haunting rather than frustrating. The Shepherd's Hut is a short, gripping, taut work that is at least the equal of anything else I have read this year. *****
  2. Office-Speak

    Deliverables - and we're not talking pizzas.
  3. Some Tests

    Some Tests is a pretty weird book that defies definition. Beth Own is a 37 year old mother, wife and aged-care worker who feels a little under the weather. So her husband persuades her to see the doctor. Beth’s regular doctor is not there, and the locum doctor decides to send Beth off for some tests just to conform that there’s nothing wrong. But Dr Yi decides to refer Beth off for more tests, which in turn lead to more tests. Initially this is a fairly conventional journey around Melbourne’s northern suburbs. Box Hill, to Heidelberg, via Greensborough to Epping… The medical mystery tour comes with high and unpredictable price tags, small portions of which may be reclaimed under Medicare. The doctors presume Beth has health insurance (she doesn’t) which would cover the fees (which it wouldn’t, even if Beth had it). Anyone who has set foot in an Australian health care setting will identify with the almost incidental meeting with the doctor, bookended by form-filling and card swiping. But when Beth pleads poverty after being referred for yet more tests, things get surreal. We go via Meadow Heights out into Regional Victoria, visiting ever more improbable healthcare settings that seem to operate under the radar of the official system. Staffed by volunteers, they aim to subvert the venality of the major health insurers and big pharma. There are similarities to Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. And throughout the journey, nobody bothers to tell Beth what might be wrong with her. The specialists specialties are unknown; the nature of the tests is never disclosed. By the end of the journey, the actual nature of any disorder – if there is even a disorder at all – has become irrelevant. It is the journey that matters, not the original reason for travel. Always there is the option to go back into the mainstream system, but it’s never an option that could ever be viable. Some Tests is all about the surreal comedy, masking a serious commentary on Australia’s incomprehensible healthcare system and some thought-provoking questions about life itself. Why do we even bother with health when the end will always be death? And there are some wonderful images, especially of a public bus system run for – and exclusively used by – healthcare patients getting from one office or surgery or hospital to another, clutching letters of referral and x-ray scans. The grotty and dingy surgeries are so true to life. The main deficit in this is the lack of characterisation. The reader cannot really care about Beth because there is no depth to her. She is an everyman placeholder, but there’s nothing to bond to. If anything, the doctors are allowed more character in their fleeting appearances than Beth is allowed across the whole novel. Colson Whitehead engaged us in his Underground Railroad – every bit as surreal and stylised as Wayne Macauley’s healthcare system – by making the reader bond with Cora, feeling her peril and celebrating her victories. Some Tests could have done something similar, even at the expense of making this rather short novel a bit longer. Nevertheless, the novel is a good read, does cover new ground and may well leave some lasting imagery. Solid 4 stars, but could have been 5…
  4. No More Boats

    One of the paradoxes in Australia is that this nation of migrants has developed such strong anti-immigration sentiment. This is exploited by politicians - especially, but not exclusively, by those from the far-right Liberal Party - who will simply mention immigration and expect their followers to bay for blood. No More Boats shows us a hard working Italian-Australian, Antonio, who has retired from the building game after an accident claimed his mobility an the life of his Greek friend Nico. Both had come to Australia on boats, part of the post-war wave of migration from southern Europe. Both had been through what was the Villawood Migrant Camp, that has since morphed into a detention centre for asylum seekers. Antonio married an Aussie volunteer at the centre, had children and paid his way. Modern Australia was built by Antonio and his generation. And as Antonio spends more and more time navel-gazing in his enforced retirement, he turns first to family (who are not exactly the industrious, virtuous souls he had imagined) and then to the television where John Howard, the anti-immigration Prime Minister is stirring up race hate towards a boatload of would-be migrants in the sea by which our home is girt. As Antonio makes a stand against the boat people, he divides his community, drawing out a sub-strata of the dispossessed who share the view that we need No More Boats. The novel is told in short chapters with multiple points of view - mostly from Antonio, his wife Rose, and his adult children Francis and Clare. They offer contrasting perspectives and are, for the most part, embarrassed by Antonio. Rose dedicated her life to helping migrants. Francis hangs around with a group of migrant pot-heads and Clare develops a friendship with her Vietnamese co-worker (a boat person who arrived on a plane from Thailand). Even Antonio seems somewhat horrified by the pond-life he starts to attract - violent wasters who are far from the socialist-nationalist hard-working ideal to which Antonio aspires. This is a great little seamy 1990s narrative of the western suburbs of Sydney. If it has a failing, it is that once the positions have been established they just sort of fizzle out. But maybe that's the point. There is not enough logic in the anti-immigration position to sustain itself. In one vignette, a politician points to lines on a graph. The red line keeps increasing, the blue line is flat. In the middle is a green line. The politician stresses the importance of following the green line. And in another one, someone asserts with a straight face that Harold Holt disappeared when swimming in the sea because he relaxed the White Australia policy. So yes, not quite enough logic to swell an uprising, but still it seems to keep a motley collection of fascist losers limping on from dog-whistle to dog-whistle, even twenty years later. ****0
  5. From The Wreck

    From The Wreck is the story of a 19th century shipwreck and a shape-shifting alien. Normally I like 19th century shipwreck books, but I can't recall enjoying terribly many books about shape shifting aliens. I have never come across them in between the same covers and, in truth, I don't think I ever will again. And I have very little idea how to review it. The premise in From The Wreck is that a ship, the Admella, goes down off the coast of South Australia. George Hills and a handful of other survivors cling to the wreckage for days, starved of food and water, waiting for rescue. As, one by one, they die, their hungry fellow travellers give in to temptation... And George forms a special bond in cannibalism with a mysterious woman who is, in fact, the alien. Back on shore, George finds himself tormented by visions and dreams of the ocean and tentacles and human flesh. He imagines that if he can find the woman from the wreck, she may be able to help him. The alien, meanwhile, is lonely and possesses George's son Henry. The story is confusing and feels somewhat arbitrary. The characters feel somewhat underdeveloped and don't always seem to have a clear rationale for the things they do. There are scenes of early life in South Australia, but they don't quite feel three dimensional. Then, at the back of it all, there is this alien which may naturally look like a blue octopus just hanging around for years as a mark on Henry's back. I kept trying to find a metaphor in the alien, but couldn't find one. The first two thirds have some semblance of plot building up - George's quest to find the shipwreck woman; the alien hears that there might be another shape shifting alien in America; an alcoholic woman from Sydney shows up. But then it just dissipates into chaos. Maybe there is some key that I am missing that would unlock whatever this book is about. Maybe if someone could persuade me that it is about dispossession or identity or something. But I'm just not getting it. Clearly others are seeing more in it than me, given its inclusion on the Miles Franklin 2018 longlist. There are some beautiful passages, there are some fizzy ideas. But it just doesn't cohere. **000
  6. Hame

    Hame is a satirical takedown of romanticised Scotticism with its bards, bagpipes, and tartan trews. The basic premise is that Mhairi McPhail, a Scot by birth but with a New York accent, is returning to her homeland to establish a museum on the Isle of Fascaray dedicated to the Isle's famous son, the poet Grigor McWatt. The novel is made up from interleaved sections of Mhairi's diary, her published work A Granite Ballad - The Reimagining of Grigor McWatt, various essays and writings of McWatt from published sources, and McWatt's poems. Together they make up the story of McWatt, compared and contrasted to the experience of Mhairi as an incomer. But they also paint a portrait of a Scottish island community; of the Scots arts and literature community; of Gaelic and Scots; of Scotland as a whole. The result is hilarious. As real islanders worry about the weather and fuel supplies; shopping trips to the mainland; how to get seven days' work done in six - McWatt and those like him spend their time banging out doggerel poetry in a mish-mash of Scottish dialects purporting to be a language; pontificate on the decline of traditional values; and drinking in the comfort of bars in Edinburgh's New Town. Fascaray itself is a fictional island, but much of it bears a close resemblance to Lewis, with a fair dose of the Inner Hebrides thrown in (especially Islay and Jura) and even the odd nod to the St Kilda archipelago. The issues feel authentic: the tension between preserving the natural beauty and exploiting natural resources; the tensions between the faiths; and the quest to curate/create a visitor attraction that will bring the tourists rolling in. Some of the events are real: the annual guga hunt is a real thing in Ness; the threat of offshore wind farms (and onshore wind farms) have divided real island communities; islanders really have protested against the establishment of Sunday ferry crossings; and the Morvern peninsula really is being slowly excavated. The literary angle to Hame also rings true. In small communities across Scotland, poets and writers are local legends despite the dubious quality of their works. Their works are published by small presses that survive on arts council subsidies, sold in souvenir shops and read by nobody. The writers augment their earnings by penning diaries and editorials for local newspapers. McWatt was a mainstay of the Auchwinnie Pibroch - his opinions given credence because of his fame, and his fame deriving from giving opinions. McWatt's poems are truly terrible: translations of great works into Scots dialect. The typical reader is unlikely to understand all of the verse - the dialect is too obscure - but will understand enough to see how the metre and the imagery have been ripped away from the original poems. And please don't be tempted to translate the verse back into English as that would be just as pointless as McWatt's original translation. The whole Scots dialect thing is paraded for comic effect; we can imagine arty Glaswegians professing to understand all the Scots because it is their language (and requires less effort to learn than the real language of Gaelic), yet failing to agree with each other about what the words actually mean. Hame is an absolute gem of a work; relatively long and at risk in the early sections of not having enough of a story to hang together. But as the book builds momentum, so the stories build and the multiple strands come together. The ending - the twist - is perfectly predictable but no less funny for its obviousness. It is rare to coe across a book with quite so much going on and for it all to land. *****
  7. Eddie Flynn is a lawyer who used to be a conman, likes to cut corners and especially likes to surprise the establishment. Joshua Kane is a killer who is determined to get on the jury for the murder trial of Bobby Solomon, an up and coming film star. Thirteen is told in dual narrative, with Flynn narrating in first person and Kane's point of view being narrated in third person. Occasionally they narrate the same scene from different perspectives, which is either quirky or repetitive. But for the most part, the action is pretty arresting and the novel drip-feeds information to the reader piece by piece. There are red herrings, there are puzzles and games. And there's also an improbably high body count. Thirteen is, I guess, supposed to be a bit of fun. Nobody would believe that a serial killer like Kane would actually exist; whether it is his inability to sense pain, or his lack of apparent motive, or his ability to support himself with no visible means of income, or his ability to "sign" his high profile murders without being noticed, it is not an exercise in reality. Whether or not the reader enjoys this is likely to depend on whether disbelief can be suspended long enough to go along for the ride. I just about managed it and am glad I did. Yes, the novel is corny and cliched, It does rely on a killer with almost supernatural capability (except for the occasional Scooby-Doo style clue left lying behind), and it does rely on Eddie Flynn being able to spot these blindingly obvious clues that other, more illustrious investigators have missed. It is also worth saying that this is the fourth book in the Eddie Flynn series - a fact that I did not know when I accepted a galley copy of the text. You wouldn't really know except, perhaps, Flynn's back-story is a little thin - presumably having been covered in previous novels in the series. Pace-wise, this is a fast read for a novel that is not short, The chapters are short and snappy; there is an insight into jury selection and jury politics that is not common in murder-thrillers. And though the twists and tricks are corny, they are well done. If you like this sort of thing (and I do), it is a solid four star read. If you want something more authentic, try Sergio de la Pava. ****0
  8. And The Land Lay Still

    I have had this on my Kindle since I first got a Kindle. I have a paper copy first edition that I found in a bookshop that was offloading its stock prior to closing. I have loved James Robertson's other work... ... and yet I have never actually embarked on reading this. It has been next up a few times, but I keep being daunted by the length - despite reading longer books in the meantime.
  9. How Much Land Does A Man Need is an old Tolstoy short story. My form teacher read it to my class when I was 13 and it has stuck with me. So when I saw that it had been adapted into graphic novel form, I jumped at the chance. This is beautifully illustrated, creating scenes of pre-Revolution peasant life in Siberia. The man and his wife live a happy but poor life, but are tempted by their upwardly mobile city relations. It takes only minor provocation from the land agent to drive the village to rise up and seize (purchase) the land for the common good. But our hero wants more and more, and is willing to make unwise bargains to attain it. Needless to say - this is Tolstoy - it doesn't end well. I don't have too much experience of graphic novels, but this one seems to be faithful to the original story, to convey both the story and the atmosphere, and to seduce the reader with awesome illustration. I don't know how long graphic novels are supposed to take to read, but from memory this was about the same length as the original story. Some pages are dense, others contain just a single scene. The title is available as both paper copy and eBook copy. I obtained a copying PDF, which gave me colour and zoom ability which I valued. It would be a shame to read this in black and white. ****0
  10. Ghost Wall

    Sulevia, named after the ancient Celtic goddess, is spending the summer on an archaeological project in the wilds of Northumberland to recreate Bronze Age life. Her father is an amateur history nut and her mother seems willing to go along with the project. So Sylvie (as she calls herself) finds herself finds herself in a field, sleeping in a tent, foraging for food and wearing scratchy tunics. She’s not happy, but she’s also not rebelling. Her family seem to be the only genuine volunteers on the project; the others – the professor and his undergraduate students – are there because the university requires it. While Sylvie’s father demands absolute adherence to authenticity, the others are rather more open to persuasion. After all, the Bronze Age people made up for their lack of modern technology through proficiency in what they did have; and who could swear that the Bronze Age communities did not have mod cons? The story that unfolds is one of the relationship between Sylvie and her domineering father, determined to impose a value system from a bygone age on his family. Sylvie’s father demands fidelity even when the Professor is advocating a more flexible approach. And where the community does not comply with his vision, there is a price to be paid. The story is written as an English nationalist hearkening back to a bygone age when Britons were free and pure. But there are obvious parallels with extreme adherents to world religions, demanding that the rest of the world fit in with their anachronistic belief systems. The family’s reluctance to challenge the force of the father – their willingness to embrace the privations in order to give themselves the illusion of free choice – is surely more about the modern world than it was ever about Celtic Britain. The temptations of the Seven Eleven – ice creams and hot pies – are the temptations of the West trying to seduce the faithful away from the path of virtue. Ghost Wall is a short, very readable novel that grows in intensity with every page. Yes, the metaphors are there front and centre, but they do not take away from the very human dynamic between Sylvie, her mother and her father – three complex characters who do not neatly fit into predictable stereotypes. ****0
  11. Vernon Subutex One

    Thanks for this review Iff. I was considering it because of the gorgeous cover and I think it is up for some award, but you have persuaded me not to bother.
  12. Graffiti Palace

    Graffiti Palace is a claustrophobic novel that feels longer and denser than the page count. Monk is a black (mixed race) Los Angelean caught up in the 1965 Watts Riots as he tries to come home to his partner Karmann, heavily pregnant in her shipping container home by the docks. Monk is a kind if urban curator, copying down gangland graffiti in his blue notebook, interpreting it and thereby understanding the ley-lines that run through the suburbs. Normally he is allowed free passage by the gangs and the cops, his knowledge is priceless intel for everyone concerned. But in the riots, the rules have changed. Nobody trusts anybody. Every encounter might end badly, progress through the suburbs is painstakingly made, block by block, doubling back, lying low. This creates a road trip novel - albeit a very short road trip across the chaotic, anarchic city. Each chapter provides a fresh encounter for Monk. He meets the Fruit of Islam, murderous Chinese laundry owners, psychics, police, graffiti artists, drug dealers, an elderly Japanese yakuza woman, Godzilla, more gangsters and a mortuary technician. There are occasional references forwards and backwards, but there's a real feeling of dungeons and dragons - a series of barely connected discrete incidents. It is jerky and there is little feeling of real progress - or indeed, the passage of time. The strength of the novel is capturing the diversity of life in the ghetto. It is set at a particular point of time and space, and the range of people going about their lives amidst the riots, as the city burns. It is a narrative device, sure, but the descriptions drip with authenticity. They create depth and meaning into signs and symbols that most of us will never even have noticed. They also create a misleading sense that life in the ghetto is varied and exciting; the reality is that without Monk, these worlds would never meet. The monotony of people's lives is occasionally hinted at but doesn't quite come through. It's all just a bit too exciting. When the end comes, it feels like a relief. A somewhat sudden relief. Spending time with Monk, never able to see beyond the next junction, is terribly claustrophobic. Overall, this adds up to something that is quite hypnotic and surprisingly captivating. It shouldn't work but it does. ****0
  13. Small Country

    The small country in question is Burundi, the lesser known twin to Rwanda. Like Rwanda, Burundi has ethnic tension between the Hutu and Tutsi population; unlike Rwanda the tensions have been kept on a slow boil rather than spilling over into mass genocide. The novel is narrated by Gaby (Gabriel), a Burundian man now living in Europe, looking back on his childhood in Burundi. He is terribly homesick. He remembers a happy childhood, living in a middle class neighbourhood of Bujumbura, the Capital, with his French father and Rwandan mother. His friends are also mostly mixed race and middle class, identifying as African but not always accepted by the majority Burundians. Gaby's family had servants - some Hutu and some Tutsi - and travelled to see family in Rwanda. He scrumped mangoes from his neighbour's trees and sold them back to her. In school, Gaby was successful, intelligent to the point of precociousness, politically astute. This is thrown into relief in the letters between himself and Laure, a French pen-friend allocated to him by his school. Laure has little interest in the world and seems to imagine Gaby sits on the ground with flies on his face, waiting for the next aid package to fall from the sky. In return for brief letters listing her possessions, Gaby send considered thoughts on the emergent democratic process in Burundi. Which makes it quite jarring that this supposedly intelligent (and now adult) man narrates the story in simple language and staccato sentences. The voice is far cruder than the language of the transcribed letters he was writing at the age of ten. And while we are on the subject, his narration has a viewpoint problem; even as an adult narrating the story, he tells it as though he still had a child's awareness of the people around him and their actions; a child's unawareness of hidden agenda. For the first half of the book, it was an interesting exercise in telling us that Africa is a good place and that our pre-conceptions of life in grinding poverty are wide of the mark. But in the second half, the action shifts to Rwanda and the genocide. This is still written in simple language but the imagery is clear, the emotions raw. It doesn't come as a surprise to anyone who has followed current affairs; indeed, it is played in a way that the reader feels a growing sense of horror as Gaby and his family misread the signs and underestimate the enormity of what is coming. The novel puts faces on the atrocity. This second half of the novel redeems a really ordinary first half, but the overall point of view difficulties still remain problematic. The shift at the end back to adult Gaby feels awkward and weakens the overall impact. I know it is supposed to make us think about the plight of the refugee and consider that refugees often wish they could have stayed at home; they do not feel like lottery winners who have landed up in rich countries. But this is not the strong note on which to leave a novel that has been in the abyss of genocidal Kigali. Worth reading - and it is a short novel - but a better editor might have turned this into something special. ***00
  14. His Bloody Project

    Thanks Tay
  15. Orchid and the Wasp

    Orchid and the Wasp is a completely character driven novel. We spend ten or so years in the company of Gael Foess, a smart, sassy Irish girl growing up through the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger. We open with Gael as an 11 year old girl selling “virginity” pills to her school friends to restore their hymens. Whether they work or not is immaterial – they work for Gael. Then we meet Gael’s immediate family, her father Jarlath, a senior banker with Barclays, and her mother Sive, an internationally renowned orchestral conductor. Gael’s brother Guthrie is a delicate boy who is bullied at school. Gael seems to draw strength from her parents’ expectations, Guthrie seems to have given up trying. Gael, like so many of her Gaelic ancestors, sets off to seek her fortune first in England and then in New York. Although she never takes success for granted, she displays no fear of failure. She is willing to blag, cheat and blackmail her way to the top. She’s like a computer gamer, wanting to get off to the fastest start possible or die in the attempt. She is willing to bet her last cent on an outside chance - she’s not even gambling on red and black, she’s putting her chips on the numbers. Except she knows the House has the edge, so she has to become the House. There is a plot; it’s based on art and it only really starts half way through the book. Up until that point it is all just establishing the scene. While that happens, the reader may wonder whether it is going anywhere at all – the answer is oh yes, it certainly is! But the plot is not the selling point. It’s the sidetracks within sidetracks. The romance with Harper, the start of the Occupy movement, the bohemian art forger. It is a comic delight in the same vein as The Sellout and Joshua Ferris. There are witty references and word games aplenty. And at the end, the reader realises that Gael is not the grotesque and greedy figure we first imagined. Yes, she is a complete con artist. But only because she enjoys the conning; the rewards are incidental and can be given away lightly. We love her for it, but deep down we know that it is not a sustainable business model. Gael is Ireland, born of the earls and the Sidhe, her heart is captured by a Harp, her future uncertain but the present day is a gas. Orchid and the Wasp is a fabulous novel and must be one of the best of 2018. It deserves to win prizes. Booker, anyone? *****