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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. I suspect that Tim Lott is a misunderstood man. He writes about grotesque characters in a sympathetic way and people imagine this is because he wants the characters to be admired. In When We Were Rich, we re-encounter the characters from White City Blue - four lads living in and around the White City estate in West London. Frankie Blue is an estate agent; Nodge is a taxi driver who has recently come out as gay; Colin is a computer geek; and Diamond Tony is persona non grata following an incident on a golf course. Picking up almost immediately from the end of White City Blue, we follow these characters and their newly found partners from the eve of the false Millennium (the real millennium started in 2001); through the boom years of the New Labour project and into the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. What Tim Lott does, seemingly effortlessly, is capture the atmosphere around major events and show how ordinary people responded to them. He holds up a mirror to ourselves and if we don't like what we see, we have only ourselves to blame. In When We Were Rich, we see the naked greed around the London housing market. We see people who believe they deserve the wealth they have accumulated through owning property - and expect to be able to repeat the feat for ever. We see people who judge others by their income, their job, their postcode. And because we have lived through these times ourselves, we know it won't end well. It's Rumours of a Hurricane twenty years on. I believe firmly that Tim Lott wants readers to sneer at his characters, not admire them or aspire to be them. Whether it is venal Frankie, selfish Vronky, lazy Roxy, the vain and hypocritical Fraser, the psychopathically angry Tony - they are all there to be mocked. Especially Fraser, the fifty-year old ripped EasyJet pilot - promiscuous on the gay scene while demanding fidelity from Nodge - turning up to Labour Party meetings to lament the fall of Militant. A thoroughly vile man in every way. When We Were Rich is the perfect summation of London in the 2000s, just as White City Blue was for the 1990s and Hurricane was for the 1980s. It is an easy, enjoyable read with much humour and quite a bit to say about class struggle and karma. Most readers will hate When We Were Rich if reviews of Tim Lott's past works are anything to go by. Their loss. ****0
  2. That's the bargain of the Century! I paid $30 - but only Australian ones so that's about $20 in your money and falling...
  3. The Bridge is a heartbreaking novel about tragedy and survival; about guilt and forgiveness. The opening chapter depicts the construction disaster in 1970 when a slab of Melbourne's Westgate Bridge collapsed, killing 35 workers and injuring 18 others. Antonello, an Italian migrant from Footscray was a survivor. Many of his friends, new Australians mostly, were not so lucky. We see the families that were destroyed; the hopes that were dashed. As Antonello attends a succession of funerals over a few days, they blur into one. But some of the dead, now just names on a plaque, were real people who are still missed by the ageing survivors. And Antonello can't help feeling that he knew that corners were being cut. The engineers said it would be OK, but Antonello knew deep down that they were wrong. Thirty nine years later Antonello's family is doing well. His kids have firmly entered the middle class as the Western suburbs start to gentrify. Antonello's granddaughter Ashleigh is in her final year at school - just the VCE standing between her and a prestigious university place studying law. Her friend Jo is rather the opposite. Not that academic, a bit plain, living with her mother who works shifts to pay the rent on a house in the shadow of the bridge that defies gentrification. A night out, a poor decision, and life will never be the same again. The decision is spur of the moment but the consequences unfold piece by piece. Nobody meant anything bad to happen, but there's a price to pay. Just like Antonello so many years beforehand, the survivors have to learn to live with themselves, their guilt and their grief. They have to plan for a future from a suddenly unpromising starting point. The story shifts points of view several times but manages to carry this off. It gives us an insight into the guilt and grief of two families confronting unwelcome reality. It is painful to read, it feels real and raw. The linking of the past and (almost) present is done so effortlessly, the parallels clear but not laid on too thick. The sense of place is spot on too. The Bridge is one of those rare books that depicts the scenes so clearly that you want to visit the scene, to pay respects to tragedies both real and imagined. It is difficult to say more without spoiling the novel - but even a fortnight later, thinking back on this novel is enough to bring on goosebumps. *****
  4. Do you ever remember the 1970s "Concept Album"? Pink Floyd's The Wall is an example; so too is Bowie's Ziggy Stardust. The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas is a "Concept Novel" in a similar vein. Daniel James has created a Novocastrian artist, Ezra Maas, and dropped him into the real world of modern art history. There are stories of his time at Warhol's Factory, his tour of Europe, his hideaway mansion in Hertfordshire, his near-fatal accident in the Congo, and his withdrawal from public life. Mass's image is managed by the shadowy Maas Foundation which has been buying all his artworks back and removing all trace of him from the Internet. There are no known pictures of Maas, no artworks on public display, no official biography. The Concept is that a journalist, Daniel James, has been invited to write an unofficial biography of Maas by an anonymous source. James compiles the biography while writing his own gonzo journal of his research. However, James disappears - much like Maas before him - and leaves two partial manuscripts behind to be compiles along with various notes, transcripts and news clippings by an anonymous source - who is himself (herself?) in fear of dire consequences. The anonymous editor then adds to James's own footnotes to offer a form of commentary. This is all very thorough. The texts are interspersed with real details and real people. And so many details - huge tracts of art theory being marshalled to add granularity to the story. The different narratives contradict and even argue against each other. There is even a website, www.ezramaas.com, that purports to represent the Maas Foundation. So we have a text that is part mystery, part conspiracy (does Dan Brown write stuff like this?), part criticism of modern art and literature, part parody of reclusive artists. When it is good, it is very good. But it does go on for a long, long time and after a while, some of the details start to repeat. The ending is a let-down but it is difficult to see how Daniel James could have got off the trajectory in any other way. Ezra Maas is quirky, but it is not unique. There are other novels that gather multiple narratives and footnotes to create some kind of pseudo-academic canon. Recent examples include Memorial Device, Hame, Unity and Nazi Literature in the Americas. Ezra Maas is probably somewhere mid-list in this ambitious genre. The balance should probably have been slightly more tilted towards plot and away from theory; and the characters probably needed to be slightly more clearly delineated. But overall it's a pretty good effort. ****0
  5. It's striking what a similar reaction we had - and this despite what seems to be universal acclaim from everyone else
  6. Jack Bick is an interview journalist for an upmarket London magazine. He has a good track record, but the magazine seems to be drifting and Jack has the feeling that he's about to be let go. In what he expects to be his last week on the staff, he has two interviews to conduct: Oliver Pierce, a psychogeographical writer who hasn't had a follow-up to his bestselling work some years ago (Jack's idea); and an estate agent/property developer that his editor has told him to interview. Given the two options, Jack opts first for lager (the breakfast of champions) and then for Pierce. He and Pierce go off to explore Barking where a large plume of smoke is visible from all over London. What follows is a meandering story of alcoholism, the seedy side of London life with dead-end jobs, half-fulfilled ideas and half-built properties. Jack is a whinging and unlikeable man who cadges off other people's goodwill. He is capricious and willing to throw anyone under the bus if there's a drink in it for him. Plume is probably supposed to be both humorous and some kind of state of the nation piece. Unfortunately, the lack of plot or character development; the repetitiveness; the lack of any obvious motive behind any of the actions makes for quite a long and dull read. Some marks for ideas, the odd set piece and references to tube trains. Unfortunately, this just don't come together in a workable framework. The end, when it comes, goes off in a surreal direction that confuses more than it intrigues. This is a shame, because Care of Wooden Floors was a superb, focused, funny novel that was well paced and spoke to this reader about the human condition. Plume doesn't. ***00
  7. It's 1986 and Caddie Walker goes to an exhibition in her home town of Brisbane - an exhibition dedicated to the 1930s European-American writer Inga Karlson. The star exhibits are The Fragments, the few remaining pages of Inga Karlson's lost second novel. All the copies were destroyed by a fire in the publisher's warehouse; and reputedly the only two people to have read the novel, Inga and her publisher, died in the fire. Caddie, named after the protagonist in Karlson's first novel, is surprised when she quotes a line from one of the fragments that a fellow visitor completes the line. Especially because the completion is not one of the fragments... This is a mystery novel told in two timelines, Caddie's own hunt for the mystery woman from the exhibition and the story of Rachel Lehrer, a young woman who ran away from her grim family farm in America's midwest and into the arms of Inga Karlson. The twin narratives makes the novel a bit slow to take off but when it does, it is really well done. There are parallels between the two story lines: in each, the leading lady is caught between two competing suitors, there are power imbalances brought about by wealth and status. There are stories 0f mundane work (bookselling, typesetting, waitressing) set against the prestige of academia and publishing. And both story lines have a secret at their heart. The ending - which I did not see coming - was one to set my hairs on end. Truly, it was very moving. I have read Toni Jordan's work before and she is a really great storyteller. Easy to read, but complex in the range of ideas that bubble up to - or just under - the surface. I see that her work is positioned as women's fiction, but it is so much more than that. I would encourage anyone - male or female - to read The Fragments and read more of Toni Jordan's back catalogue.
  8. I have often thought that Kate Atkinson was a writer I ought to read, but although the blurbs are promising, the reaction from readers often seems a bit lukewarm. Thanks for sharing Viccie.
  9. Iris and Rose are sisters who work for subsistence at Mrs Salter's doll shop painting dolls to resemble real children, some of whom are dead. Across the way, Silas runs a curiosity shop specialising in taxidermy, skeletons and other anatomical oddities. He does a trade providing specimens for a group of artists going by the name of The Pre-Raphaelite Brethren. Through a series of chance encounters - at the heart of which we find Albie, a street urchin who locates samples for Silas - Iris meets one of the painters, the fictitious Louis Frost, and agrees to model for him in return for painting lessons. Silas, meanwhile, has other designs on Iris... In part, this is a psychological thriller. We know that something bad will happen to Iris, it is just a question of when. And on the other hand, it is a romance between Louis and Iris. For me, at least, the balance didn't quite come off. There was way too much romance and painting in the middle and the drama was too little, too late. The novel went into some detail on the theory and production of the pre-raphaelite paintings; spent some time comparing and contrasting the worthy merits of the Royal Academy against the shallow science and innovation of the Great Exhibition. However, painting has never yet made for fascinating fiction despite the best efforts of many authors to prove otherwise. The Doll Factory does have some merits, however. Silas as the troubled man who has difficulty expressing his emotions and fulfilling his artistic dreams would have been a gem if he had been more fully integrated into the middle of the novel. Albie is fun. The relationship between Rose and Iris wasweld constructed in the brief glimpses of it that we saw. And the theatre of the Victorian London streets was quite visceral. But the pacing was shockingly wrong and did I mention the focus on painting? The result was a novel that started and ended as a piece of fun, but the saggy middle felt like it would never end. ***00
  10. William Carver is a BBC Radio journalist who has landed up in Cairo to report on the Arab Spring uprising. So has the rest of the world's journalists. Carver likes to think of himself as a "vertical" journalist who explores a story in depth, creating news. He is disdainful of the "horizontal" journalists who simply commentate on events around them. Carver - and his youthful producer Patrick - first appeared in A Dying Breed, a superior conspiracy thriller set in Afghanistan. They are an odd couple - like Dr Who and his assistant - providing both a second point of view and a useful pretext for expository dialogue. A Single Source gets off to a slower start than A Dying Breed - perhaps because Carver has only just landed in Cairo himself and needs to discover his story and his network - but when it starts to grip, it is just as gripping as the debut novel. Carver meets up with a couple of Egyptian protestors, one of whom runs a twitter feed from Tahrir Square. They collect up some of the gas canisters, rubber bullets and truncheons used against the protestors and this causes some discomfort at the highest level. Meanwhile, back in London, the former editor of the Today programme has started out a new career as Director of Communications at the Ministry of Defence. The MoD is in something of a bind, wanting to support the friendly Mubarak regime but also wanting to end up backing the winner if the Mubarak regime falls. And all the time, wanting to promote British defence exports... Interleaved with this, there is the story of two Eritrean brothers looking to start a new life in Europe, left to the mercy of people traffickers. This can feel like a distraction, but it puts a human face on some of the massive upheaval that has been going on behind the changes of government and political headlines. It will hopefully make the English (yes English, not British) voters ashamed for supporting Brexit in a futile attempt to stop the influx of migrants from the Middle East who were displaced by poor UK foreign policy. Overall, A Single Source is a tense read with plenty of politics and double crossing. As in A Dying Breed, the morals are sometimes ambiguous and the reader is left to imagine the final denouement - traits of a superior thriller. *****
  11. A Stranger City is an ambitious novel that seeks to draw parallels between recent history and Brexit Britain, using the stories of various members of northeast London’s diverse community to illustrate the situation. The frame on which the novel hangs is the discovery of an unidentified young female body in the River Thames. The discovery is investigated by a policeman and featured in a documentary by a filmmaker. We then broaden out and meet their families and some of the wider community. We find a community that is diverse even within the United Kingdom, including Scots, Irish and migrants from elsewhere in England. Then we find migrants from the Commonwealth and semi-recent conflict zones - Iran after the fall of the Shah. And then there are the more recent migrants from within the EU. All are seen to be integral to the London we see today. Contrast this with an England that seems to be retreating into itself, harking after the glory days of an Empire, capital punishment and boiled cabbage. Those who are smart enough, able enough, want to move away from this increasingly hostile and ignorant society. Which is ironic, since so many of them came to London precisely to enjoy a broader, global perspective and experience culture and sophistication. The story of the dead woman remains in the background. For a while it is (intentionally) confused by a parallel story of a missing social media star - a vacuous young woman who is famous only for being famous. And while the dead woman mystery is ultimately resolved, it is not satisfying. The main point is that it is possible for someone to go missing and not be missed, not be reported in this unfeeling society. Might it have been different if she had been English? A Stranger City is successful in depicting a multicultural society; it makes interesting political points showing the contradiction between the current insularity and the aspirations of individual members of that society. There is some wonderful depiction of characters. But it doesn’t quite hang together as a story. It is too difficult to hold so many characters in the mind all at once, so each time a character re-appears, he or she has to be re-learned. Their inter-relationships are too opaque and the narrative drive is just not there. Which is a pity, because the descriptive writing is fabulous. ***00
  12. Ah Hock is telling his life story to a writer. He is an ethnic Chinese Malay, has spent most of his life tantalisingly close to the economic miracle of Kuala Lumpur, and has been released from prison for killing a Bangladeshi migrant. This is a story of life on the edge, mostly in a world of petty crime, illegal migrant workers and aspirations of a middle class life. But Ah Hock knows that while he was never great at school, his strength is in people management - emotional intelligence, if you will. Through various phases of his life, failing to get on with his ailing mother, farmed out to various relatives, running the streets with his soulmate Keong. The lack of stability drives Ah Hock (with very little protestation) into illegality, and this leaves Ah Hock trapped in an underworld through debts, obligations and honour. Yet, Ah Hock does have some contact with the aspirations of a developing Malaysia. His wife is a make-up saleswoman working on a pyramid selling scheme, dreaming of cars and houses. The novel is told in an engaging way and for the first half, it feels lively and quirky - offering non-linear vignettes of life in a nation that is changing, switching back and forth between the past and the present day conversation with the writer. It feels as though the writer represents the new society and Ah Hock the old - with each trying to reconcile themselves with the other. But by about half way, the novel feels like it is lacking direction. It is all building up to the reveal about the killing - with little details being drip fed - but the non-linear narration coupled with the chaotic changes in Ah Hock's life does make the reader feel that this is more a collection of short works than a single life story. Four stars for a novel that starts well and drifts - but with a stronger narrative life it could have been five. ****0
  13. I loved Memorial Device - For The Good Times feels like an awkward second novel. Basically we have some lads who are into comics and laughs who've joined the IRA. First they take over a comic shop in Belfast, then they end up on the mainland plotting atrocities. It was good, funny in parts and horrific in others. But basically, I didn't buy the characters and very specifically, I didn't buy Sammy, the main protagonist. The boys seemed to be driven neither by ideology nor by psychopathy. i just don't believe the Ra would have taken on such uncommitted, ill-disciplined jokers. Sure there's some nice scene setting - Belfast and the Ardoyne in the 70s and some wonderful, biting humour. But the politics was done better in Milkman, and the humour was done better in The Fire Starters. For The Good Times does try to break out of the genre of Troubles novels, but in doing that it sort of becomes a parody of itself. There have been worse Troubles novels (mostly by Americans) but this is far from the best. All this is made more disappointing when we know how well David Keenan can write and innovate from Memorial Device. ***00
  14. The Old Man and The Boy service an off shore wind farm out in the North Sea, way beyond being able to see land. They live on a platform (I imagine Sealand) and their view is just the sea and various generations of decaying turbines. As one turbine dies, they cannibalise its parts to repair others. The Boy is there to replace his father who broke his contract. The Old Man has always been there. They are serviced by a quarterly supply boat whose master runs a black market trading racket. He trades the lagan and jetsam that the Old Man is able to fish up from the seabed in return for the supplies that might stretch the lifespan of the turbines. There is no beginning and no end. The Boy and the Old Man have no past life; they have no future. There is no boundary to the wind farm and the sea. There is no hint of anyone who might benefit from the wind farm. The Boy and the Old Man are suspicious of each other. With just one another for company - and the creaks and grand and bangs of the plant as it is ravaged by the sea - they try to live independent lives despite being mutually dependent on one another. They care for each other and they hate each other. Bizarrely, this reminded me of the vast cattle stations in Australia, remote and isolated, farmers living in grinding poverty to supply a wealthy nation that they seldom see with their meat. And inevitably - probably intentionally - it reminded me of The Old Man and The Sea. Almost nothing happens, just the battle between man and nature that nature always wins. And then, there were also shades of the final scenes of The Truman Show as Truman sails for a shoreline he doesn't even believe exists. The book is short, the writing is spare and stylised. But despite the bleakness, there is a warmth in the writing that keeps the reader engaged. Through the boredom and drudgery and backbiting we see genuine affection that the odd couple feel for one another. We see that some of the mutual suspicion and prying might have come from good hearts. The novel is interleaved with occasional fragments from a past when Doggerland was dry land, inhabited by people who could never have imagined the horror of the grey, windswept sea. It is never clear whether these snippets were long ago and the sea is the present day, or whether the land is the present day and the sea is the future we all face. Either way, it has made me feel that we all owe a greater gratitude to those who endure hardship to support the comfortable lives that many of us lead. Doggerland is a short novel, but one that leaves a deep impression. ****0
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