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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. 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
  2. His Bloody Project

    Thanks Tay
  3. 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? *****
  4. The Ruin (or Rúin as it is marketed in Australia) is a police procedural introducing Inspector Cormac Reilly of the Garda Siochana. The novel opens well, with Reilly in his first week in the guards, sent to investigate a call from a desolate farmhouse in the wilds of County Mayo. He finds a dead junkie and her two young children. It is creepy and mysterious. Then, 20 years later, Reilly finds himself newly posted in Galway, being given the cold cases to review. He is an unwelcome blow-in and is being deliberately frozen out of any real police work. But when the young boy Reilly had rescued that night in Mayo turns up dead, reported to have jumped off a bridge, Reilly is brought into the margins of the investigation. What follows is good in parts. When Reilly is investigating and interviewing witnesses, the story is engaging. When the narrative turns to office politics, it gets confusing – which is probably intentional; and dull – which probably isn’t. And there is a growing sense of confusion about whether characters were supposed to be in Mayo, or Galway, or moved from one to the other. Trying to piece together the different strands of plot becomes more and more of an effort. By the end, I’m really not quite sure how it did all tie up. This is redeemed to some extend by a few great characters (the elderly Christian busybody from Mayo is brilliant, and the shady defence lawyer also springs to mind). There is also good social commentary on the enormous value placed on the family by the Irish authorities in the late 20th Century. It was the triumph of optimism over common sense. But the overall sense is of a novel that is too complicated, too long and unevenly paced. **1/2
  5. Pretend I’m Dead

    Pretend I’m Dead is a really unusual, psychedelic gem of a novel. Mona is a twenty-something volunteer in a needle exchange programme. Her dad, Mickey, is a deadbeat and the only stability she has in her life is the sole-trader house cleaner she works for. Mona has a brain but no particular drive. She works hard, but without direction. When she tells people she is a cleaner, they assume she must have something else she is working towards - white girls don’t clean houses. The novel follows Mona over a couple of years, focusing in turn on four relationships and how they change the direction of her life. First up, there’s Mr Disgusting, a middle aged junkie to whom Mona supplies needles. She begins a friendship because why not? Apart from the junk, he’s a decent guy. He tells Mona to move from her Massachusetts dead end to Taos, some kind of hippy Mecca in New Mexico. So off she goes, with the remaining three sections focusing in turn on her relationship with her neighbours Nigel and Shiori (English and Japanese); then a rather sick businessman called Henry who seems to have lost his inhibitions, and finally a psychic called Betty. Each of the relationships allows Mona to grow in unexpected directions. And always, behind everything, there is the fractured relationship Mona has with her father. What makes the novel is Mona’s charm. She is utterly guileless, but not stupid. She is aware of people’s failings and deviousness; she simply chooses not to get involved. As a cleaner, she sees people’s secrets. She could use them for good or for evil, but mostly she just dwells on them in a brain that seems to be perpetually half-tripping. She has a strong personal morality and will happily do things that are against her best interests if she thinks they are the right things to do, yet her morality is unlikely to coincide with those of 90% of the population. She looks at the world with a mixture of astonishment and resignation. And for the lack of direction, she dreams. Idle dreams, not always nice dreams - a bit like Jenny in the Threepenny Opera - where something will change and she will be the lynchpin around which the action revolves. There’s quirkiness too. Mona likes photography, taking selfies in compromising positions in clients houses. Just to mix things up a little. Looking back on this, it all sounds a bit whimsical. It really isn’t. It is gritty, it is real, it is funny and it is sad. If it were a film, it would be Amelie. *****
  6. Two Steps Forward is an interesting concept: a novel written by two authors in alternating chapters. The two narrative streams follow two walkers along the Camino Frances pilgrim trail through France and Spain. Martin Eden, an Englishman, has recently lost his wife, his house, his job and his money. He is a stubborn man who is quite prepared to cut off his own nose to spite his face, seeking to walk the 2038 km of the pilgrimage to prove the durability of his “buggy”, a wheeled alternative to a rucksack. Meanwhile, back at home, his daughter is quietly going off the rails. And Zoe Witt, an American, is recently widowed, her husband having killed himself to avoid his impending business collapse. Zoe also has no money and is walking the pilgrimage as a pretext for visiting a slight friend, Camille, who lives in Paris. Zoe is conservative and socially compliant. So Martin and Zoe fully conform to ethnic stereotypes. The story is that the two protagonists’ journeys keep overlapping but, owing to a series of slapstick misunderstandings they never quite manage to come together in the romantic union that they both so clearly want. It is not a complex story and the reader does wonder quite why it takes so many pages to tell. The reason for the length and slow pace is the faithful recording of every town and village along the route, every vista, every ditch and every pothole. Meals are described with the affection that can only be truly experienced by those who have eaten them; guesthouse owners remembered for their favours and slights. There is a cast of many fellow pilgrims: loud Brazilians; Spaniards; a gauche German engineer; a handful of Americans. There are petty bureaucrats handing out credentials that need stamping, then handing out the stamps and declaring all the local dormitories full. I am sure this is authentic and the sense of place does come through with strength (Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist have walked the route themselves), but after a while it does feel as though the story is being stretched to fit the route. The really strange thing about the novel is the similarity in the two narrative voices. You would think that having two separate writers telling the stories of two quite different characters the challenge would be making them fit in the same cover. But no, the voices were near identical and most of the narration was straight observation that did not allow Martin and Zoe’s characters to shine through. But even then, both characters were financially straitened, had difficult family situations at home, and had an entrepreneurial spirit. Their similarities were greater than their differences. This did, then, feel like one long story rather than two shorter, inter-leaved stories and that was not necessarily a good thing. Overall this was a reasonable novel. There were moments that make the reader smile – rather than laugh out loud. The writing is good and clear. It is difficult to find a specific fault with anything. There is a feelgood ending – but the journey to get there did feel a bit arduous. ***00
  7. Consent

    I don't really remember American Psycho, but Consent feels very English. There's quite a class-ist undercurrent running through it.
  8. Consent

    Consent is a stalker book. Our unnamed narrator explains how he became unexpectedly rich, allowing him to opt out of the world of work and follow (mostly) women. His motives seem unclear. Is he a harmless crank? By drip-feeding the information the reader builds up a picture. And, at the risk of spoiling things, that picture starts to look more and more horrific. This horror is set in relief by the apparently calm, logical narration and the dry humour derived from incidental details. Mostly, this is the story of our narrator following Frances, a management consultant who has been suspended from work following a misunderstanding about a project called Consent. As Frances seeks solace in her local cafe, she has opportunities of seeking comfort either from our narrator, or from Patrick who is trying to make a go of a fragile parcel delivery company. Patrick wins... Consent is a twisty, turny novel with an ending that will make the reader turn straight back to re-read the beginning. It is short, sharp and intriguing. It describes modern London to a tee, and the avaricious, careerist, selfish people who live there. The narrative voice is mostly engaging, although there is a tendency towards cod-philosophy that outstays its welcome. But this is more than compensated by the creepiness. Consent is not the only stalkery book on the market, but it is definitely one of the best. ****0
  9. What the Light Reveals

    It’s a little known fact that during the Communist era, a small cohort of western migrants lived in the USSR. Not all were former spies; some were trade unionists and socialist activists who believed in the project and felt alienated in their homelands. And, of course, their families… What the Light Reveals tells the story of one such family. It is the 1950s. Conrad Murphy is an Australian socialist whose name features in a Soviet document that was passed to ASIO by a Soviet double agent. He is then summoned to give evidence to the Inquiry into Soviet Espionage, at which point his life in Australia starts to unravel. He becomes practically unemployable and depends on family for handouts. His wife Ruby wants to support the family but with two young children it is not easy. The USSR offers hope for a better future. Then the narrative switches to the early 1970s. Conrad, Ruby and the two boys are living in an apartment in Moscow. It is better than many in Moscow, but it’s not great. Conrad has a car, offered as both a freedom and a means of keeping track of him. Culturally, Conrad and Ruby are misfits – they are not trusted as Russians, and not granted the freedoms of foreigners. They are free to leave whenever they want, indeed they believe that if things go wrong they would be deported rather than prosecuted, but they have become disconnected from any life outside Russia. Conrad puts a brave face on things, but Ruby hankers after Melbourne. The boys, meanwhile, are almost completely Russian in their mannerisms, even if their names and heritage keep them apart from their classmates. This is brought into particular relief when Alex meets Sinead, an Irish student at the State University who is allowed the real freedoms of the foreigner. The story, slowly unfolding, is tragic. The Murphys are caught in a limbo along with a handful of other western ex-pats – unsure whether to live a lie and pretend that everything is for the best, or whether to cut and run. And then family secrets and Conrad’s poor health combine to bring matters to a head. The writing is fantastic. The evocation of the Soviet Union as a place to live, a place where people worked, studied, lived and loved is spot on. This is not a land of snow and spies, it is not a place where people are afraid to grumble. Rather, it is a place of bureaucracies and petty resentments; informants serving more as irritants than sources of terror. Although, when needed, the terror is capable of rising from the mundanity of everyday life. What the Light Reveals is a story of wasted life, trust and mistrust, belonging and not-belonging. There are clever parallels between the Murphys’ relationship with Russia and the relationships within their own family and their tiny circle of friends and comrades. There is the tawdriness of the loyalty to ideals, embodied in a worthless badge presented to Conrad as a hero worker for his services to translating engineering manuals. The Moscow adventure has brought Conrad and Ruby absolutely nothing, and at huge human cost. The ending, the return to Melbourne, brings sunshine and relief – the smell of barbecues and the sound of the waves lapping the bay-beach at St Kilda. The past 15 years represent an aberration, a period of statis where the world developed but the Murphys merely aged. This is a terrific novel; the perfect length and with a perfect pace. The characters are real and flawed; the world is three dimensional; the contrasts are evoked with brilliance. It’s not so much the story – it has only one major shock – it is the way it is told that makes this such an outstanding work of fiction. *****
  10. Reservoir 13

    If you loved this then please read The Reservoir Tapes too.
  11. Wanting

    It's amazing how many books we read that we remember nothing about. But also amazing how many vignettes we remember clearly from books we think we don't remember at all
  12. Are audio books the same as reading print?

    Listening to an audiobook is not the same as reading it because it uses a different part of the brain - but that does not mean either approach is better or inferior. What to include on a list of read texts is a personal choice. Anyone who tells people they have read 207 books in a year is probably more deserving of pity than admiration, even if some of them have been listened to.
  13. Claudia

    Claudia is a strange book – and one that rather self-consciously sets out to be strange. The novel opens with a pacy section with a contract killer, set in some dystopian future. Then we plunge back into the present day with Claudia Tarkand (irritatingly referred to as Dia), a fairly ordinary office worker in Manchester introducing us to her dull daily routine. Despite her humdrum existence, it seems that Claudia was brought up in some kind of hippy commune and knew Samson Glaze, a wealthy businessman. So when Samson turns up out of the blue, asking Claudia to help rescue his son Reggie from some anarchist outfit called The Ranters – and as Claudia’s personal life starts to unravel – she decides to get involved. Some scenes in the book are excellent – especially those set in Claudia’s office and those set in the anarchists’ lair. They paint a wry picture of people playing a role – the spineless manager, the guileless co-worker, the anarchists discussing the merits of living with various previous protest groups. But there are other sections that work less well. In particular, the opening sections are slow, the final third of the novel is a bewildering mess of conspiracies and counter-conspiracies, and the interleaving future world sections hinder rather than help. The characters, too, never feel real. It is as though they are marionettes, being made to dance for the reader but not having a life beyond the pages of the novel. So overall, it is difficult to describe exactly what the novel is. Is it an apocalyptic disaster novel? Is it a quirky oddball novel? Is it a thriller? Is it a comedy? Is it a parody? The reader is really not clear about this – and that’s not a good thing. The momentum takes time to pick up, and then when it is lost as the “action” ramps up, it never picks up again. Rather than being involved in the story, the reader is left outside looking in. Three stars? Maybe that’s on the generous side, but there are moments in the middle that are fun. ***00
  14. Exhibit Alexandra is a suspense-mystery. Alex Southwood is a junior academic, based in York, happily married to Marc and mother of two children. One day she leaves home but never returns. This is the story she narrates from captivity somewhere, imagining how her family would have dealt with the aftermath of her disappearance. Alex imagines the initial missing person report; the growing replacement of hope with grief; the police suspicions. Alex imagines Marc finding letters from Amelia Haldt, an American performance artist to whom Alex had been close. These, stored away with Alex’s passport offering the only clue to a life outside the family unit. Gradually, with the passage of time, Alex imagines Marc becoming less and less sure that their marriage had been built on strong foundations, but nevertheless determined to discover the truth. There are signs early on that all might not be quite right. Alex claims to have heard the recordings of the police interviews with Marc. How could that be? How would her captor have obtained those recordings? Why would her captor keep her for so long without any obvious motive? Slowly – oh so slowly – the story unfolds. As it does, the lines between Alex’s imaginings and Marc’s reality start to blur. Timelines get more jumbled, and actual narrative is replaced by interminable philosophising. This rather lets the tension unwind and ruins the pacing. The tension, after all, in in Marc’s quest for the truth. Amelia and her artistic endeavours are an unwelcome distraction. The ending is unsatisfactory and probably undermines the internal logic of everything that has come before. And the end of the ending is maddeningly improbable. Overall, this felt like a promising premise, some initially interesting characterisation and unfolding of emotion. But by the halfway point it has already begun to drag, and the second half was a bit of a struggle. The characters seemed to lose their third dimension and become just line drawings. Maybe that was the point. It really didn’t work for me, but I guess others will enjoy its quirkiness. ***00
  15. Sight

    “Nothing that’s forced can ever be right. If it doesn’t come naturally, leave it.” So said Al Stewart in 1976. Forty-two years later, this is a message that still resonates. Sight is a text that is undoubtedly clever. Our narrator, a young pregnant and oh-so-artistically nameless woman considers the female generations of her family. In the first of three parts, she considers her mother who has passed away some time ago. This is interwoven with the story of Wilhelm Röntgen, the discoverer of x-rays. Then we consider the grandmother, a psychoanalyst known universally as Doctor K. This is juxtaposed with the story of Sigmund Freud and his family. Finally, we consider our narrator’s unborn daughter, told alongside the story of John Hunter, a pioneer of modern surgery. The compartmentalising of the story into three sections, each with its medical counterpoint, feels heavily contrived. The counterpoint stories add little; they are not told in enough depth to be interesting, they just seem to add padding. But in truth, the main story itself is not much of a story. Mostly it is philosophising on the nature of love and life. By the time we get to the ultra-sounds in Part 3 we feel we have already been navel-gazing for quite a while. The language is convoluted and when the reader unpicks the complexity to expose the meaning, there isn’t always very much to find. Sight is an interesting compare/contrast with David Park’s Travelling in a Strange Land, also a meditation on life, familial generations and grief; also essentially an interior monologue; but done without the padding, contrived parallel stories, or cod-philosophy. Basically, David Park writes with more power using simple, clear language. That’s why I would refer Jessie Greengrass back to the sage advice of Al Stewart. **000