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MisterHobgoblin

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About MisterHobgoblin

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    many cultures : one world
  • Birthday May 29

core_pfieldgroups_99

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    Melbourne
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    Calliope introduced me

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    Melbourne
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  1. I have previously (twice - about a month ago) written a thought-through review for My Dark Vanessa, only for it to evaporate into the ether. This one, then, will be shorter. This is an intelligent novel exploring the concept of a student-teacher relationship. It would be easy, as many novels have done, to create a lily-white young victim and a monstrous predator. And to an extent, that is what Vanessa and Mr Strane are, even though neither sees the relationship quite that way. There are multiple time lines, one with Vanessa at school as her relationship with Mr Strane takes off. Then she is at college, and now, several years later, she approaches middle age as some of Mr Starne's former students feel he deserves to be exposed. The thing here is that Vanessa was certainly a consenting partner - and there are suggestions she might even have initiated the relationship. And it seems that Vanessa was starting a pattern, having a relationship with another tutor who, ironically, seems to be a friend of Mr Strane. Vanessa does not see herself as a victim and is appalled at the idea of joining some kind of class action against her former (and perhaps continuing) lover. Strane, on the other hand, is a very disturbing creation. He plays power games. He asks Vanessa to role play a father-daughter scenario. He is always Mr Strane; there is never even the slightest hint of equality. And he maintains contact, and maintains this domineering contact even as Vanessa is an adult. As the journalists circle, looking for blood, Vanessa and Mr Strane send each other text messages. My Dark Vanessa is a creepy and unsettling read that makes one question some aspects of the Me Too movement and, most of all, question how we should respond to a victim who refuses to see herself as such. ****0
  2. Blue Ticket is a dystopian story, probably set in a near future, where women's fertility is controlled by the state. Young women are subjected to a lottery where the majority are allocated a blue ticket - they will not have children and will wear a mirena IUD to make them infertile. A few receive a white ticket and a life of motherhood awaits. The blue ticket girls are told they are the lucky ones, free to have fun, free from responsibilities, free to pursue a career. Calla receives a blue ticket and keeps it in a locket around her neck - as the law requires. But after a few years of freedom, she starts to yearn for a child. On the one level, this is a story of a young woman who tries to escape over the border to a land of choice. It's a game of cat and mouse as the authorities try to close in on her. She meets others along the way who also fail to fit neatly in their pre-ordained roles. She makes friendships and encounters betrayals. It's a British Handmaid's Tale. On a deeper level, it makes us feel the injustice of this forced choice when so many women in our own society face a choice between a career or motherhood - and some have that choice forced upon them through biology to bad luck. We see that people's attitudes changeover time; what may seem like the right choice at one point of life may no longer look like the right choice at another. And then there is the nature of choice - having one thing and losing another. For some people, there is no right choice - they want both mutually exclusive options. There are some plot imponderables. Why would the state choose to control fertility in this way? Why would the state stop women emigrating? How does the population remain stable when most women are allowed blue tickets? Then there's the question of men. How can all the men seem to have access to relationships with white ticket women when there are so few to go around? But I guess these are relatively unimportant practicalities when the primary purpose is surely to make the reader dwell on matters of choice and destiny. Blue Ticket does handle that well. Moreover, there is enough character development for the reader t0 care about Calla and her fate. Blue Ticket is a short novel, not perfect and not as unique as I suspect it tries to be. But it is a worthwhile and enjoyable addition to the feminist canon. ****0
  3. I am experiencing my first ever audiobook right now. I am enjoying the experience although I found the pace rather slow. I have gradually increased the speed up to x2.0. This is much faster than I could read silently and I feel as though I can take more in than when I read for myself (but maybe that's just because of the novelty). Does anyone else turn the speed setting up?
  4. Glenn Patterson is one of Northern Ireland's national treasures. His novels over the past thirty years have documented the social history of Belfast, both contemporary and historic, with a great deal of love. Where other writers have focused mainly on the Troubles and the Catholic part of the community, Patterson writes from a Protestant perspective and his novels have kept the Troubles firmly in the background. Serendipitously, his writing has coincided with the Peace Process, allowing him to reflect great social change across his works. Where We Are Now is about middle age. Herbie is somewhere in mid-life - perhaps in his 50s - living somewhere in East Belfast. He has been laid off from his work as a payroll manager; as his company downsized, so too did the payroll Department. His ex-wife Tanya lives down south with her new partner Martin. He fills his time walking to the Public Records Office in the Titanic Quarter and offering research services to the visitors looking to recreate their family histories. His speciality is the records of public applotments. In between researches he drinks coffee in Sam's cafe and shops in Lidl. Herbie is lonely. He drifts into other people's conversations, lives on the edge of other people's lives. He used to ave more going on in his life; he remembers former times living in Mount Oriel when he and Tanya socialised a bit, did things. They had an identity. But now, in reduced circumstances, a visit from his daughter Beth forces Herbie to see his life now for what it is. This is, of course, a metaphor for where Belfast sits now. Trading on a recent history of being edgy, dangerous, Belfast now welcomes cruise ships, ferries its visitors around in tour buses to take selfies in front of murals. The paramilitaries no longer go on military manoeuvres but still stand over local businesses demanding protection money and free pizzas. They are hard men turning to flab. They still blight the lives of the communities they bleed, but they no longer impress anyone. And as the Troubles fade, Northern Ireland tries to hark back to an even earlier history - the artificial creation that is the Titanic Quarter. Modern buildings set on the derelict land left when the Harland and Wolff shipyard closed, named for its most famous ship. A ship which, of course, sank on its maiden voyage. Meanwhile, in the city centre there is real history that is being renovated to the point of extinction. Where We Are Now does have the signs of new beginnings. Sam and Derek - a same sex couple - seem to be accepted into the community. There are migrants coming to Belfast - although whether Brexit will let them stay remains to be seen. As the sub-post offices close they make way for new enterprises. The black taxis are making way for Uber. Even Herbie might find a way to reinvent himself. There is plenty of observational stuff - the small talk of the middle classes; the sparsely attended local football game (I presume Glentoran); the airport and its connections to the disappointing public transport network; the topography of East Belfast (although I could never quite work out where Herbie lived - perhaps Ballyhackamore); the migration of businesses to the petrol station. The characters also feel real, even though most of them wander in and out of the pages without ever setting the story alight. They are bit part players in the bigger story of a city that is having a mid-life crisis. So this isn't particularly a plot led story; it isn't exciting or shocking. It is more a chapter in Glenn Patterson's life work that suggests a turning point. Let's see where it goes next. *****
  5. I've come to this quite late, but better late than never. Boy Swallows Universe is a heavily stylised bildungsroman set in Brisbane in the 1980s - by all accounts quite a sketchy place run by sketchy people. Eli Bell, our hero, has a life that is sketchy with the colour turned full on. He lives with his silent brother August in a house that was home made, room by room, with an depressive mother and a heroin dealing stepfather; his absent biological father is an alcoholic; his only friend is an elderly convicted murderer; and he aspires to work for Bich Dang and her drug cartel. Each chapter is written - and titled - with a sensationalist three word newspaper headline. Each chapter is a mini-story but they come together to form a narrative arc. Mostly this is Eli staying "one step ahead of the shoe-shine; two steps away from the county line" as Simon and Garfunkel put it. The various adventures are lurid, cartoonish. But despite the schlock-horror, there is always the sense that there's a real story at its heart, with likeable boys who are doing whatever it takes to survive in a world that would eat them for breakfast. There are gangsters, jails, social workers, a prosthetic limb factory and a host of other pitfalls just waiting for them, but we know Eli will win the day. For much of the novel, the reader wonders how on Earth this can be brought to a resolution. The situations get more and more absurd, and it seems to be impossible for all the ends to be tied up. But they do get tied up with a pretty bow at the end. And it is so very Australian. From the slang to the mannerisms to the locations. It's all about Indooroopilly, Darra and Boggo Road. It's about the stress of trying to seem casual while worrying that everyone else is trying to screw you (Australia is seriously the most uptight place I can think of). And it's about the truly abysmal standard of journalism we have to ensure. Boy Swallows Universe is a rollercoaster of a novel, but as if by magic, it stays firmly on the tracks. *****
  6. Paddy is a middle class man who has accepted a short term job driving an articulated lorry on a run from Northern England to France. This is supposed to take a week, there and back. Paddy has his daughter Kitty for company, unknown to Carl who is running the operation. This is one of those novels where everything seems to be deliberately opaque. It's not clear what the lorry run is all about. Why has Paddy decided to do it? Why was he even asked? Why is his daughter with him? Who is Carl and why is he shadowing the journey? The novel is divided into interleaving sections. One is the truck journey; dialogue between Paddy and Kitty; trucker cafes; and introspection. Sentences are left hanging, there are text messages from A, we slip from dialogue into introspection with little signposting. And the second thread is about Paddy's former partner - or is it his daughter - and her relationships with unsympathetic men. In a further attempt to obfuscate, characters share names. And there seems to be a lot of dying. It becomes apparent reasonably early on that something is not right, but for most of the novel it isn't clear exactly what. Timelines blur, stories slip into one another, Paddy seems to be hiding from Carl. There's something happening with the tachographs where Paddy slips from fastidious refusal to tamper with the system to not using it at all. I suspect some of this would make more sense from a re-read. But a re-read is unlikely, mostly because I found the characters unknowable - and that's not fantastic in what is perhaps a character led novel. The characters do things, and they think things, and they say things but they never seem to feel anything. Their pasts are too fragmentary to build into a clear picture of who they are and what drives them as people. Their actions don't seem to have clear motivations. Perhaps in the final pages it is possible to make some inferences and that is what redeems this in part, but for a short book this feels very long. ***00
  7. It might still be - I'm just one opinion. See what others think...
  8. Sisters is a difficult book to review because there is a massive potential spoiler that must be avoided; and without referencing it, the review is really not getting to the point. But being obliged to post a review in exchange for early access to the title, needs must. July and September are sisters and the novel concerns a move from comfortable Oxford to the Settle House in an undisclosed northern location, probably somewhere near Whitby. Most of the novel is narrated by July, the slightly younger of the sisters (if you assume they were named for their birth month, this could place them only ten months apart and in the same UK school year). They are close (at lease according to July) almost to the point of telekinesis. At times, July feels as though they are the same person. Yet September seems to have an unhealthy and dangerous controlling influence over July. They are both somewhat emotionally stunted, turning to one another for company and friendship rather than building links with their fellow school students and this is not to their advantage. They are described as being very young for their age. Then there is Sheela, the mother. Sheela narrates a couple of small sections. She is a writer although she hides this talent well in her sections. She is an emotional wreck. Her life in Oxford has been uprooted; the sisters have driven her to making a bolt for the Settle House. This is one of those novels that Has a gentle and straightforward first half and then things go weird. And, as I often do, I think the straightforward section was more successful. It created some beautiful characters, a quietly unsettling scene and hints of darkness. Then when the weirdness starts, the lucidity evaporates and events are referenced in obviously and deliberately opaque terms. It really feels like a cop out. Writers from past times - Sheridan Le Fanu, for example - had no difficulty in creating strangeness while remaining quite lucid. Sarah Waters manages it in modern times. The strangeness should come from the ideas rather than the language. And Daisy Johnston was managing it perfectly well in the first half. Sisters is a short novel but the second half (from Sheela’s first narrative onwards) feels painfully long. ***00
  9. Nia is a young Welsh woman who has dropped out of Oxford and is working in Vesuvio, a cheap Italian restaurant in London. She is of mixed Welsh and Indian heritage, but she is firmly a UK national. Shan, working in the same restaurant, is Tamil and having his application for residency processed. He is not allowed to work. He dreams of bringing his family over from Sri Lanka. Most of Nia and Shan’s co-workers are undocumented or illegal workers, always keeping one ear open for an Immigration Service raid. The linchpin for the story is Tuli, the owner of Vesuvio. Tuli is a curious character. He loans money and pays debts; he facilitates people trafficking; he employs illegal workers. He could be seen to exploit desperate people, but equally, he is able to persuade himself and others that he is some kind of saviour figure rescuing those in the time of greatest need. It’s never clear to the reader which side of the divide he falls, or even whether there really is a divide. Is that a metaphor for all of us - liking to do good but essentially looking after ourselves? The structure of the novel can seem a bit clunky. Nia and Shan narrate separate sections, and for much of the beginning their stories don’t really intersect - so a dual storyline. Then when they do converge, the chopping from one perspective to the other makes the novel feel a bit blocky when it might have been smother to be able to keep popping back and forth in paragraphs. There is also a fairly significant plot issue where Shan is required to be unable to seek treatment from the health service. But, having applied for residence, he surely would have had access to proper healthcare... Nevertheless, the story is engaging and Nia, as a terminal underachiever, is an engaging character. I have met Nias. Shan is harder to know. Although there is a bit of backstory, it doesn’t quite define Shan as a person, more as a refugee. I suspect that like Nia, Shan was supposed to come across as a man with way more potential than he could use in a pizza joint, and that we could compare the different journeys that had brought them to this pass. Shan’s route being one of ambition and a desire to improve his situation; Nia’s as one of running away from opportunity. You People does have plenty to think about, not least in considering the scale of investment that families are prepared to make for a journey of illegal migration and what seems to be a precarious and impoverished existence. But I think there is a deeper story to be told in terms of how people like Tuli reconcile their morals with their deeds. ****0
  10. The quirky female narrator in a Northern Ireland novel is not a new thing but it’s often an enjoyable thing. Big Girl is Majella O’Neill, an underachieving young woman of stout proportions who is squandering her considerable academic potential by working six nights a week in her local chip shop. The small town is Aghybogey, a thinly disguised version of Castlederg in County Tyrone. So Majella keeps a list of all the things she doesn’t like, including sub-categories. She also keeps a much shorter list of things she does like, many of which are related to food. She uses these lists to narrate the story of a week following the murder of her grandmother. Given that her father has disappeared ten years ago, Uncle Bobby died while priming a bomb 16 years ago, and her mother is a non-functioning alcoholic, this presents Majella with an opportunity to become an adult and master of her own destiny. Or she could just keep working for the Hunters in the fish shop. In truth, not much happens during the week; and what does happen is glossed over by Majella as she focuses her thoughts on the foibles of the chip shop regulars, hating alcohol (because of what it is doing to her mother and her home life) and looking for bedding. She drinks a bit, has sex a bit, and eats fish suppers. The charm is in her cynical, comical way of looking at the world, mixed with tragedy that she resolutely refuses to take her place in the real world, instead just hiding behind routines and tics. This is a really good evocation of small town Ulster, told in a local vernacular that will bring a smile to those who know it and frustrate them those who don’t. The self-segregation of the two halves of the community (the Protestants would only dare come to A Salt and Battered in daylight, even though it serves better chips than the Protestant chip shop); the relatives away across the water; the stories of what you did in the war... If there’s something that sets this apart from similar semi-comic Northern Ireland novels it would be the rural setting west of the Bann allowing for ludicrous ideas like the poshy-woshy Omagh accent and thinking of Strabane as urban. I just wish Michelle Gallen had done something a bit more with Majella. The story is mostly back-story. The story of the dead grandmother, although acting as a McGuffin, never really takes off and I’m not sure there’s any real character development. This means that some of the repetitiveness of Majella’s life does seep into the text. There are only so many ways of ordering a fish supper or having banter with your work colleague as you put the chips in the fryer. So four stars rather than five. Oh, and I read an advance copy. I do hope the final version is more consistent in the name of Johann-Pol, or Johann-Paul, or Yawn-Pawl, or Yawn-Paul... ****0
  11. Three Apples Fell from the Sky is a really strange novel. Written in Russian by an Armenian writer, the novel tells the story of Maran, a village in the Armenian mountains suffering from famine, drought, locusts and a hint of war in the East. The villagers live simple lives, farming the land, taking honey from the bees, living in ancient stone houses with the only connection to the outside world being a donkey track through the mountains to the valley below. The time setting is never revealed, but the occasional reference to food expiry dates, baby formula, Caesarian sections and the like give it quite a recent setting - perhaps the 1990s with the war referencing Azerbaijan and the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. But most of this feels as though it could have been a hundred years ago or more. In broad terms, Three Apples tells the story of Anatolia, a woman who is lying on her bed, bleeding to death and calmly awaiting her fate. The story then pans out backwards and forwards in time (often with very little signposting) as we see the world around Anatolia. The short novel includes a plentiful cast and their relevance and inter-relationships is not always obvious. There is some light and humour in Anatolia’s relationship with Vasily, the blacksmith, but it is bucking the trend in what is a fairly bleak tale of the demise of the village, slowly withering in the absence of a younger generation. The style of the narrative is journalistic; facts are presented with little background or commentary. It reads like a folk tale. After a while, I’m afraid, this can be quite disengaging. There’s a view of people travelling back and forth, intoning statements in grave tones but without the reader fully appreciating the significance of what is happening. The setting does ring true; the lives feel real; but it just never adds up into anything that really captures the reader’s imagination. ***00
  12. This one did come close to being a DNF. Even at 90% complete, I wondered whether it really warranted another 20 minutes of my life.
  13. Strange Hotel is Eimear McBride's third novel. I loved A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, written in an unusual and accomplished stream of consciousness technique. The Lesser Bohemians was a lesser novel, still applying the stream of consciousness technique but feeling rather more knowing. Strange Hotel simply doesn't work for me. Strange Hotel follows an unnamed woman staying one (maybe more) nights in hotel rooms around the world. She seems to have no purpose, no job and very little in the way of a past. Maybe she defines herself by a former relationship that she tries to avoid thinking about. But there's not much to latch onto. And she witters to herself while the novel - mostly written in third person - tries to carry off this interior monologue. This is often about men she has slept with in these hotel visits, sometimes not. There is no plot, no discernible character development, no resolution. Most of the narrative is deliberately opaque to the point that it might as well be rhubarb rhubarb. And in terms of interior monologue - nobody thinks or speaks that way. It isn't convincing. The novel is short enough that I kept reading to the end to see whether it would all come together. In some ways the pattern became clearer, but there was no rhyme nor reason why the pattern was being followed. There was no moment of reveal, and no particular sense of understanding to be had. Basically, it seemed to be a novel about a woman wasting her time and ours. *0000
  14. Strange Hotel is Eimear McBride's third novel. I loved A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, written in an unusual and accomplished stream of consciousness technique. The Lesser Bohemians was a lesser novel, still applying the stream of consciousness technique but feeling rather more knowing. Strange Hotel simply doesn't work for me. Strange Hotel follows an unnamed woman staying one (maybe more) nights in hotel rooms around the world. She seems to have no purpose, no job and very little in the way of a past. Maybe she defines herself by a former relationship that she tries to avoid thinking about. But there's not much to latch onto. And she witters to herself while the novel - mostly written in third person - tries to carry off this interior monologue. This is often about men she has slept with in these hotel visits, sometimes not. There is no plot, no discernible character development, no resolution. Most of the narrative is deliberately opaque to the point that it might as well be rhubarb rhubarb. And in terms of interior monologue - nobody thinks or speaks that way. It isn't convincing. The novel is short enough that I kept reading to the end to see whether it would all come together. In some ways the pattern became clearer, but there was no rhyme nor reason why the pattern was being followed. There was no moment of reveal, and no particular sense of understanding to be had. *0000
  15. The Mercies is a fictionalisation of real life events on Vardo, an island off the Northern coast of Norway. On Christmas Eve 1617, the fishing boat went down taking almost all the men of the island with it. Left to fend for themselves, the women take on the roles formerly carried out by the men, apparently with the blessing of the pastor. Some of the more pious women grumble, but some of the women positively thrive in the environment. Kirsten, a tall and muscular woman, finds trousers quite practical; Diinna, a Sami woman, sees the opportunity to stay away from the chapel and draw on the traditions of her heritage. But this way of life collides head on with authority when a dour Scots presbyterian, Absolom Cornet, is appointed to come to Vardo as the new commissioner and get the women back into line. He got the gig because of his expertise in finding and dealing with witches. And when witch-hunters come to town, they find witches. But with Absolom comes Ursa, a young woman from Tromso who had the misfortune to be in Absolom's line of sight when he was looking for a wife to accompany him to the island. Ursa has no experience of running a household - her family had servants for that - so she finds guidance in wifely skills from Maren, one of the islanders. This is a story about witch hunts, yes, but there are also themes of social class, feminism, urbanism and racism. The dual narrative lines - from both Maren and Ursa's perspective - is confusing at first (it is not completely clear that Ursa has no initial connection to Vardo - but once the storylines start to intersect it becomes a powerful device. The depiction of everyday life in 17th Century Norway is convincing; it is spartan but there are still recognisable social values - bitching about floorspace and food, petty jealousies. The land is evoked well, the weather, the hardships. And there is also love between women - not just the close friendship between Maren and Ursa, but also suggestions of sexual affection. The novel's ending is satisfying and brutal, albeit the story sort off eclipses some of the more observational work that is the real strength of The Mercies. Overall, this is a solid read - not spectacular but perfectly readable. ****0
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