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About MisterHobgoblin

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    many cultures : one world
  • Birthday May 29


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    Calliope introduced me

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    Bouncing Australiana

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  1. Girl, Woman, Other is an unconventional novel in the sense that it doesn’t have a plot, doesn’t have a particularly linear timeline, and doesn’t have a single focal character. What it is, essentially, is a collection of twelve different, loosely linked character studies that combine to create a sort of picture of black heritage in Britain. The twelve narratives are grouped into four sets of three, each set has relatively tight connections with the others in that set, but the four sets are connected sometimes in tangential ways. Each narrative is fully and beautifully told, centring on a black woman but with a lively and diverse cast of supporting characters - sometimes generations of that character’s family, sometimes friends, sometimes employers or offspring. Each of the twelve characters is sufficiently different to maintain interest and avoid any blurring between them. They range, for example, from a lesbian theatre dramatist, to a city banker, to a Northumbrian farmer, to a narcissistic schoolteacher. Some of the characters are more likeable than others, some of them are happier than others. Taken together, though, they challenge a number of pre-conceptions: e.g. that black skin was not seen in Britain before the Windrush; that the black community is somehow homogenous; that black kids have lower expectations than their white counterparts. We see in great detail the complexity of the backgrounds of many Black Britons; the systematic stifling of ambition and opportunity that Black kids experience; and the power of familial expectations and the perils of wanting something different from life. Girl, Woman, Other does have a couple of codas. The first is an after party following the opening of a play by Amma, the star of the first narrative. This brings together some of the characters and offers an opportunity for some set-piece politicking. If the novel has a weak spot, this is it. The second coda is much more powerful, as one of the characters discovers her true heritage. The reader will already have worked this out, but the salient feature is more the character’s reaction than the actual fact of it. This remarkable collection of narratives is dauntingly long to start with, but after the first two or three stories it is very hard to put down. It is written in a compelling, immediate style (almost verse like with line spacing and lack of capital letters), and gives a very convincing insight into lives that the reader might never have previously noticed. This is an important work that gives a better understanding of our country, and an appreciation that the story is still being written. *****
  2. You become part of the Chain when your child is kidnapped. To get your child back, you have to pay a ransom, then identify and kidnap the next link in the Chain. Only when the next link kidnaps the link after that do you get your child back. And if your chosen link in the Chain breaks - by speaking to law enforcement or getting cold feet - you have to clean up the mess and form a new link. Even if the Chain breaks weeks or months later, you might have to get back into the field of play. Once you are in the Chain, you can never be free. This is all very implausible. But when you think it through, it just might be possible... The Chain is a hugely intelligent psychological thriller that depends upon parents’ willingness to do anything - absolutely whatever it takes - to protect their kids. So we see amateur, mum-and-dad kidnappers being manipulated into making threats, carrying them out and getting involved in very dark deeds. It is lurid and gory, but by focusing on the people and the emotions rather than the acts themselves, Adrian McKinty brings the reader along. There is no particular point where the reader says “that wouldn’t happen”. I have enjoyed McKinty’s novels before (especially the Sean Duffy series), and this one is as good or better than his previous material. I really couldn’t put this one down. *****
  3. Agreed. I remember several years ago seeing a proposal within the UK Government to make it harder to employ people without checking their immigration status and to introduce draconian penalties for those who did. The strongest argument against was from those with an economic perspective who argued that the hotel, hospitality and cleaning industries in London would have to shut down. At that time (15 or more years ago), I lived next door to a house full of Russians who I presumed didn’t have work permits. They were fabulous neighbours - polite, friendly and quiet.
  4. My Sister The Serial Killer is a lively novel set in modern, middle class Nigeria. Korede narrates the story, explaining how she has to clear up the mess left by her sister Ayoola as her relationships end in ever more gory circumstances. At first, the killings might seem plausible; Ayoola might have ended up in difficult situations that went wrong. But as the novel proceeds, the justifications become ever-more sketchy and the situations look ever-more avoidable. In between the killings, we get a picture of Korede as an over-protective, jealous sister who pretends to have reconciled herself to being the less attractive of the sisters. There are all sorts of catty, cutting comments about Ayoola and the advantages that her good looks bring her. Meanwhile, Korede is keen that we should know that anything she herself might lack in looks, she more than makes up for in guile. This is all presented against a vivid depiction of modern Lagos where education is the key to a bright future but where witchcraft bubbles along not far beneath the surface. There is a humour (much of it pretty black) running through the narrative. The key point of intrigue, though, is trying to work out whether Korede is a reliable narrator, trying to extricate Ayoola from her various misdeeds, or whether Korede is an unreliable narrator with a much more sinister gameplan. These two alternative readings seem equally valid and are never resolved... My Sister is a short, quick read that should leave most readers pretty satisfied. ****0
  5. Lanny is a young boy, growing up in an ordinary village with ordinary people - underneath which Dead Papa Toothwort, an ancient burry man, lies listening to the inane conversation above. The novel is narrated from various viewpoints: Lanny’s Mum, Lanny’s Dad, and Pete, an elderly and accomplished artist. The narratives all centre around the relationship between the narrator and Lanny, leading the reader to imagine this some kind of reminiscence about the formative years of a now great man. And interspersed, we have the bored interjections of Dead Papa Toothwort who presents individual lines of conversations one might hear down the pub (somewhat irritatingly presented in word-art form that is mightily difficult to read on a Kindle). So, for the first half of then novel, we see an emerging friendship between Lanny and Pete as the old painter tries to help Lanny to develop his own artistic skills. Lanny’s parents are happy with this as it provides free childcare, allowing them to pursue their own interests (Lanny’s Mum is a crime writer and Lanny’s Dad works long hours in London). Then, half way through, Dead Papa Toothwort decides to roll the dice and make something interesting happen in the village. This, apparently, is something he is wont to do every century or so. And Lanny disappears. Fingers point, gossip spreads. People question Pete’s motives; they question Lanny’s Mum and Dad’s parenting techniques. Kids at school who ostracised Lanny start to get remorseful... There is something bucolic about the novel. It blends folk tradition with very current withering about house prices and commuting. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Reservoir 13/The Reservoir Tapes in that although Lanny is the glue that binds the story together, it is more of an observational drama about village life and personal interests. Lanny is stunningly well told; the lines drip from the page and the reader is left wanting more. The ending is almost satisfying. Booker longlisted. Surely a shoo in for the shortlist (or more?) *****
  6. I have been a fan of John Lanchester for a number of years and The Wall is every bit as good as his previous works. Ostensibly set in a future world where sea levels have risen to catastrophic levels, the Wall is in fact a wry commentary on present days right wing politics around the world and fear of immigration. Kavanagh is a young man embarking on his two years of national service patrolling the Wall - a high concrete structure built around the British coastline to keep the sea - and The Others - away. Kavanagh is a typical late teen in dreaming of completing his service and working his way up into the elite. Just so long as he can complete his national service without mishap, either being killed in action against invading parties of Others or, even worse, being put to sea to balance out an Other who might have made it across the Wall. We see, through Kavanagh’s uncritical eyes, that not only does there seem to be plenty of space and resource in Britain, but there is even a problem with low birth rates. Despite this, the drawbridge has well and truly been pulled up because “Britain is Full”. Those Others who do make it in are only allowed to work as Help (essentially servants) in a Gastarbeiter role. Despite their apparently necessary work, they will never become full citizens. As the novel develops, Kavanagh has an opportunity to travel and see different perspectives; he is able to see the adulation given to the Defenders by ordinary citizens who imagine some kind of noble selflessness among the conscripted men and women; he sees the life of comfort of the older generation who created the system; and ultimately he sees the other side of the Wall. As a novel, the Wall is pacy and readable - if perhaps the non-Kavanagh characters are a little under-developed. But as a satire, it is powerful. It exposes the economic and moral lack of justification for the current fashion for isolationism. Yes, that means Brexit, it means Stop The Boats, it means Love it or Leave, it means the current predilection with finding the enemies within and stripping them of their citizenship. The Wall is a very necessary novel for our times that will pose (and leave unanswered) many questions about loyalty, identity, patriotism and xenophobia. And it is absolutely not about climate change. *****
  7. I think The Dry is a good illustration that a blockbuster book doesn't habe to be the best book anyone had read, it just has to be good enough and appeal to a lot of people.
  8. Amy Whey hosts a book group at her house on behalf of her friend Char, who founded the group and gets to pick each month’s very safe title. But one month, a rather extroverted visitor shows up - she’s staying at the Airbnb and nobody seems to know who invited her. And when the uninvited guest - Roux - starts to offer Amy’s wine around and proposes a drinking game of Never Have I Ever, Amy and Char realise that they are no longer in control. Some of the participants readily give up their secrets, but Amy has a secret she is determined to keep. Over the next few days (weeks?) Amy and Roux play a twisty game of cat and mouse. Never Have I Ever is a long book - and there are parts that do feel like repetition - and it gets off to quite a slow start. The initial book group meeting (shades of the Great Gatsby’s cocktail party but for yummy mummies) introduces many characters and it’s difficult to keep a handle on who is who. For the first 10%, the story is slow and confusing - threatening to become a bed-hopping saga. But when the main narrative line - the Amy/Roux line - starts to emerge, the story settles down. The intensity builds and by the halfway point - when strange things start to happen - it is impossible to put the book down. Amy is particularly well drawn - complex with multiple hidden dimensions. Most strikingly, despite her battle with Roux, she seems terribly concerned about what Roux might think of her., In fact, much of Amy’s predicament stems from her anxiety over how she will be perceived by her friends, her family and even her enemies. Amy used to be large and lost weight - and maintained the weight loss - through restricting her daily calorie intake to 500 coupled with bulimic tendencies. So Amy’s whole life seems to be about suffering for the sake of maintaining her appearance. The other characters feel less fully rounded and Roux does verge on improbability,. Perhaps an exception would be made for Tig, a character who appears quite briefly but is both memorable and sophisticated. Overall, Never Have I Ever is an enjoyable psychological intrigue, probably aimed at women rather than men (although this man enjoyed it too). It’s not going to win literary awards, but it would make a great holiday read. ****0
  9. Older Brother is an interesting study of what it is to be a Muslim in modern day France. The two brothers have Syrian heritage but moved to France many years before the current Syrian conflict. Their father is an atheist communist, and they have French Breton ancestry on their mother's side. So in fact, the two brothers are only Muslim through people's assumptions rather than their own upbringing. However, this is enough to create a distance between them and their French neighbours. The older brother drives for Uber. His father has invested his pension fund into an official taxi licence and has to sit watching helplessly as the Uber wave washes away the value of the official licences. The younger brother is a trained nurse who has volunteered with a shadowy NGO to offer healthcare to embattled Muslim populations around the world. Perhaps he is in Syria. The story foll0ws the brothers as they reunite in Paris - the younger brother having fled from Raqqa after finding the Islamic dream was really a nightmare. But France does not welcome returning jihadists, suspecting that many are sleeper agents pursuing a suicide-terror agenda. The novel explores themes of conflicted loyalties - the loyalty to a brother or to a state; loyalty to a heritage or to a future. There are questions of trust; how far can you trust someone when their story keeps changing? Is this someone gradually coming clean or someone further obfuscating? And as older brother is expected to side with the state and the law, he finds that the state and the law do not reciprocate. The story is compelling and complex. The pacing, however, starts off quite slowly. There are parts of the older brother's voice that feel quite clunky and it isn't clear whether this is supposed to reflect a narrator who is not completely comfortable speaking French or whether it is a sign of poor translation from French to English. Overall, though, these are minor considerations in a novel that is readable, suspenseful and addresses important and current social issues. ****0
  10. The Lost Children Archive is not quite what the blurb would lead you to expect. I had imagined a road novel featuring twin road trips - a middle class family heading south to the Mexican border and refugee children heading north away from the border. I imagined a compare and contrast with the two narratives intersecting. But this was not what I got. Instead there was a single narrative of the middle class family, narrating mostly through philosophy and editorial. This might have worked in an essay but it doesn't make a novel., The plot is an afterthought - there are built in quirks like boxes full of books (which turns out to be a bibliography of texts used to inform the Lost Children Archive), various polaroid photographs, and excerpts from a text on migrants. The father is chasing the ghosts of Geronimo and the Apaches, the mother is trying to sound record the plight of unseen illegal migrants. The children - boy and girl - mostly provide a useful audience for the parents' narration. There are occasional glimpses of life along the way - rednecks running grocery stores and filling stations, motels and railway lines - but mostly it is page after page of political observation. Oh, and the parents are going to separate and the kids run away. Not sure why - you'd think the huge volume of words might have found space for this kind of explanation. **000
  11. Like Hazel, I regret reading books that are absolute crap. But one I regret for other reasons id Ripley Bogle by Robert McLiam Wilson. Turn away if you are worried about spoilers. It was a really awesome, memorable book about a man who had gone from Cambridge undergraduate to being homeless on the streets. Right at the end, Ripley Bogle told the reader that everything he had narrated to us was a pack of lies. I read this very early in my adult reading life so I was not familiar with the unreliable narrator device - but even so, this seemed to be a very sudden flip that did not make you reassess the previous narrative so much as make you have to throw it away. I felt completely cheated.
  12. I started Catch 22 some 20 years ago - borrowed a copy from my gf and when she became my ex-gf I stopped reading it but never returned it . I had also found that it had very funny moments interspersed by very long patches of padding. Incidentally, Joseph Heller reported that may people approached him in later life and said that he'd never written a book as good as Catch 22 - and his standard reply was "not many people have".
  13. The Nickel Academy is fictitious (I think) story of Elwood Curtis, a young black boy in Florida who finds himself sent to a reform school that is based on the factual Arthur C Dozier School For Boys. The opening scenes, set in the present day, have some archaeologists excavating human remains on the site of the recently closed Nickel Academy. These remains are not in the well-populated official graveyard and people begin to wonder what horrors led to these unofficial graves. Then we head off to the 1960s, where most of the novel is set. Elwood is an optimistic boy - perhaps too trusting - but hard working and determined to create a better life for himself. And Elwood faces opposition from a racist system in a racist state. He is not allowed the same opportunities that white boys have; he has to see the adverts for the funfair but cannot go in. And what opportunities he has can be taken away by a capricious establishment. So Elwood lands up in the Nickel Academy, hopeful that he will be able to make the most of an adverse situation. He is determined to keep his head down, study hard and return to society a stronger, wiser person. Except there is no studying to be done. The work is menial, and even in [almost] jail, the black boys get less opportunity than the white boys. Colson Whitehead could have opted for labouring on the brutality of the school; the sadism of the guards and the corruption that denies the boys the comforts that they should be receiving. He could have made this salacious. Instead, by focusing on Elwood, Turner and the others, he humanises the boys. This makes the abuse much more salient, even when it lurks in the background. It confronts the subliminal societal attitude that black boys suffer less from imprisonment; that they don't have ambition, friends or family to lose. There are forays into the present day where time at the Nickel Academy has retreated into the last, but left a legacy of hunger to succeed and prove the system wrong. It creates fighters - and sometimes the fight can be put to good use. The Nickel Boys is very well written - a great sense of place and the scenes feel real - but also very well constructed. It is not a long book but it packs a lot in. It conveys the monotony and repetition of the reform school without ever being monotonous or repetitious in itself. It is a lively, sometimes funny read - but with heartbreak around every corner. It is a novel that has a lot of death, but so much life. This is what a criminal justice/civil rights novel should be - no twee endings where everything comes right thanks to some divine intervention or piece of outrageous luck. Shit happens. The story is how society must never forget the shit, must know and respect those who suffered through it; and expect to make restitution. *****
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