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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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  1. The Keeper is a psychological thriller that tracks the circumstances of the drowning of Katie Straw, a support worker in a women’s refuge in a fictional market town in Northern England. Was it suicide or was it something more sinister? The novel cuts back and forth between two timelines: “Then” details Katie’s intense relationship with her partner Jamie; and “Now” deals with the aftermath of Katie’s death. The two timelines have very different feels. The “Then” timeline is quite conventional psychological thriller stuff. Jamie is controlling and gradually takes away Katie’s independence, killing her with kindness. There are hints of a temper which occasionally shows through in very brief outbursts but mostly sits simmering beneath the surface. Katie becomes afraid of triggering Jamie which, coupled with the stress of coping with a dying mother, affect her life choices. It is well done but rather generic. The “Now” timeline is more experimental. Two male police officers enter the women’s refuge to investigate Katie’s state of mind prior to her death. Val, the refuge manager, is appalled to have her space invaded by men and fears for the damage it will do to the residents. Val is a comical figure: pompous, militant but easily manipulated into sacrificing her vociferously held principles. The police investigation often fades into the background to allow the spotlight to turn onto the story of each of the residents. They are portrayed as a diverse group, both in terms of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds; and in terms of the nature of the abuse that has caused them to seek refuge. All, though, are portrayed as strong and empowered – which I guess might be true of the victims who have walked away from their abusers – but also as fearful of being revisited by ghosts from the past. This timeline has multiple points of view – sometimes third person, sometimes first person – and can feel as though it is making a political commentary rather than unfolding a police investigation. This rather takes away the focus of the novel and can make the middle feels a bit meandering. The ending is both a strength and a weakness. There is a twist (isn’t there always?) that is genuinely chilling and causes the reader to re-evaluate a number of past events. But it is also a little implausible and lessens the impact of some of the serious social commentary. The Keeper tries for something ambitious – to be a socially important psychological thriller. However, the two tracks don’t quite join up and it feels like a bit of a hybrid novel. It’s enjoyable enough, nevertheless, and does provoke thought about the wider context of domestic abuse and the support for its victims. ****0
  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it Willoyd. I think the reason I didn't enjoy the first coda is that it made Amma the star - more important than the other characters who were a chorus line. Plus, it seemed arbitrary as to which characters were in the coda and which were not. The strength of the book, for me, was that each of the characters was an equal star in her own narrative and the coda created a kind of hierarchy.
  3. Scarlett Thomas specialises in quirky novels with slightly eccentric characters. They are usually long, and often the ideas are stronger than the plotting. Oligarchy is different, in that it is a short novel - but it still has quirky characters and fizzy ideas. Natasha is the daughter of a Russian oligarch who seems to have only recently faced up to his parental responsibilities. So he has arranged for Natasha to come to England to go to an all girls boarding school near Hitchin. It is not a major public school and most of the girls are from families that are rich enough to give them a sense of entitlement, but not rich enough to be independent. So Natasha, supported by her wealthy Aunt Sonja in London and a black Amex card, is popular despite her hefty thighs. Because hefty thighs are not what Oligarchy is about. It is essentially a satire of eating disorders - the lengths girls will go to in avoiding calories, the exploitation of young girls, and the bizarre steps taken by the school to get the girls to eat sensibly. Oh, and some of the girls disappear. And so do some of the teachers. It doesn't sound like it should be funny, but it is. Australian readers may spot some of the tropes from Chris Lilley's "Ja'mie Private Schoolgirl". The high points are the outrageous behaviour of the girls, showing off while trying to appear collegiate, manipulating teachers. The middle points are Natasha's relationship with Aunt Sonja - a bad and hedonistic aunt who seems to have no conscience about her wealth generated in various nefarious ways. The bits that interested me least were Natasha's relationships with a couple of likely lads - including the son of her father's lawyer - and the disappearances which seemed rather under-explored. It was like a little strand of detective novel in something that really wasn't a detective novel. Oligarchy was a pleasantly quirky novel with moments of brilliance. I just wish a couple of the themes had been explored more - particularly the whole oligarchy thing - and maybe more compare and contrast to show what it was like for Natasha to be plucked from ordinary Russian society to her privileged lifestyle. Still a pretty good and quick read though - and definitely not a young adult novel despite the boarding school setting. ****0
  4. One day a cockroach decides to leave the safety of the wood panelling in the Palace of Westminster, head across the road and into 10 Downing Street. In the morning, the cockroach discovers he has become Jim Sams, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. It seems the cockroach has made this metamorphosis at a time of national crisis - the population has narrowly voted to embark on Reversalism - a crazy idea of reversing money flow - and the Government is determined to deliver this outcome despite the manifest lunacy of doing so. This is obviously a parody of Brexit, although in one scene Jim Sams considers how Revarsalism might work when adopted by only one EU member state. Presumably this scene is enough to throw Brexiteers off the scent so they won't realise they are being lampooned. This is not great literature - although it is also not bad. The main selling point is the topicality and obvious speed with which it has been thrown together and published. Some of the details - the arrival of Boris Johnson, the attempt at proroguing Parliament, the expulsion of long-standing members of the Conservative benches for opposing hard Brexit - are barely weeks old yet they play a pivotal role in this novella. What is really depressing is the plausibility of the conceit that the Government (and perhaps President 45) are really cockroaches in disguise, running the world into the ground just for their own immediate self-interest. Does Boris Johnson lie awake at night and fondly remember his missing set of legs and his exoskeleton? The Cockroach is (hopefully) a quirk, a piece of ephemera that will forever look like an oddity in the canon of a literary giant. It probably owes a big debt to Kafka, and the metaphor and the aliases are very transparent. The ending will really bug you [can you see what I did there?]. But it is as good an illustration of the madness of Brexit and the frustration at the lack of any real backbone in the opposition - especially its leader - that you'll find. It is shows how significant an issue Iain McEwan thinks it is, that he is willing to put his name and his branding to something so obviously created at speed. ****0
  5. This thread came back to life with a strange post from someone asking me to contact him on a French e-mail address. I'm not going to do that - but happy to respond to a private message on this site. But it did get me looking at more recent comment on this work. It seems the book generated a firestorm on social media, being branded racist and relying on stereotypes. This article captures the criticism pretty well: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/nov/26/a-suicide-bomber-sits-in-the-library-comic-pulled-protests-jack-gantos-dave-mckean Normally, I think I am reasonably aware of when texts that are likely to cause offence, but clearly I didn't pick this one. My instinct was to delete my positive review in case I appeared to be condoning such an apparently appalling book. But I looked again, and I think my review still stands. I did not find the text racist. Suicide bombing is a thing, and it does tend to happen in the Middle East. So if you are going to have a suicide bomber, the chances are he or she will be brown and be located in the Middle East. Had this text been set in Europe where the bomber was swayed by Western values, I might have thought this relied upon stereotypes. But he sits in a library in his own country, surrounded by people who look like him but who are literate and happy. This is not Islam turned by Christianity, it is bad turned by good. There is then a question of whether white English people can - or should - step into this world in their fiction. Do you have to be a member of the community you write about? And how much do you need to be a member of it? Jo Nesbo is Norwegian but he is not a detective and not a serial killer. People seem OK with that. Many writers portray a diverse society of which they may be a member, but they can only ever be one part of that diverse community. Again, people usually seem OK with this. But when a writer from a privileged background writes about a disadvantaged community, it is a difficult balancing act - is it OK if the disadvantaged community is portrayed in a wholly positive light? Is it problematic if [some members of] the disadvantaged community are portrayed in an unflattering light? I am European and male. I have only ever lived a privileged life so it's quite possible - probable - that I will miss some sensitivities. I will read through the lenses brought by my own background and experience. So I do accept that others have found this work offensive and I can see why. But without diminishing those perspectives, those readings, I still believe my reading was valid from my background - that this was a bit twee and naive but not offensive and not seeking to stereotype Muslims or other brown people. So that's why I am not [yet] going to delete this review, but I will give this further thought - particularly if my review itself could cause offence.
  6. There Was Still Love is a fantastic novel about a Czech family broken apart by the Second World War and the subsequent division of Europe by the Iron Curtain. Mostly set in 1980, the novel revolves around two sisters: Mana who lives in Melbourne and Eva who lives in Prague. Mana and her family are able to save up to visit Prague every three or four years, but these visits are frustratingly short and far enough apart that Mana cannot really be part of her sister's world. And Eva has an opportunity to travel to Melbourne with her theatre company, but if she doesn't return her family back home will suffer. Both families have young children - in Prague there is Ludek, a day-dreamy boy who likes to hang out with the city's statues and listen to legends. In Melbourne, there is Mala Liska - little fox on account of her red hair - who struggles to reconcile her modern Australian life with her Czech heritage. There are occasional steps back in time - to the Czech uprising in 1968; to WW2 Britain and pre-war Prague. These steps back allow the reader to piece together the nature of the relationships between the two halves of the family and to see how they came to be living on opposite sides of the world. But the final piece of the puzzle only comes into view right at the end in what readers may mistake as an optional Author's note. This short novel is devastatingly beautiful and it is difficult to pinpoint exactly why. I think it has a lot to do with the humanity of the characters - good people who made sacrifices for their loved ones and who deserved more happiness in their lives. Partly it is to do with the ordinary details of lives - the wooden sled, the gherkins, the ocarina in the shape of a little bird. Maybe it was the legends and folk tales. And maybe it was the perfection with which each little bit of the picture came into focus at just the right time. There's nothing dramatic or showy, there's no flowery writing, it is just that the novel is able to capture the heart without the text even being noticed. In amongst the personal story, there are big themes. There is hope and resignation; the passage of time and the fleetingness of a human life; the relentless erosion of one generation by the next; the gaps that are left by absent family members; migration and belonging and assimilation; homesickness; frustrated ambition... The list goes on. There Was Still Love is so full and achieves so much in so few words. It is as perfect a novel as you could hope to find. *****
  7. Well it might work for you - I read this on holiday which may not have been the optimal conditions...
  8. I suspect I am not the only reader who came to The Testaments as a result of all the publicity (including a Booker shortlisting) and who read The Handmaid's Tale for the first time as a bit of background. I would characterise the two books as The Handmaid's Tale being a book of ideas, and The Testaments as being a good story. In The Handmaid's Tale, we were introduced to a world that Margaret Atwood had created - Gilead - a Christian fundamentalist society in a near future United States, governed by a military/theocratic regime. Most of the novel seemed to be a pretext for offering the reader a guided tour of this world. Margaret Atwood's guiding principle was that she would only include rules/laws/customs that had already existed somewhere in the world. Although this may have conflated various oppressive societies, it did ground Gilead in plausibility. Whilst the novel placed women in oppressed roles that related to reproduction, there was a wider undercurrent of class structure where all members of Gileadan society - whether male or female - were placed into roles that had clear expectations and limitations with privilege being focused on the ruling class. Impressive though this was, the lack of a real narrative drive (yes, a plot) made it slow going. It read like a fictionalised misery-lit. So it was a relief to find The Testaments having a fundamentally different structure that included a plot. We have three rotating perspectives: Aunt Lydia, the tyrannical and manipulative head of Ardua Hall, a sort of finishing school for young women; Agnes, one of the young women in Ardua Hall; and Daisy, a Canadian girl observing events in Gilead from afar. There is still a bit of world building, but it is a relief to escape to the Canadian scenes. This creates perspective and human interest.. If there is a complaint, the three narrative strands can be quite hard to distinguish at first because their labelling - although overt - is still rather opaque. And also, because the characters are known by different names in different contexts it can be hard to tell exactly who is who - particularly between the young women of Ardua Hall. The story itself is one of espionage and peril; at times it is intriguing and at other times it is thrilling. There is plenty for the reader to catch hold of. The pacing seems right, the writing strikes the right balance between narrative and scene-setting, some of the imagery is fantastic. The characters feel real, which is a pretty good accomplishment given the constraints that the Gileadan society places on self-expression. The focus in The Testaments is very much on the oppression of women; this is the driver for the plot. The wider issues of class structure, social compliance and theocracy seem to have taken a back seat. There is one serious Achilles Heel in both books. They end with a coda - supposedly an academic lecture on the testaments left behind by the various Gileadans. The one in The Handmaid's Tale was so excruciating it was almost unreadable - including some comments that feminist readers did not like. The Testaments lecture references some of the readers' antipathy to the previous lecture, but it is still an irritation. Both dispel the sense of an ending that readers should have had at the end of the stories proper. And they aren't short, either. There is a sense of uneasiness that some of the plotting does rely on wild coincidences; for what must be such a large and populous nation, the same few characters seem to crop up in a variety of contexts. But if Dickens can do it, why can't Margaret Atwood? Overall, though, The Testaments is an accomplished novel that is superior to The Handmaid's Tale in many ways, but could probably not have existed without it. ****0
  9. Have you ever come across books that never seem to end and every time you pick one up, you struggle to read as many pages as the last time you picked it up. The Topeka School is one of those... Structurally, The Topeka School should be right up my alley - shifting points of view following four characters, non-linear time sequence, fragments building into a whole. The trouble was, it was all too verbose. Two of the characters were psychologists (one practising and one a famous writer) and their sections had way too much psycho-babble. Adam, their son, was (bizarrely) a champion debater, a rapper, a sportsman and popular - although his mother, at least, seemed to think he was emotionally stunted. He had his moments - when he was actually doing something - but there was way too much navel-gazing and fretting about having a controversial mother. It was dull. The main redeeming feature were the sections from Darren's perspective. Darren was a school contemporary of Adam and had some kind of intellectual disability. Adam and his mates oscillated between socialising with him out of sympathy and trying to manipulate him into being a figure of ridicule. It was ugly, but engrossing and it was obviously not going to end well (as the non-linear timeline made clear from the beginning). I think the idea was that The Topeka School should speak about the current state of Middle America (Kansas previously being famous only for not being Oz). It might have done that with more accessible characters and by not trying quite so hard to sound intellectual. This just buried any messages so far deep that the only people who will find them are the ones who don't need to hear them. **000
  10. My Kindle tells me that Ducks, Newburyport would take 38 hours to read. I gave it two hours of my life that I will never get back. In broad terms, this is stream of consciousness narration. The narrator, an American housewife, shares her every innermost thought just as they happen. This produces long lists, word association streams and the occasional sentence. Oh, and the constant and infernal tic “the fact that”. It was not convincing, it felt contrived, repetitive, boring. I am sure there is a technical skill required to sustain such a voice over so many pages but I couldn’t see the point. I suspect that underneath all the ticcing, digression and trite social observations that there will be a short story. Readers who have persevered with this and reached the end will probably perceive that story to be more profound than it really is because of the effort required to uncover it. But maybe it really is good - I’ll never know. Writers who produce long books have, in my mind, a greater obligation than other writers to justify the claim on readers’ time that their works impose. I would love to hear Lucy Ellmann’s explanation of how she ever thought this work might be worth the time it would take me to read eight shorter, less repetitive, tighter novels. *0000
  11. I came at Frankissstein with some trepidation and approached it only because of its Booker longlisting. I have always imagined Jeanette Winterson to be an agenda led writer who would not be writing for readers like me. So I was quite surprised to find two (three?) lively and playful narrative streams interweaving with one another. One was the writing of Frankenstein - a story I already knew but it seemed to be written in an approachable way. The second narrative set in the present day/near future had the manufacturer of artificially intelligent sex dolls sharing his plans for creating true AI with Ry, a transgender journalist. The possible third narrative was a metafictional strand where Mary Shelley encounters Frankenstein in the real world. On the surface level, this is all jolly japes, perhaps indicating that Frankenstein became bigger than Mary Shelley herself and developed a life of its own. The novel seemed to have a number of great and fizzy ideas that unfortunately never quite came together. But there is also a major reservation I have. I know that a number of feminist writers have an issue with transgender - they only admit fellowship to those born biologically female. In Frankissstein, there seems little need to make Ry transsexual unless it is to make some oblique parallel between creating an artificial person (Frankenstein’s monster) and creating a woman. And as such, I will acknowledge that it is a viewpoint, but not one I would care to pay to read. If this is the real point of the novel (and I fear that it is), then it undermines some entertaining prose; is anachronistic; and is also a wee bit cowardly in doing it through innuendo and thereby requiring counter-arguments to first articulate the proposition that Winterson would presumably deny she is making. Three stars for the writing, but this left a nasty aftertaste. ***00
  12. It’s a while since I read Night Boat to Tangier so some of the detail has softened. But I was left with a deep impression of two ageing Irish drug runners (Maurice and Charlie) passing the time as they wait at a ferry terminal expecting to intercept Maurice’s daughter Dilly. The beauty is in the dialogue between the two as they wait - and as we learn more about the uneasy relationship between the pair. Maurice and Charlie are big wheels back home - they trail a wake of fear behind them - but on the grand scale of things, they are medium sized fish in a small pond. They have a history of falling out and falling back in with one another, compartmentalising some pretty big betrayals. There is an air of menace throughout. It’s not clear why the men want to intercept Dilly, or even what they would do with her if they do meet, but there is as sense of significance. And, as we later see, Dilly is in no hurry to meet Maurice and Charlie. Much of the novel is dialogue, and the premise (two people waiting for a third) is reminiscent of Waiting for Godot. But the occasional introduction of other characters and the appearance of Dilly offer enough of a variation that this cannot be taken as a straight re-writing. Perhaps there’s also an element of John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction - discussing hamburgers and morality in between hits. Night Boat to Tangier was entertaining and engaging - but did feel a bit like it was treading ground that Roddy Doyle has previously stood on. It’s a light and fast read that is grounded in our present times and will bring nods of recognition, but it probably doesn’t offer quite enough to offer an insight into these times for future readers. ****0
  13. The third (final?) instalment in the Red Sparrow series is perhaps the weakest of the novels. What made the series readable was the personal chemistry between Dominika Egorova - a Russian SVR operative - and Nate Nash - a CIA operative. And specifically, it was their chemistry as they engaged in a series of field engagements in and around Europe. In The Kremlin's Candidate, Dominika has become ever more senior in the SVR and has personal access to President Putin. This means much of the narrative is pitched at a strategic level rather than in spy-ops on the streets. Frankly, it is not as interesting. Readers want to know about hairs on drawers, hidden bugs, spy dust. They don't necessarily want to know about the strategy behind supporting the PKK to destabilise the Turkish Government, thereby undermining the NATO alliance. And as Dominika has become more senior, she has left Nate behind. He is a bit part player in The Kremlin's Candidate as Dominika deals with a revolving cast of more senior CIA players. It's just not the same. There are also some bizarre continuity errors. Dominika's ability to see people's aurae, for example, starts to wobble as Nate variously has a purple and a crimson aura. We are told that Dominika has only ever seen one black aura before when we know she has seen more. The timeline also seems to be wobbly as Dominika seems to have aged whereas Nate is still on probation. And there are some things that happen quite obviously as plot devices, there is expository dialogue and the recipes at the end of chapters have become quite tiresome. Despite these failings, there is still a broadly competent story set out - if the reader can turn a blind eye to the occasional gratuitous and puerile sexual references. The pacing is as slow as in the previous texts which does offer space for scene setting. This scrapes into 3 star territory, but it is a disappointing end to a series that started off much better. ***00
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