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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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  1. 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.
  2. 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. *****
  3. Well it might work for you - I read this on holiday which may not have been the optimal conditions...
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. When you’ve written a successful book, the temptation is to write the same book again. Palace of Treason is very similar to Red Sparrow - we re-engage with Nate Nash, dashing young CIA officer, and Dominika Egorova, Russian SVR femme fatale. They continue to have ill-advised physical relations with each other and with anything else with a pulse. We know this will not end well. More baddies and moles pop up from nowhere. Some of these baddies are delightfully grotesque if somewhat caricatured. And just like in Red Sparrow, Jason Matthews has no difficulty in killing off leading characters. Dominika continues to see auras. The pace continues to be slow. There is more repetition including, perhaps necessarily, some rehearsing of events of the first novel. There is also some disconcerting jumping of timelines as points of view alter - creating some situations where the reader has already been told the outcome of an episode that is then set out in some detail. This feels clumsy. And The Palace of Treason is just as salacious as Red Sparrow. But also like Red Sparrow, the plot carries the clunky writing and expository dialogue. This is very much a sequel - it would probably feel weird if you read this one first - but if the first one floated your boat (it didn’t float everyone’s boat) then this probably will too. ****0
  11. Red Sparrow is an imperfect thriller, but nevertheless worth reading. The basic premise is that two agents embark on their careers - Nate Nash is a young CIA agent, posted to Moscow and desperate to make an impact - and Dominika Egorova, enveigled into becoming a honey-trap agent by her wicked uncle in the Russian SVR. Inevitably the two hit it off. The story is a constant flow of agents and double agents, rooting out moles and trying to use counter-espionage to double-down on double-crossing deals. It’s quite a slow moving novel which allows plenty of space for conveying the day-to-day life in modern Russia, in intelligence jobs and in embassies around the world. It also gives adequate space to ensure the complexities of the various plots and schemes are fully understood - there’s none of the last-minute breathlessness that blight so many thrillers and leave readers wondering what happened. But there are flaws too. The slow pacing does include quite a bit of repetition. Characters are re-introduced (right down to appearances) every time they pop up in another point of view. There’s also quite a degree of salaciousness. Yes, Dominika attended Sparrow School to learn how to seduce foreign agents, but there’s a fine line between authenticity and pornography. Similarly, some of the violence feels overdone. These aspects are likely to appeal to teenage male readers but may irritate other readers. And then there’s Dominika’s synaesthesia. She can see the colour of people’s auras which gives her a special insight into their mood/character. I never quite bought this - and given that people’s auras never seem to change colour, it may be a useful tool for baselining a relationship but doesn’t seem to offer much for telling how someone is behaving in a specific situation. Ah well, it’s a bit of fun. Then there are the recipes at the end of each chapter. The idea is that a food mentioned in the chapter has its recipes included in a text box before the next chapter. At first this is endearing, but after a while it feels distracting - plus there’s a suspicion that some of the foods are only mentioned in the text because of the need to have a recipe. Overall, though, the drama outweighs the negatives and the story is worth reading. I like the idea of a modern Russian secret service trying to recreate the empire of the Soviet era or, perhaps even, the czarist era. The ending manages to be both reassuringly predictable but also shocking. Good holiday reading - especially while touring through the Stans. I will persevere with the other novels in the trilogy. ****0
  12. In Royals, we meet Steven, a famous fashion designer, looking back at the formative time that he believes to have been his rite of passage from youth to adulthood; from working class to the elite. Steven is a narcissistic, whining little teenager and the fact that his father beats him does not make it any less unattractive when he constantly plays the victim card. The plot centres around Steven’s brief relationship with Jasmine, a girl he meets in hospital after his father hit him too hard. Jasmine is a rich girl with suicidal tendencies who also has father issues. Over the space of a few days, Steven and Jasmine become intimate, bust up, get back together, share baths and travel overseas. And they hatch plans for Steven’s study and career in design. Then there is an abrupt and not altogether convincing ending. The novel is set in 1981 against a backdrop of the Charles and Diana wedding and their subsequent honeymoon. I think this is supposed to be some kind of metaphor but I couldn’t see it myself. It did give Steven an opportunity to make various forelock-tugging statements to Jasmine though. Oh, and Steven spends a lot of time telling people he hasn’t decided yet whether or not he is gay. Not sure this exactly rings true for 1981 when even Marc Almond pretended to be straight. Overall Royals was a bit mixed. There we’re some great set pieces; Somme juxtapositions of lazy inherited wealth versus hungry poverty; between Steven constantly worrying what other people thought of him and Jasmine not caring. There were some nice period details. But overall, it didn’t quite cohere into a fully formed story. I never quite believed in the world that Emma Forrest had created. ***00
  13. 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. *****
  14. 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. *****
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