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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. Jai is nine years old. He lives in a slum in the shadow of high rise (hi fi) apartments in an unnamed Indian city. He goes to school; his family has food on the table; he is addicted to crime documentaries on TV. He is on the cusp of leaving childhood as he has an emergent adult awareness of the perils and opportunities around him. So when an unloved classmate goes missing, Jai rounds up a posse of friends and embarks on detective work to try to trace him. Gradually more children disappear, but still the police aren't interested - what are poor lives worth anyway? Jai is mostly used as a witness to report on life in the slums. He provides a lens through which to see the emergent middle class and the way they suck the oxygen away from those still living in poverty. He shows the slums as a world with its own commerce, its own rules - one that defines its identity from the purple metro line on which its residents cannot afford to travel. People in the slums still have ambitions and aspirations of one day joining these middle classes. And needless to say, Jai is not a great detective. This is not The Red Hand Gang or Scooby Doo. Kids with no money and no influence do not unmask villains through finding clues. But their dogged determination can eventually stir the authorities from their torpor. Purple Line is a very bleak novel and it is clear from the outset that for most of the families - for most of the disappeared kids - this is not going to have a happy ending. Rather, they each offer a different story, a different facet of life in the neighbourhood. Despite the context, and despite the poverty, most of the stories involved playing and laughter. But always with the spectre of child abduction lurking in the background. As well as the characters, a key strength of the novel is the sense of place. Whether in the residential area, the bazaar or in the city station, the writing transports the reader to a real and immersive world. This is all the more impressive as the city is clearly an amalgam of different cities and locations throughout India. This is not a quick or easy read. It is very rich and dense; there are details that are important but easy to miss - I found myself constantly having to flick back a few pages. Perhaps also the overall lack of plot development can make the middle section feel a bit slow - and inevitably some stories appeal more than others. When the ending comes - and eventually it does - the pace picks up and it becomes much harder to set the book down. This is a worthwhile novel that, like some other recent works from Commonwealth countries, deals with poverty in a modern world that interfaces with mod-cons and mass-communication. It's not a misery novel. In her Afterword, Deepa Anappara explains that she did not want to portray the kids and their families as Victims (with a capital V), but instead to represent the vitality, humour, schemes and scams she found in her encounters with kids in impoverished circumstances. Together, of course, with the lack of basic security that India's poor face on a daily basis; the threat of physical harm on the one hand and the threat of bulldozers on the other. ****0
  2. There’s an old rebel song – The Smashing of the Van – that tells the sorry take of three Irishmen who tried to spring two Fenian leaders from a prison van in Manchester in 1867. Because they “chanced to kill a man”, the three Irishmen were hanged from a gallows outside Manchester prison. This is where The Abstainer takes up the tale. The three martyrs were the best recruiting call the Fenians could have hoped for. Irishmen up and down the land were willing to rise up and claim their freedom. The Manchester brigade were willing to think big, and they had invited Stephen Doyle, an Irish-American, to cross the Atlantic and pull off a coup that would make the Brits sit up and take notice. On the other side, Leading Constable Jimmy O’Connor – drafted across from the Irish Constabulary to sort out his personal demons and drink – ran a network of spies to infiltrate the Fenian movement. This was organised intelligence in its infancy. So, for two thirds of the novel we have cat and mouse between O’Connor and Doyle in a fairly routine historical police procedural. There are some wonderful scenes – particularly a meeting of the Fenians in the pub to welcome a new member. I’m not completely convinced by the dialogue; some of the characters seemed to use modern idiom that might have made the characters feel more identifiable, but also reduced some of the historical edge. Then, at the two thirds point, things get very surreal. It would be a spoiler to explain why, but there is a major paradigm shift that causes us to question what we already knew, and causes us to wonder whether we are reading a police procedural at all. It reminded me more than a little of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. Then, right at the end, there’s a coda set in the US that feels almost as though it belongs to a different book. No easy answers, no happy ever after. Gosh, it’s weird. ****0
  3. Farewell, Mama Odessa is a musing on migration, displacement and the strange world of Soviet bureaucracy. The blurb speaks of telling the stories of adjustment to a new life in the free world. The focus, though, is very much more on the circumstances that led to two Jewish men independently to seek to emigrate to the West: Boris, a young journalist who is unable to report as he would wish on the failings of the state; and Yurik, an average guy who has been caught with stolen leather to support his private sideline of making shoes. Fully half the book is taken with the back stories and an exploration of bureaucracy; the anti-semitic discrimination; and everyday life in Odessa. The narrative pretty much ends then with the journey out. The remaining pages comprise letters from Uncle Ilya, an emigre who tells Boris of his first experiences in the west; and more Kafkaesque vignettes of life back in the USSR of the various fellow emigres that Boris and Yurik meet. The book is pitched as a novel, but there are elements of it that feel like short stories, comic sketches, and political essay. This might sound heavy going, but the tone is light wry humour. And the political tone is more neutral than one might expect. The Soviet Union is portrayed as bureaucratic and inefficient; there is a sense that people are not in full control of their destiny and that their lives could be upturned on a whim, but that most people were comradely and decent. Bureaucrats could be bribed and rules could be played. Meanwhile, life in the west was neither as bountiful nor as venal as the emigres had expected. While the narrative follows Boris and Yurik, the most interesting elements are Uncle Ilya’s letters. These offer a depth of reflection that one suspects is Emil Draitser’s own perspective (he says in his foreword that both Boris and Ilya represent his own experience at different stages of his emigration journey). This is a perspective of part bemusement and part rapid learning. There are some teachable moments, but mostly an understanding that east and west are not poles apart; that the human instinct for self-preservation is universal and that emigres can get homesick, even when they have supposedly fled from oppression and ended up in the free world. Farewell, Mama Odessa is an odd book, but one that is both enlightening and rewarding. ****0
  4. AD Miller was longlisted for the Booker Prize for Snowdrops – a brilliant story about a young British man who became enmeshed in intrigue in Russia and then walked away unscathed, seemingly oblivious to the damage he has caused to those he left behind. In Independence Square, it’s the other way around. Simon Davey is a middle ranking diplomat – deputy head of mission in the Ukraine – caught up in events in late 2004 in the aftermath of a stolen presidential election. The orange revolution may not be well remembered in the West, and even those of us who do remember it were probably mystified by it at the time. The choice ostensibly had been between the establishment government with close links to Moscow and a new brand of nationalist with Western leanings. The candidates Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych – both came across as power-hungry, self-serving and engaging in dog-whistle politics. The impression I had was that the choice was what colour tie you wanted your chief crook to wear. So, Simon finds himself embroiled in events, apparently trying to nudge them in the direction of the revolutionaries. The narrative keeps switching from the revolution to the present day (well, 2017) back in London. Simon appears to have been sacked following some scandal – the nature of which is initially not apparent. He runs into Olesya, one of his contacts during the revolution. He follows her in the hope of getting some kind of explanation of what happened in Kiev that led to his downfall. I’m afraid I found the novel quite hard to follow, not helped by finding it hard to get into. Simon doesn’t seem to have any particular character; he is an everyman – some strains on his marriage but that’s just a standard diplomatic trope. It was very difficult to fathom the various Ukrainians – who they were, which side they were on, why they were engaging with Simon in the first place. I’m sure it is all there in the text, but the narrative style is to let facts slowly emerge from the fog – with the trouble being that the importance of characters and events is quite easy to miss. Then, even when a section does seem to make sense, the narrative chops away to focus on something else. Any tension dissipates. Perhaps if you knew Kiev or followed Ukrainian politics this would come together. Perhaps you could marvel at how accurately AD Miller captures the place or the spirit of the time. For me, though, it felt like a whole lot of meetings; a whole lot of glimpsing unidentified moustachioed men in the distance whispering into someone’s ear; and lots of scheming – but very little direction. Independence Square is not Snowdrops. 2.5 stars rounded up because it's Christmas.
  5. Thanks for that Iff. I had meant to get this some time ago but for some reason it seems to have slipped through the net.
  6. I didn't really bond with Damascus - which is a pity because Christos Tsiolkas's last novel Barracuda was brilliant. Damascus is the story of St Paul from his youth persecuting Christians through his conversion, his ministry and his immediate legacy. We see life from Paul's own viewpoint and also three other perspectives: Lydia, Vrasas and Timothy. As a character driven novel with such varied perspectives, we should really feel we've got to know Paul. But the whole novel feels as though it is seen through some kind of fog. The details are clear enough for scenes of torture, illness and bodily fluids, but the big stuff - Paul's conversion, his beef with Thomas, his writing of gospels - is either so quick that you blink and you've missed it, or written in such opaque terms that unless you are a scholar of the Bible, it will be hard to understand what is going on. And at the end if it, I never felt I knew Paul. There was [more than] a suggestion that Paul and others were repressing their homosexuality and this was what drove them to develop a sect based on love. And there is a sense that Paul is a loner who is uncomfortable dealing with societal values. But he never quite felt like a real, rounded person. And that is quite a failure since Tsiolkas says in his end notes (and I paraphrase) that his whole objective was to depict Paul and the early years of the church in human, relatable form. I am sure there is enough in Damascus to cause some angst to Christians - Thomas being Jesus's twin brother for example. But what did leave an impression, and which ought to trouble Christian readers - is how fragile those early years of the church were. There was no Bible; there was no training for the priesthood; there were no firm rules. The way the Church set its rules was as much based on the mood Paul might have been in as it was on the teachings of Jesus. Did Christians need first to be Jews? Was Baptism administered at birth or in adulthood? Could Christians participate in civic society? Was there a virgin birth? Was the resurrection literal or figurative? All of these rules of the modern day churches were determined by men applying their own ethics and opinions - or at least that is what Tsiolkas would have us believe. So the novel does leave some things to think about, but in terms of telling a Biblical story in human terms I felt it didn't quite work - it was a bit too sterile. ***00
  7. 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
  8. 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.
  9. 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
  10. 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
  11. 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.
  12. 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. *****
  13. Well it might work for you - I read this on holiday which may not have been the optimal conditions...
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