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Everything posted by MisterHobgoblin

  1. 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.
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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.
  6. 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".
  7. 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. *****
  8. Twisted is a lot of fun - but it is also a beast to review. Pretty much anything you say will be a spoiler of some sort or another. What we can say: JT LeBeau is a multi-million selling crime writer whose identity is secret. Twisted purports to be a novel written by LeBeau (whose name appears at the top of every recto page), and the introduction says it might be found on either the fiction or the true crime shelves. Twisted is a novel by LeBeau, about LeBeau. Unsurprisingly, it is full of twists. The writing itself is not that great. The characters don't feel fully formed, the location - Port Lonely and Bay City (presumably the greater Tampa region in Florida) don't quite feel real. Looking back, I'm not sure exactly what motivated the characters to do the things they did. But all this is forgivable for a plot that involves huge paradigm shifts and generates a visceral sense of tension. I came to Twisted on the back of a couple of tough reads and this was just what was required to inject a sense of fun back into reading. Hence five stars for a book that might only really merit four... *****
  9. Lost Property is a plotless novel featuring a writer and her partner setting out on a journey across Europe. Along the way, they visit museums, galleries and historical sites. She meets various historical characters from the locality and has lengthy philosophical discourses with them or muses upon them. This reminds me very much of Robinson In Space, a film shot using still camera angles with tangential narration on the state of Britain. Except, in this case, it was the state of Europe. The theme, at least as much as I could gather in the third of the book I read, was that there has always been movement throughout Europe and the borders we think of as being fixed have been quite fluid. So we see the permeability of the English channel with kings and nobles passing back and forth. The tangled web of kingship in the 11th Century, for example, having cousins and brothers occupying various thrones, plotting to succeed one another as their kingdoms waxed and waned. The characters are meant to seem real - with both a human face and a historic face. And if there is a point that is being made, it is that the petty nationalism of Brexit Britain is flying in the face of centuries of Europeanism. But it makes for a soporific read. The points are made over and over again with no sense of progression, character or fun. Like Robinson In Space, it is all very deadpan. As I said, I got a third of the way through, reading less and less each time. I got an enormous feeling of relief when I admitted to myself that I was going to set this aside and read something more enjoyable. *0000
  10. The Man Who Saw Everything is one strange novel. Saul Adler is a history lecturer with a specific interest in East Germany. Prior to a trip to East Berlin he is knocked down while posing for a photograph on the Abbey Road zebra crossing. He seems to be relatively unscathed… For the first half of the novel, Saul’s story is quite straightforward. He flies off to Berlin (sadly without the tinned apricots he was told to bring), strikes up a friendship with the lecturer who is hosting him, goes off mushrooming in the forest and explores various romantic opportunities. But in amongst what seems like a straightforward story there are some oddities. For example, Saul seems to anticipate the fall of the Wall – right up to knowing the date and what it might look like. And he seems to have some inkling of the future relationships he will have. The second half of the novel is just full on weird. This is set in the present day. An older Saul is recovering from a traffic accident and in his fever, he revisits some of the situations from the first half in a different sequence. Some of the characters reappear – but in different roles. It’s a bit Wizard of Oz. This is all terribly disconcerting and I’m not really sure what Deborah Levy was trying to do with these two narratives. We discover that Saul is quite self-absorbed; we see an emergent East German middle class enjoying a level of luxury that is about to be eclipsed by events. We might be playing around with memory and exploring the idea that one remembered reality is no more or less real than any other. It’s really difficult to know what to make of it all. It feels well written and the lucid bits capture a sense of time and place very well. On the other hand, there is a feeling that the weird bits might be weirdness for its own sake. Is there any substance behind it? A couple of weeks now since I finished this and I’m still not quite sure what exactly this was. ***00
  11. I suspect that Tim Lott is a misunderstood man. He writes about grotesque characters in a sympathetic way and people imagine this is because he wants the characters to be admired. In When We Were Rich, we re-encounter the characters from White City Blue - four lads living in and around the White City estate in West London. Frankie Blue is an estate agent; Nodge is a taxi driver who has recently come out as gay; Colin is a computer geek; and Diamond Tony is persona non grata following an incident on a golf course. Picking up almost immediately from the end of White City Blue, we follow these characters and their newly found partners from the eve of the false Millennium (the real millennium started in 2001); through the boom years of the New Labour project and into the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. What Tim Lott does, seemingly effortlessly, is capture the atmosphere around major events and show how ordinary people responded to them. He holds up a mirror to ourselves and if we don't like what we see, we have only ourselves to blame. In When We Were Rich, we see the naked greed around the London housing market. We see people who believe they deserve the wealth they have accumulated through owning property - and expect to be able to repeat the feat for ever. We see people who judge others by their income, their job, their postcode. And because we have lived through these times ourselves, we know it won't end well. It's Rumours of a Hurricane twenty years on. I believe firmly that Tim Lott wants readers to sneer at his characters, not admire them or aspire to be them. Whether it is venal Frankie, selfish Vronky, lazy Roxy, the vain and hypocritical Fraser, the psychopathically angry Tony - they are all there to be mocked. Especially Fraser, the fifty-year old ripped EasyJet pilot - promiscuous on the gay scene while demanding fidelity from Nodge - turning up to Labour Party meetings to lament the fall of Militant. A thoroughly vile man in every way. When We Were Rich is the perfect summation of London in the 2000s, just as White City Blue was for the 1990s and Hurricane was for the 1980s. It is an easy, enjoyable read with much humour and quite a bit to say about class struggle and karma. Most readers will hate When We Were Rich if reviews of Tim Lott's past works are anything to go by. Their loss. ****0
  12. That's the bargain of the Century! I paid $30 - but only Australian ones so that's about $20 in your money and falling...
  13. The Bridge is a heartbreaking novel about tragedy and survival; about guilt and forgiveness. The opening chapter depicts the construction disaster in 1970 when a slab of Melbourne's Westgate Bridge collapsed, killing 35 workers and injuring 18 others. Antonello, an Italian migrant from Footscray was a survivor. Many of his friends, new Australians mostly, were not so lucky. We see the families that were destroyed; the hopes that were dashed. As Antonello attends a succession of funerals over a few days, they blur into one. But some of the dead, now just names on a plaque, were real people who are still missed by the ageing survivors. And Antonello can't help feeling that he knew that corners were being cut. The engineers said it would be OK, but Antonello knew deep down that they were wrong. Thirty nine years later Antonello's family is doing well. His kids have firmly entered the middle class as the Western suburbs start to gentrify. Antonello's granddaughter Ashleigh is in her final year at school - just the VCE standing between her and a prestigious university place studying law. Her friend Jo is rather the opposite. Not that academic, a bit plain, living with her mother who works shifts to pay the rent on a house in the shadow of the bridge that defies gentrification. A night out, a poor decision, and life will never be the same again. The decision is spur of the moment but the consequences unfold piece by piece. Nobody meant anything bad to happen, but there's a price to pay. Just like Antonello so many years beforehand, the survivors have to learn to live with themselves, their guilt and their grief. They have to plan for a future from a suddenly unpromising starting point. The story shifts points of view several times but manages to carry this off. It gives us an insight into the guilt and grief of two families confronting unwelcome reality. It is painful to read, it feels real and raw. The linking of the past and (almost) present is done so effortlessly, the parallels clear but not laid on too thick. The sense of place is spot on too. The Bridge is one of those rare books that depicts the scenes so clearly that you want to visit the scene, to pay respects to tragedies both real and imagined. It is difficult to say more without spoiling the novel - but even a fortnight later, thinking back on this novel is enough to bring on goosebumps. *****
  14. Do you ever remember the 1970s "Concept Album"? Pink Floyd's The Wall is an example; so too is Bowie's Ziggy Stardust. The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas is a "Concept Novel" in a similar vein. Daniel James has created a Novocastrian artist, Ezra Maas, and dropped him into the real world of modern art history. There are stories of his time at Warhol's Factory, his tour of Europe, his hideaway mansion in Hertfordshire, his near-fatal accident in the Congo, and his withdrawal from public life. Mass's image is managed by the shadowy Maas Foundation which has been buying all his artworks back and removing all trace of him from the Internet. There are no known pictures of Maas, no artworks on public display, no official biography. The Concept is that a journalist, Daniel James, has been invited to write an unofficial biography of Maas by an anonymous source. James compiles the biography while writing his own gonzo journal of his research. However, James disappears - much like Maas before him - and leaves two partial manuscripts behind to be compiles along with various notes, transcripts and news clippings by an anonymous source - who is himself (herself?) in fear of dire consequences. The anonymous editor then adds to James's own footnotes to offer a form of commentary. This is all very thorough. The texts are interspersed with real details and real people. And so many details - huge tracts of art theory being marshalled to add granularity to the story. The different narratives contradict and even argue against each other. There is even a website, www.ezramaas.com, that purports to represent the Maas Foundation. So we have a text that is part mystery, part conspiracy (does Dan Brown write stuff like this?), part criticism of modern art and literature, part parody of reclusive artists. When it is good, it is very good. But it does go on for a long, long time and after a while, some of the details start to repeat. The ending is a let-down but it is difficult to see how Daniel James could have got off the trajectory in any other way. Ezra Maas is quirky, but it is not unique. There are other novels that gather multiple narratives and footnotes to create some kind of pseudo-academic canon. Recent examples include Memorial Device, Hame, Unity and Nazi Literature in the Americas. Ezra Maas is probably somewhere mid-list in this ambitious genre. The balance should probably have been slightly more tilted towards plot and away from theory; and the characters probably needed to be slightly more clearly delineated. But overall it's a pretty good effort. ****0
  15. It's striking what a similar reaction we had - and this despite what seems to be universal acclaim from everyone else
  16. Jack Bick is an interview journalist for an upmarket London magazine. He has a good track record, but the magazine seems to be drifting and Jack has the feeling that he's about to be let go. In what he expects to be his last week on the staff, he has two interviews to conduct: Oliver Pierce, a psychogeographical writer who hasn't had a follow-up to his bestselling work some years ago (Jack's idea); and an estate agent/property developer that his editor has told him to interview. Given the two options, Jack opts first for lager (the breakfast of champions) and then for Pierce. He and Pierce go off to explore Barking where a large plume of smoke is visible from all over London. What follows is a meandering story of alcoholism, the seedy side of London life with dead-end jobs, half-fulfilled ideas and half-built properties. Jack is a whinging and unlikeable man who cadges off other people's goodwill. He is capricious and willing to throw anyone under the bus if there's a drink in it for him. Plume is probably supposed to be both humorous and some kind of state of the nation piece. Unfortunately, the lack of plot or character development; the repetitiveness; the lack of any obvious motive behind any of the actions makes for quite a long and dull read. Some marks for ideas, the odd set piece and references to tube trains. Unfortunately, this just don't come together in a workable framework. The end, when it comes, goes off in a surreal direction that confuses more than it intrigues. This is a shame, because Care of Wooden Floors was a superb, focused, funny novel that was well paced and spoke to this reader about the human condition. Plume doesn't. ***00
  17. It's 1986 and Caddie Walker goes to an exhibition in her home town of Brisbane - an exhibition dedicated to the 1930s European-American writer Inga Karlson. The star exhibits are The Fragments, the few remaining pages of Inga Karlson's lost second novel. All the copies were destroyed by a fire in the publisher's warehouse; and reputedly the only two people to have read the novel, Inga and her publisher, died in the fire. Caddie, named after the protagonist in Karlson's first novel, is surprised when she quotes a line from one of the fragments that a fellow visitor completes the line. Especially because the completion is not one of the fragments... This is a mystery novel told in two timelines, Caddie's own hunt for the mystery woman from the exhibition and the story of Rachel Lehrer, a young woman who ran away from her grim family farm in America's midwest and into the arms of Inga Karlson. The twin narratives makes the novel a bit slow to take off but when it does, it is really well done. There are parallels between the two story lines: in each, the leading lady is caught between two competing suitors, there are power imbalances brought about by wealth and status. There are stories 0f mundane work (bookselling, typesetting, waitressing) set against the prestige of academia and publishing. And both story lines have a secret at their heart. The ending - which I did not see coming - was one to set my hairs on end. Truly, it was very moving. I have read Toni Jordan's work before and she is a really great storyteller. Easy to read, but complex in the range of ideas that bubble up to - or just under - the surface. I see that her work is positioned as women's fiction, but it is so much more than that. I would encourage anyone - male or female - to read The Fragments and read more of Toni Jordan's back catalogue.
  18. I have often thought that Kate Atkinson was a writer I ought to read, but although the blurbs are promising, the reaction from readers often seems a bit lukewarm. Thanks for sharing Viccie.
  19. Iris and Rose are sisters who work for subsistence at Mrs Salter's doll shop painting dolls to resemble real children, some of whom are dead. Across the way, Silas runs a curiosity shop specialising in taxidermy, skeletons and other anatomical oddities. He does a trade providing specimens for a group of artists going by the name of The Pre-Raphaelite Brethren. Through a series of chance encounters - at the heart of which we find Albie, a street urchin who locates samples for Silas - Iris meets one of the painters, the fictitious Louis Frost, and agrees to model for him in return for painting lessons. Silas, meanwhile, has other designs on Iris... In part, this is a psychological thriller. We know that something bad will happen to Iris, it is just a question of when. And on the other hand, it is a romance between Louis and Iris. For me, at least, the balance didn't quite come off. There was way too much romance and painting in the middle and the drama was too little, too late. The novel went into some detail on the theory and production of the pre-raphaelite paintings; spent some time comparing and contrasting the worthy merits of the Royal Academy against the shallow science and innovation of the Great Exhibition. However, painting has never yet made for fascinating fiction despite the best efforts of many authors to prove otherwise. The Doll Factory does have some merits, however. Silas as the troubled man who has difficulty expressing his emotions and fulfilling his artistic dreams would have been a gem if he had been more fully integrated into the middle of the novel. Albie is fun. The relationship between Rose and Iris wasweld constructed in the brief glimpses of it that we saw. And the theatre of the Victorian London streets was quite visceral. But the pacing was shockingly wrong and did I mention the focus on painting? The result was a novel that started and ended as a piece of fun, but the saggy middle felt like it would never end. ***00
  20. William Carver is a BBC Radio journalist who has landed up in Cairo to report on the Arab Spring uprising. So has the rest of the world's journalists. Carver likes to think of himself as a "vertical" journalist who explores a story in depth, creating news. He is disdainful of the "horizontal" journalists who simply commentate on events around them. Carver - and his youthful producer Patrick - first appeared in A Dying Breed, a superior conspiracy thriller set in Afghanistan. They are an odd couple - like Dr Who and his assistant - providing both a second point of view and a useful pretext for expository dialogue. A Single Source gets off to a slower start than A Dying Breed - perhaps because Carver has only just landed in Cairo himself and needs to discover his story and his network - but when it starts to grip, it is just as gripping as the debut novel. Carver meets up with a couple of Egyptian protestors, one of whom runs a twitter feed from Tahrir Square. They collect up some of the gas canisters, rubber bullets and truncheons used against the protestors and this causes some discomfort at the highest level. Meanwhile, back in London, the former editor of the Today programme has started out a new career as Director of Communications at the Ministry of Defence. The MoD is in something of a bind, wanting to support the friendly Mubarak regime but also wanting to end up backing the winner if the Mubarak regime falls. And all the time, wanting to promote British defence exports... Interleaved with this, there is the story of two Eritrean brothers looking to start a new life in Europe, left to the mercy of people traffickers. This can feel like a distraction, but it puts a human face on some of the massive upheaval that has been going on behind the changes of government and political headlines. It will hopefully make the English (yes English, not British) voters ashamed for supporting Brexit in a futile attempt to stop the influx of migrants from the Middle East who were displaced by poor UK foreign policy. Overall, A Single Source is a tense read with plenty of politics and double crossing. As in A Dying Breed, the morals are sometimes ambiguous and the reader is left to imagine the final denouement - traits of a superior thriller. *****
  21. A Stranger City is an ambitious novel that seeks to draw parallels between recent history and Brexit Britain, using the stories of various members of northeast London’s diverse community to illustrate the situation. The frame on which the novel hangs is the discovery of an unidentified young female body in the River Thames. The discovery is investigated by a policeman and featured in a documentary by a filmmaker. We then broaden out and meet their families and some of the wider community. We find a community that is diverse even within the United Kingdom, including Scots, Irish and migrants from elsewhere in England. Then we find migrants from the Commonwealth and semi-recent conflict zones - Iran after the fall of the Shah. And then there are the more recent migrants from within the EU. All are seen to be integral to the London we see today. Contrast this with an England that seems to be retreating into itself, harking after the glory days of an Empire, capital punishment and boiled cabbage. Those who are smart enough, able enough, want to move away from this increasingly hostile and ignorant society. Which is ironic, since so many of them came to London precisely to enjoy a broader, global perspective and experience culture and sophistication. The story of the dead woman remains in the background. For a while it is (intentionally) confused by a parallel story of a missing social media star - a vacuous young woman who is famous only for being famous. And while the dead woman mystery is ultimately resolved, it is not satisfying. The main point is that it is possible for someone to go missing and not be missed, not be reported in this unfeeling society. Might it have been different if she had been English? A Stranger City is successful in depicting a multicultural society; it makes interesting political points showing the contradiction between the current insularity and the aspirations of individual members of that society. There is some wonderful depiction of characters. But it doesn’t quite hang together as a story. It is too difficult to hold so many characters in the mind all at once, so each time a character re-appears, he or she has to be re-learned. Their inter-relationships are too opaque and the narrative drive is just not there. Which is a pity, because the descriptive writing is fabulous. ***00
  22. Ah Hock is telling his life story to a writer. He is an ethnic Chinese Malay, has spent most of his life tantalisingly close to the economic miracle of Kuala Lumpur, and has been released from prison for killing a Bangladeshi migrant. This is a story of life on the edge, mostly in a world of petty crime, illegal migrant workers and aspirations of a middle class life. But Ah Hock knows that while he was never great at school, his strength is in people management - emotional intelligence, if you will. Through various phases of his life, failing to get on with his ailing mother, farmed out to various relatives, running the streets with his soulmate Keong. The lack of stability drives Ah Hock (with very little protestation) into illegality, and this leaves Ah Hock trapped in an underworld through debts, obligations and honour. Yet, Ah Hock does have some contact with the aspirations of a developing Malaysia. His wife is a make-up saleswoman working on a pyramid selling scheme, dreaming of cars and houses. The novel is told in an engaging way and for the first half, it feels lively and quirky - offering non-linear vignettes of life in a nation that is changing, switching back and forth between the past and the present day conversation with the writer. It feels as though the writer represents the new society and Ah Hock the old - with each trying to reconcile themselves with the other. But by about half way, the novel feels like it is lacking direction. It is all building up to the reveal about the killing - with little details being drip fed - but the non-linear narration coupled with the chaotic changes in Ah Hock's life does make the reader feel that this is more a collection of short works than a single life story. Four stars for a novel that starts well and drifts - but with a stronger narrative life it could have been five. ****0
  23. I loved Memorial Device - For The Good Times feels like an awkward second novel. Basically we have some lads who are into comics and laughs who've joined the IRA. First they take over a comic shop in Belfast, then they end up on the mainland plotting atrocities. It was good, funny in parts and horrific in others. But basically, I didn't buy the characters and very specifically, I didn't buy Sammy, the main protagonist. The boys seemed to be driven neither by ideology nor by psychopathy. i just don't believe the Ra would have taken on such uncommitted, ill-disciplined jokers. Sure there's some nice scene setting - Belfast and the Ardoyne in the 70s and some wonderful, biting humour. But the politics was done better in Milkman, and the humour was done better in The Fire Starters. For The Good Times does try to break out of the genre of Troubles novels, but in doing that it sort of becomes a parody of itself. There have been worse Troubles novels (mostly by Americans) but this is far from the best. All this is made more disappointing when we know how well David Keenan can write and innovate from Memorial Device. ***00
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