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MisterHobgoblin

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  1. 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.
  2. 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
  3. 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. *****
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. The Old Man and The Boy service an off shore wind farm out in the North Sea, way beyond being able to see land. They live on a platform (I imagine Sealand) and their view is just the sea and various generations of decaying turbines. As one turbine dies, they cannibalise its parts to repair others. The Boy is there to replace his father who broke his contract. The Old Man has always been there. They are serviced by a quarterly supply boat whose master runs a black market trading racket. He trades the lagan and jetsam that the Old Man is able to fish up from the seabed in return for the supplies that might stretch the lifespan of the turbines. There is no beginning and no end. The Boy and the Old Man have no past life; they have no future. There is no boundary to the wind farm and the sea. There is no hint of anyone who might benefit from the wind farm. The Boy and the Old Man are suspicious of each other. With just one another for company - and the creaks and grand and bangs of the plant as it is ravaged by the sea - they try to live independent lives despite being mutually dependent on one another. They care for each other and they hate each other. Bizarrely, this reminded me of the vast cattle stations in Australia, remote and isolated, farmers living in grinding poverty to supply a wealthy nation that they seldom see with their meat. And inevitably - probably intentionally - it reminded me of The Old Man and The Sea. Almost nothing happens, just the battle between man and nature that nature always wins. And then, there were also shades of the final scenes of The Truman Show as Truman sails for a shoreline he doesn't even believe exists. The book is short, the writing is spare and stylised. But despite the bleakness, there is a warmth in the writing that keeps the reader engaged. Through the boredom and drudgery and backbiting we see genuine affection that the odd couple feel for one another. We see that some of the mutual suspicion and prying might have come from good hearts. The novel is interleaved with occasional fragments from a past when Doggerland was dry land, inhabited by people who could never have imagined the horror of the grey, windswept sea. It is never clear whether these snippets were long ago and the sea is the present day, or whether the land is the present day and the sea is the future we all face. Either way, it has made me feel that we all owe a greater gratitude to those who endure hardship to support the comfortable lives that many of us lead. Doggerland is a short novel, but one that leaves a deep impression. ****0
  8. Absolutely loved The Fire Starters. Maybe it was all the references to Connswater Tesco where I used to do my shopping (though it was better when it was still Stewarts). This is a comic novel set in the heart of loyalist East Belfast. Sammy Agnew is a decommissioned paramilitary trying to cope with civilian life. Jonathan Murray is a GP whose heart is not really in his work. Both share a feeling of irrelevance; both share concerns that their children are growing up to become monsters. Much of the humour is derived from a deadpan explanation of the cultural mores of the protestant working man. With a straight fact, we are told of the traditions of the Twelfth; the need to assert cultural supremacy over the neighbouring Catholics by the building of immensely tall bonfires; and the injustice of the lack of appreciation for these acts of fealty by the State that they are designed to venerate. And there is Jonathan's first person narrative that sneers at his patients - especially the older and poorer sections of society - as he himself feasts on red wine and pizza. Then, every now and then, the Sammy and Jonathan narratives will break for a vignette of a child with some extraordinary and esoteric superpower - with some superpowers more useful than others. Being able to turn into a boat, for example, is probably less useful than, say, the ability to fly. Both Sammy and Jonathan are simultaneously grotesque and loveable. There is a sense that they put on an external act to satisfy others' expectations but underneath there is a genuine human. They feel real. The novel is also hugely referential. Some references - to popular culture, music, the Anonymous movement, politicians - are quite obvious. Others are more subtle - there's more than a hint, for example, of the NIO Cats In The Cradle advert; or the Midnight's Children superpowers. And then there's this idea of linking prodigy to fire starters... Spotting these references adds enormously to the fun. The plot as it unfolds is a masterpiece. It leads the reader off to expect some kind of terrorist/police procedural but in fact is a really insightful look at the relationships between parents and children; the aspirations we have for our kids and how we handle things when they don't turn out quite the way we expected; the way we understand their uniqueness in a world where other people's children blur into a single society. I really cannot find fault in The Fire Starters. I wholeheartedly recommend this novel. *****
  9. The reality is that many younger people feel so isolated in regional Australia that they would clutch at anything or anyone that offered a hope of a move to the city.
  10. Fairly closely based on the Bible John murders in Glasgow in the 1960s, The Quaker offers a fictitious resolution to these unsolved murders. Three women have been slain in Glasgow, meeting their killer in the Barrowlands ballroom and never making it home. The third victim had shared a taxi with her stocious sister and The Quaker; the sister offered the best – and only – hope of catching the killer. But after a year there had been no breakthrough and DI Duncan McCormack is sent into the investigation to determine whether or not to scale it down. This leads to a complex story that is, on the face of it, a police procedural – with red herrings, corruption, distrust and a jewel heist – and part a social commentary on the changing social values of the 1960s. The Glasgow of the time had not yet reconciled itself to the abolition of the death penalty or decriminalisation of homosexuality. Single mothers were still scandalous, Catholics were still routinely disadvantaged, pubs were still not places that nice people went. In many ways, the killer represented a reaction against the encroaching modernity. The novel is well written, had a suitable number of red herrings and creates a great sense of place. The sense of time, however, doesn’t always feel quite right. I’m not sure 1969 Glaswegians wore cagoules and worried about neds – maybe they did, but just that seed of doubt can dispel a setting. The plot is quite lurid and appears to have been driven backwards from the ending. I’m not sure in the real world that a set of actions would ever have led to the consequences as they unfold. But it’s a good yarn, nonetheless, and might go some way to reigniting curiosity about the real Bible John. ****0
  11. One thought is that the length in pages can be deceptive. Small print and close margins can make long books appear deceptively slim. On the other hand, large font, plenty of blank pages and dialogue can spread a short novel out over many pages. I remember once Claire Kilroy saying that her new book (The Devil I Know) was her shortest yet, despite having a significantly higher page count than the others.
  12. I had seen this in a bookshop and was almost tempted - probably won't ever surface as one to read, but glad you enjoyed it. Do you think you have to have read The End of Eddy first?
  13. The Burn Council Estate in Middlesbrough is being demolished. Row upon row of council housing succumbing to the bulldozers of the Rowan Tree developers. And as the concrete nibblers close in, secret history starts to emerge. Once upon a time, Middlesbrough was Ironopolis, the steel and iron manufacturing centre of the kingdom. And a long time before that, the River Tees was the home of Peg Powler, a supernatural hag who lured children to their deaths. More recently, the Burn estate was terrorised by Vincent Barr, the villain with a finger in every pie. In Ironopolis, six discrete sections bring Vincent to life, along with those whose lives were touched by him and by those around him. We see waves spreading out through society, violent, gruesome waves. Also waves of love, hope, fear, loneliness. The novel is complex in structure, including letters, interviews, footnotes, autobiography and editorial. Each section sheds a new light on previous sections; characters who are the heroes of one section may be the villains of another. The pacing is perfect, and new revelations keep coming right up to the death. The various narrative voices are well defined, often moving and really hard to put down. Whether it is Jean Barr writing letters to an unseen man about a childhood friend; or the story of a young man discovering acid house raves; or a hairdresser with a gambling problem; they are all so different yet add up to a coherent whole. The title is perhaps ambitious. The novel doesn't really give a story of the city, but it does give a detailed slice of life over several decades of a select group of people in a select part of the city. In truth, though, and despite the many references to Peg Powler, there is a feeling that this might have taken place in any estate, anywhere in England. But it is a damn good story; the characters and locations feel real; and the changing social values ring true. Ironopolis really is an exceptional book, more accessible than the blurb might lead a reader to expect, but still with many layers of complexity. *****
  14. When All Is Said boasts impressive plugs from respectable writers: Donal Ryan and Graham Norton are just two of them. And they're right - this is an astonishing book. We meet Maurice Hannigan, a successful businessman, 84 years old and nearing the end of his time, reminiscing about the five people who affected him most in his life. He sits in his local hotel, downing drinks at the bar and uses each drink to toast one of those individuals. His rambling and conversational narrative is apparently for the benefit of Kevin, his son across the water in New York. Hannigan's story is one of rags to riches. After an unsuccessful attempt at school, he started his working life as a hand on the Dollards' estate. Seventy years later, through shrewd buying and selling, he owns that estate. It would have been easy to write a thrilling account of the wheeling and dealing that brought him that success, but instead the novel is one of people and relationships. We see how those relationships both changed events, and were changed by them. The underlying stories are personal, and mostly stories of regret. In particular, we see how events were affected by the toss of a coin, the ripples still being felt so many decades later. We see how much Hannigan loved Sadie, his late wife, yet neglected her and treated her badly. We see Hannigan conflicted by his hatred of the Dollards but his compassion for individuals. We see how he wrestles with his conscience - and often ends up victorious. This is a deep, complex life story that exposes itself subtly, layer on layer. That the reader can be made to feel any sympathy at all for an Irish property dealer is a feat - to get the reader so deep into his psyche is almost miraculous. This really is a fantastic book that works on so many levels. It is sad, very sad, but also very human and narrated with a voice that is not self-pitying. Highly recommended. *****
  15. Mouthful of Birds is a collection of translated stories by an Argentinian writer, Samanta Schweblin. The stories are all perfectly well told, and all of them slightly odd, but reading them one after the other can feel somewhat mechanistic. The stories are (mostly) very short, lack any real framing and pitch straight into a situation that appears normal but turns out to be a bit surreal. Once you know that it's going to have a weird angle, you start to anticipate it and the effect dims. And while the stories are well crafted and lucidly told, it is very difficult to recall anything about them after finishing the book. Even the last story - which you'd think might be the easiest to recall - had me diving back into the text just to remember what it was (it was murder as performance art). I have a recollection of abandoned brides, and a train that never stops, but little else. On this basis, and without being able to point to anything specific at fault, it feels like a 3-star read. ***00
  16. The Last was a bit of a guilty pleasure. Set in a hotel in Switzerland, a mixed bag of staff and guests find themselves survivors of a nuclear holocaust that seems to have wiped out the rest of the world. When the initial tweets and news stories started to circulate, many of the guests fled for the airport. Those left behind were the ones who had nothing to flee for. Jon Keller is an American academic who was at the hotel for a history conference. His fellow delegates left but Jon, an uber-rationalist, saw no point in fleeing. The roads would be jammed, the planes would be grounded. Why run? So we have a fairly standard post-apocalyptic story where people consume their way through a dwindling supply of food and clean water in the hope that a better plan might come to mind. Instead of a better plan, they find a dead body. Despite the entire planet now consisting of dead bodies, Jon decides to pass the time by playing Miss Marple, interviewing everyone and searching their rooms. Armageddon affects people in different ways: some become leaders, some become whingers. Jon becomes a securocrat. There's a standard fare of journeys out into the wilderness, raiding ransacked supermarkets, fighting off predators and such. There are unlikely friendships, amusing animosities. The supporting cast conveniently includes a doctor, a head of security, a desk clerk who understands the record keeping. There's a rapist and a feminist, a Japanese family with young children... It's all a bit like a 1970s disaster movie but without the nuns. Oh, and with occasional use of mobile phones. At points, the plot becomes impenetrable. The pacing seems wonky, there are moments when people seem to behave with great irrationality. There are enough loose ends to run at least six sequels. It should be corny, but somehow it manages to be fun. I suspect the thing that holds it all together is the pomposity of Jon, recording everything in a self-serving tone of spurious even-handedness - for posterity - and imagining what the fellow survivors really think of him busy bodying around and playing detective while they focus on the future of humanity. ****0
  17. Eoin McNamee is seldom an easy read and The Vogue is no exception. The novel opens with the discovery of a body in shifting sands in 2000, somewhere near a wartime aerodrome called Pirnmill. It isn't specified, but this seems to be somewhere in County Down in Northern Ireland. The place names that are given are fictitious. This is disconcerting: previous McNamee novels have been located very specifically in time and place, even if occasionally the geography goes a bit wrong. Previous novels have also focused on specific incidents - unsolved murders, the Princess Diana conspiracy, the Shankill butchers. Being cast into an unknown, fictionalised location and dealing with fictitious people and fictitious crimes makes the novel feel less compelling than previous offerings. But anyway... There are three timelines. One is set in 1944, a black US airforce serviceman is on trial for a capital crime. He is a black man in a white man's world and the normal standards of justice do not seem to apply. The second timeline is in the 1970s with some teenagers running away from a children's home. And the third timeline is set in 2000, following the discovery of the body. There are dark secrets running through the local community that span generations and the body is the catalyst for uncovering them. The three timelines are deeply confusing, especially when McNamee takes steps to deliberately obscure the connections. Some of the writing is brilliant - the prose is spare and evocative - but it never quite adds up to a gripping story. The shocking reveals don't shock because the reader is not sufficiently invested in the story. It's more like a Scooby Doo reveal that nobody could possibly have guessed - that explains rather than astounds. The characters didn't feel fully rounded. One was irritating in her verbal tics, and one - our MOD lawyer - was not completely believable. On the other hand, there were some strong set pieces. The wartime dances, the cinema, the airbase, the court martial were all well done. I hope that McNamee's next novel will focus again on real locations and real events. That is where he is strongest, blending truth, intrigue and conspiracy. The Vogue is not a bad novel - just not as good as his others. ***00
  18. Lost Empress is a long, sprawling novel that defies any conventional sense of structure. It's a novel of ideas, some of which intersect and some of which overlap, but for the most part it reads like several separate narrative strands and holding the many characters in your head can be a challenge. The most memorable strands are Nina and Nuno. Nina is the daughter of the recently deceased owner of the Dallas Cowboys. She is surprised not to inherit the Cowboys but instead to inherit the Paterson Pork, an Indoor Football League team from New Jersey. Life has dealt her lemons and she sets out to make lemonade. With her comically inept sidekick Dia, she sets out to transform the fortunes of the IFL and thumb her nose at her brother, the new owner of the Cowboys. Nuno is a remand prisoner in Rikers Island, notorious for committing some high profile crime that is not revealed until near the end of this very long work. Nuno gives us a sideways look at the American legal and penal systems while plotting something quite devious. Nuno is - or thinks he is - smarter than the typical prisoner and takes pride in turning every situation to his own advantage. His future looks bleak - LWOP - but he still seems to have some spark of hope. Then there are a heap of side stories and B-list characters - prison guards, desperate alcoholic former football players, friends and neighbours, the great Paterson unwashed. Overall I would say this is a comic novel - a satire on justice and American Football, sport and commerce. There is a heap of philosophy and sermonising. There are found documents - a reproduction of the Rikers Island prison rules, court transcripts, transcripts of 911 calls. Some dialogue is presented in script format. There are graphics (some of which don't translate well to e-readers). The pacing is crazy, with sections of wildly different lengths running from 88 down to zero with a prologue, a logue and an epilogue. It is a whole box of tricks. But by the end, the story does come together and there is an exciting denouement and it feels more like a conventional novel. It is quite a trick - but not completely dissimilar to Sergio de la Pava's previous novel, A Naked Singularity - also highly recommended. Just one thing, though. I sometimes feel that all American novels feature either the President or a prison. This one does both. ****0
  19. Hi Momac. Yes, I am a foodie :). My ideas for books come from all sorts of places - browsing in bookshops, recommendations of friends and family, known authors, prize lists. But also I am a member of Netgalley where I sometimes get access to pre-published e-copies of books in return for a review. That can point me in all sorts of directions I might not otherwise have gone. Its forerunner was Amazon Vine where members could access paper copies of books pre-publication. That was how I got a copy of 2666 by Roberto Bolano - one of the best books I have ever read. But there's no way I would have bought it, and even if I had, little way I would have read over 1000 large pages of very small print if I didn't feel an obligation to review it. And often I am seduced by a beautiful cover...
  20. Dodin-Bouffant is a French gastronome whose dining is the stuff of legends. He permits only his three closest friends to share in the delights of his kitchen - nobody else's taste would be acute enough to justify their presence. But one day, Dodin's cook dies and he has to find a replacement, After an exhaustive search, he decides the only solution is to find a young woman with potential and coach her himself until she reaches the highest standards. Enter Adele. Then one day, Dodin agrees to dine with the Prince of Eurasia, and feels compelled to return the invitation... This is a delightful story, mostly because of the gorgeous descriptions of the banquets and the absurd lengths that Adele must go to in her quest for culinary perfection. Every wine is carefully selected; animals are bought and tended before slaughter; at one point Adele proposes to distil her own brandy to cook one particular dish. The dishes pile up, one after another, and the rotund Dodin and his equally rotund companions enjoy with abandon. There is as much focus on wine as food - and in one delightful scene, Dodin shows Adele how to cook a recipe with champagne - one glass for the pot and one glass for me. This is decadent, it is absurd. The characters are fat and ugly and happy. They live for food. What's not to like? ****0
  21. Jack Gantos is a young adult writer who was asked to produce a short story for an Amnesty International collection. The resulting story was the basis for this graphic novel. The premise is simple. A teenager is sitting in a library in an explosive vest waiting for the call to action. He tries to shut out the joy that others in the library are getting from the books, but cannot quite manage to do so. Thus we see the transformative power of books. The story itself is simple; the book is short. Mostly, it is set out in one large collage spread over two pages with a small amount of narrative text in one margin. It is maybe a ten minute read. The joy, though, is in the illustrations. Black and white, mixing sketches with what appears to be cut and glue pictures and illustrations from elsewhere. The resulting images are striking and rich with detail. They have vignettes set within bigger pictures and do more than simply illustrate the story - if anything, the words illustrate the pictures. The depiction of middle eastern cityscapes is magical - and the later depiction of what appears to be Oxford provides a great contrast. The facial expressions are marvellous - the anger on our suicide bomber's face lifts straight off the page. This graphic novel is an absolute joy, even if its message may be a little bit twee (writers seldom underestimate the power of books!) and the experience is over almost as soon as it begins. ****0
  22. Scrublands is first rate crime fiction set out in the scrublands north of the Murray river on the NSW/Victoria border. Martin Scarsden is a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, sent out to Riversend to cover the first anniversary of a mass shooting (pun intended) where the priest had shot five parishioners on a Sunday before being shot himself by the local policeman. Scarsden finds a town with a dwindling population, the pub/hotel shut six months ago, the motel barely surviving and the only coffee in town is served at the second hand book shop. Dust and tumbleweed blow through the town. And as Scarsden picks at the scabs left by the shooting, he uncovers a plot of intrigue and lies. Nobody is quite who or what they seem. The ripples spread far and wide - down to the Murray, to Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Cambodia and Vietnam. As the stories start to emerge, and as they start to contradict one another, the stakes get higher. The plotting is tight and relatively easy to follow for a twisty thriller. The characters feel real even if they do labour under Dickensian names (the femme fatale is Mandalay Blonde; the villain is Harley Snoutch; the bombastic TV journalist is Doug Thunkleton. The police investigation is credible; as the body count rises so too does the national attention from both journalists and senior law enforcement. The actions even in this abnormal situation seem rational and proportionate. The sense of place works well too. Riversend feels real - and reminds me quite a lot of Karakarook in Kate Grenville's The Idea of Perfection. The searing heat and desiccation, the vast wilderness, the distance. The only shortcoming was a sense that, just occasionally, the novel was too long and slightly repetitive. But in answer of the criticism, the repetition did a good job of helping the reader keep the many moving parts neatly arranged. This is an accomplished work and it will be fun to see whether Martin Scarsdale returns. *****
  23. Crimson is a novella translated from the original Greenlandic, offering five interrelated narratives from young people. The cast are introduced at the start with a brief synopsis of who they are and how they interrelate. This was really helpful because the names are unfamiliar to an anglophone ear, and they all seem to be involved in a complex love triangle - or perhaps a love pentagon. So inevitably, given there are five of them, there is quite a heavy emphasis on sexuality and sexual minorities. Some characters are quite clear in their identity: Sara is lesbian and has no problem with this, but others - Fia - is just starting to explore possibilities in a land where unconventional behaviour leads to instant ostracism. Inuk, Fia's brother, equates Greenland to a prison and counts the days until his escape to Denmark. The writing is quirky - stream of consiousness interspersed with letters (e-mails?) and text messages. There's no great plot, and what there is, is really just a driver for characters to explore themselves and their relationships with others. The scenes shoot from one party to another - Nuuk's Manhattan nightclub (it really exists - Google it!) - a taxi after a late night out. There is a real sense of place, and who knew Nuuk had a university scene and different suburbs? But as well as the place, there's the vibe. The reader gets a real sense of the social values and constraints in Greenland. Having spent time on the Isle of Lewis, I can identify with it. I was especially struck by the way you go out into a small town and you won't meet specific people you're looking for, and you won't know most of the people you see, but you will know some people. For the most part, this is a highly readable and thought provoking piece. There is one section that is quite confusing - Ivik. In very broad terms, Ivik does not like being touched by her partner Sara, but she doesn't seem quite so squeamish with others. I think some of the opequeness in this section is purposeful, and to an extent Sara's fifth section sheds some light on it. Crimson is a quirky piece of writing that feels fundamentally different to contemporary writing in English. It shines a light on an almost unknown part of the world, and presents it as human and connected. Recommended. ****0
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