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Everything posted by MisterHobgoblin

  1. Donal Ryan is a writer who likes a quirky timeline. His previous works have tended to take the form of successive short stories from different viewpoints and Strange Flowers is more of the same. We meet Kit and Paddy Gladney, tenant farmers in Tipperary. Their daughter Moll, a good girl, has left home without leaving a trace. They are bewildered. They grieve. They feel the eyes of the village boring into them. Then, after five years, Moll returns. Successive sections follow different characters at different life stages until a final section allows Moll to fill in the gaps. The narrative voice – which has been done so well in previous of Ryan’s works, is every bit as good here. Lilting Irish idiom places the characters as subservient to their setting. It could be timeless (and for much of the first section the time setting is obscure), but modern details of a wider world – Dublin, London, aeroplanes – encroach. The story is intriguing, too, and explores themes of property ownership, race, ambition, sexuality. How and ever, there is a big biblical theme running through the work. The sections are named for books of the Bible. There is a meta-narrative woven into one section about Jesus restoring sight to a blind man. I am prepared to believe that many of the set pieces are directly analogous to Biblical scenes or parables – but not being up on my Scripture I think these all passed me by. Maybe there was some big message about people being more than a sum of their traits and appearances but that’s really rather an obvious statement. My own thinking about referential novels is that it’s fun when you get the references but they don’t really add to the profundity of the work. Overall this felt like a very tightly controlled novel where sometimes the structure felt a little too rigid, forcing the pace and sequencing of information. Much of Joshua’s section, for example, only really became meaningful from reading subsequent sections. I am a great believer in show, don’t tell – but if you are going to tell, then do it at the same time as you are showing. The shifts in point of view and time were abrupt – intentionally so as that seems to be Donal Ryan’s thang – but I wonder whether it might have been possible to create a more powerful and sympathetic work from interweaving some of the threads. Still glad to have read Strange Flowers, but my three and a half stars feel like they should have been more. ***1/2
  2. Crossings is an inventive, body-hopping story crossing generations and centuries. It's unique selling point is that it can be read in two different sequences. You can either read it in page order - first with a novella supposedly by Baudelaire; then a story of trying to acquire the novella at auction; and finally a series of body swapping tales starting with the French colonisation of Pacific islands and ending in Nazi occupied France with each character handing on the baton to the next. By the end, it is clear that the stories inter-relate and the final section is a chronology into which the other narratives can be chopped and slotted in time sequence. The text offers a route map to read it in this way - The Baroness Sequence - and there's a pretty big hint that this is the more adventurous route. Hmmm. I read this in page order and expected to re-read it afterwards in The Baroness Sequence in the expectation of discovering a new, different story. In the event, I decided not to bother. The alternative reading seems quite obvious and by presenting things in strictly chronological order it would lose the subtlety of the three narratives panning gradually outwards, showing the previous section in a new light. It's difficult to say much about the story without spoilers - particularly given the two sequences in which this can be read. But I think its strength is in the period detail. Particularly the Baudelaire sections and the wartime Paris sections feel authentic. The final section, the Tales of the Albatross don't have quite the same richness and depth. But the story itself feels a little jumbled (not least because there seemed to be two competing explanations for the bodies piling up over the years with their eyes removed) and given the hopping between bodies it did get confusing about who was who. Moreover, the need for the narrative to be readable in two sequences felt like a bit of an - er - albatross at times. It meant that each section had to be linear within itself. While some sections might serve as a backstory, it basically meant that the entire section had to be backstory without much opportunity t0 go back and forth between memories and the present day. It also meant, I felt, that some ideas were not allowed to be fully introduced when they first occurred, presumably because doing so would have mucked up the other sequence. But mostly this was a price that was bearable for a text that was intended to be quirky. One oddity, and I don't know that this would make much sense in either reading, was the mention of s Schengen passport in the context of evacuating from France in World War II. Crossings is an interesting and enjoyable novel; my recommendation would be to read in page order; and enjoy it for what it is without expecting anything quite as perfect as Cloud Atlas, to which Crossings owes an obvious debt. ****0
  3. If ever there were a case for three and a half stars, this is it. Sensation Machines starts out strong and tight. Michael Mixner is a Wall Street trader who has invested badly. He's up to his eyes in debt and his credit has just run out. His lavish lifestyle is in trouble but he doesn't want to break the news to his wife Wendy. Meanwhile, Wendy knows they are in trouble and immerses herself in her work at a publicity agency as a form of escape. This is all set in a near future United States where traditional society and the traditional economy are collapsing; there's a growing political consensus for a Universal Basic Income; and technology is displacing more and more workers. There's a real human drama unfolding as Michael and Wendy have to discover and explore their new situation; they need to work out how they relate to one another; they need to plan a way forward. Oh, and Michael drops into the narrative that his friend Ricky has been murdered. Then, about a third of the way through, the camera pans back from Michael and Wendy's alternating narratives. The cast of characters increases exponentially in a bewildering array of far right political commentators, tech entrepreneurs, traders, advertisers, hangers on. These additional characters are not terribly well drawn and it's pretty difficult to keep track of who's who. They are all grotesque, greedy and seem to want to thwart one another for reasons that escaped me. Some of the plot lines descend into farce. It's as though Adam Wilson didn't know whether he was writing a crime novel, a satire or a character driven novel. This section - which is most of the novel - feels slack and choppy. Finally, as a coda, we return to Michael and Wendy to catch up with them some time after the fateful days of the story. Trouble is, I had really lost interest in their story with some of the mad plotting and scheming in the middle. Did they reconcile? Did they split? Did they end up rich or poor? I know the answers because I read the book, but I'm not sure I really cared by the end. This is a novel of ideas. Some of them, at least, remind me more than a little of Perfidious Albion by Sam Byers. It deserves credit for that. But I wish some of the narrative drive from the opening third could have carried on through to the end. ***1/2
  4. Little Eyes is an odd little book. There's a new craze - kentukis - little computerised pets that are controlled by an unknown stranger, potentially anywhere in the world. The kentukis have cameras in their eyes and microphones in their ears. Kentukis are expensive, regardless of whether you are the keeper or the remote dweller. You sign up, switch them on and get matched up with a one time only connection to the random dweller. If the kentuki runs out of charge, the connection is irrevocably lost. The novel is basically a collection of short stories - some of which are recurring and some are short one-offs. We come to each situation from the point of view either of a keeper or a dweller, then we may (or may not) get to know more about the other partner in the relationship. The kentukis witness intimate moments, moments of crisis, crimes and boredom. And the built in peril of needing to return to the charging mat is exploited to the maximum, over and over again. The stories unfold all over the globe; they explore the limits of the concept in different ways. But the stories are really not that engrossing. The characters don't develop much, there is no overarching quest, there is no connection between stories. There are occasional moments of suspense, at which point the narrative chops away to another story. The momentum is lost. The basic concept also never really convinces. Why would someone want to open their lives to someone they never know? Why would someone want to spend hours watching people watching TV? How do the numbers of dwellers and keepers match so perfectly? Why would anyone be so invested in something that typically lasts only a few days? The idea must be worth something, and there is some entertainment in some of the stories. But there is something missing. The analogies to social media and privacy concerns are not fully explored. There just isn't enough to carry the idea, good though it might be. Perhaps a generous three stars for the concept, but it would be nice to see an idea carried through a real novel. ***00
  5. Lionel Shriver does satires. In this case, she lampoons fitness fanaticism, especially when coupled with advancing old age. Her particular target is Remington Alabaster, a prematurely retired city planner who fills the gap in his life by training to run a marathon. I'll be honest, this is not a topic I realised was in need of lampooning. These marathon runners don't really do me any harm aside, possibly, from some questionable taste in colour schemes for their leisure wear. But having selected her rather soft target, Shriver hits her mark. Remington cuts a ridiculous figure blowing his meagre retirement funds on professional level equipment, never letting his lack of natural athletic ability stand in the way of his ambitions. He is a pompous, middle class intellectual who surrounds himself with other "athletes" with whom he seems to have nothing in common. Meanwhile, his wife Serenata Terpsichore is a woman who has been fit and athletic all her life but is now facing knee replacement surgery to rescue her mobility. As with many of her novels, The Motion of Body Through Space unfolds mostly in comic dialogue between the main protagonists interspersed by intentionally overwritten observational stuff. It creates a sense of farce that starts off quite gentle and builds through the novel. I found the sweet spot somewhere in the middle - specifically the chapter describing Remington's departure from the Albany Department of Transport. It was slow getting to that point - the connection with the characters is not immediate - but once that point was reached it broadened the feel beyond fitness into political correctness and ageing. This is not a profound novel. It's not Kevin. Nor is it light reading. It is a kind of intellectual humour that verges on sneering and can sound like Lionel Shriver sermonising. The quality of the writing and humour pulls it through, though, and makes for an entertaining read. ****0
  6. No - it's not one I've read. I have seen it in the bookshops but there's something about it just didn't grab me the way Scrublands did.
  7. In the Author's Note at the end of Brixton Hill, Lottie Moggach says her intention was to write a novel depicting the daily life and routines of prisoners approaching the end of a long sentence. She achieves that with aplomb, and what a vehicle she has hung that detail on. This is a twisty, turn novel that forces the reader to reassess everything they know as each new chapter begins. So: the story. Rob is applying for parole after seven years of an indeterminate sentence for manslaughter. He is staying in the open wing of a prison in Brixton, leaving every day to do voluntary work in a charity shop. He begins to form a bond with Stephanie, a woman he helps to her feet after a fall on the pavement. The story is about the way that relationship unfolds - and the jeopardy it may hold for Rob's release. The balance between light and dark is perfectly judged. Prisoners have a bleak life and a bleak future. They have done reprehensible things to land themselves in prison, and generally have some fairly unattractive personality traits. Small things take on high significance in such a spartan life. Rob has some redeeming features, but he cuts a pretty pathetic, clingy character. He is fatalistic and submissive. He leaves himself open to exploitation by his fellow prisoners, his manager in the charity shop, and by those he meets on the outside. The setting feels very real, the routines authentic. The characters are convincing too, even though they are living in situations that most of us would find extreme. The first person narrative - from both Rob and Steph - is done to perfection. This, more than anything, is what makes this such a compelling read and carries a plot that has moments of improbability. Yes, there is plenty of plot, but it's such a character driven novel. Brixton Hill doesn't feel like a debut novel - and it reminds me more than a little of Toni Jordan. *****
  8. How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a technically accomplished novel but I found it somewhat clinical and cold. Set in the Californian goldrush, the novel follows the fortunes of a Chinese migrant family. Initially, the two young girls. Lucy and Sam, are trying to find a suitable place to bury their father Ba. Ba seems to have been a cruel father led by drink and aggression. Other sections follow, one offering Ba's explanation of what he was trying to achieve; there's Ma's story of first meeting Ba, and there is Lucy in a goldrush town some years after burying Ba. Each section is packaged into chunks with symbolic names - the significant of which was lost on me - and there was a recurring theme of a tiger. The writing is good, but there is simply no empathy. Sure, there are some universal themes - the migrant experience, racism, possible trans-sexuality, loyalty, honour - but I'm not sure I ever believed the characters were real. It felt like fine clothes hung on tailor's dummies. There is magical realism too with Ba supposedly writing to the girls from beyond the grave. Perhaps I was distracted by the disintegration of the world around me (Covid-19 lockdown) which made this a really long slog of a book, but I suspect that even in normal times this would have been quite a hard book to pick up. ***00
  9. I have previously (twice - about a month ago) written a thought-through review for My Dark Vanessa, only for it to evaporate into the ether. This one, then, will be shorter. This is an intelligent novel exploring the concept of a student-teacher relationship. It would be easy, as many novels have done, to create a lily-white young victim and a monstrous predator. And to an extent, that is what Vanessa and Mr Strane are, even though neither sees the relationship quite that way. There are multiple time lines, one with Vanessa at school as her relationship with Mr Strane takes off. Then she is at college, and now, several years later, she approaches middle age as some of Mr Starne's former students feel he deserves to be exposed. The thing here is that Vanessa was certainly a consenting partner - and there are suggestions she might even have initiated the relationship. And it seems that Vanessa was starting a pattern, having a relationship with another tutor who, ironically, seems to be a friend of Mr Strane. Vanessa does not see herself as a victim and is appalled at the idea of joining some kind of class action against her former (and perhaps continuing) lover. Strane, on the other hand, is a very disturbing creation. He plays power games. He asks Vanessa to role play a father-daughter scenario. He is always Mr Strane; there is never even the slightest hint of equality. And he maintains contact, and maintains this domineering contact even as Vanessa is an adult. As the journalists circle, looking for blood, Vanessa and Mr Strane send each other text messages. My Dark Vanessa is a creepy and unsettling read that makes one question some aspects of the Me Too movement and, most of all, question how we should respond to a victim who refuses to see herself as such. ****0
  10. Blue Ticket is a dystopian story, probably set in a near future, where women's fertility is controlled by the state. Young women are subjected to a lottery where the majority are allocated a blue ticket - they will not have children and will wear a mirena IUD to make them infertile. A few receive a white ticket and a life of motherhood awaits. The blue ticket girls are told they are the lucky ones, free to have fun, free from responsibilities, free to pursue a career. Calla receives a blue ticket and keeps it in a locket around her neck - as the law requires. But after a few years of freedom, she starts to yearn for a child. On the one level, this is a story of a young woman who tries to escape over the border to a land of choice. It's a game of cat and mouse as the authorities try to close in on her. She meets others along the way who also fail to fit neatly in their pre-ordained roles. She makes friendships and encounters betrayals. It's a British Handmaid's Tale. On a deeper level, it makes us feel the injustice of this forced choice when so many women in our own society face a choice between a career or motherhood - and some have that choice forced upon them through biology to bad luck. We see that people's attitudes changeover time; what may seem like the right choice at one point of life may no longer look like the right choice at another. And then there is the nature of choice - having one thing and losing another. For some people, there is no right choice - they want both mutually exclusive options. There are some plot imponderables. Why would the state choose to control fertility in this way? Why would the state stop women emigrating? How does the population remain stable when most women are allowed blue tickets? Then there's the question of men. How can all the men seem to have access to relationships with white ticket women when there are so few to go around? But I guess these are relatively unimportant practicalities when the primary purpose is surely to make the reader dwell on matters of choice and destiny. Blue Ticket does handle that well. Moreover, there is enough character development for the reader t0 care about Calla and her fate. Blue Ticket is a short novel, not perfect and not as unique as I suspect it tries to be. But it is a worthwhile and enjoyable addition to the feminist canon. ****0
  11. I am experiencing my first ever audiobook right now. I am enjoying the experience although I found the pace rather slow. I have gradually increased the speed up to x2.0. This is much faster than I could read silently and I feel as though I can take more in than when I read for myself (but maybe that's just because of the novelty). Does anyone else turn the speed setting up?
  12. Glenn Patterson is one of Northern Ireland's national treasures. His novels over the past thirty years have documented the social history of Belfast, both contemporary and historic, with a great deal of love. Where other writers have focused mainly on the Troubles and the Catholic part of the community, Patterson writes from a Protestant perspective and his novels have kept the Troubles firmly in the background. Serendipitously, his writing has coincided with the Peace Process, allowing him to reflect great social change across his works. Where We Are Now is about middle age. Herbie is somewhere in mid-life - perhaps in his 50s - living somewhere in East Belfast. He has been laid off from his work as a payroll manager; as his company downsized, so too did the payroll Department. His ex-wife Tanya lives down south with her new partner Martin. He fills his time walking to the Public Records Office in the Titanic Quarter and offering research services to the visitors looking to recreate their family histories. His speciality is the records of public applotments. In between researches he drinks coffee in Sam's cafe and shops in Lidl. Herbie is lonely. He drifts into other people's conversations, lives on the edge of other people's lives. He used to ave more going on in his life; he remembers former times living in Mount Oriel when he and Tanya socialised a bit, did things. They had an identity. But now, in reduced circumstances, a visit from his daughter Beth forces Herbie to see his life now for what it is. This is, of course, a metaphor for where Belfast sits now. Trading on a recent history of being edgy, dangerous, Belfast now welcomes cruise ships, ferries its visitors around in tour buses to take selfies in front of murals. The paramilitaries no longer go on military manoeuvres but still stand over local businesses demanding protection money and free pizzas. They are hard men turning to flab. They still blight the lives of the communities they bleed, but they no longer impress anyone. And as the Troubles fade, Northern Ireland tries to hark back to an even earlier history - the artificial creation that is the Titanic Quarter. Modern buildings set on the derelict land left when the Harland and Wolff shipyard closed, named for its most famous ship. A ship which, of course, sank on its maiden voyage. Meanwhile, in the city centre there is real history that is being renovated to the point of extinction. Where We Are Now does have the signs of new beginnings. Sam and Derek - a same sex couple - seem to be accepted into the community. There are migrants coming to Belfast - although whether Brexit will let them stay remains to be seen. As the sub-post offices close they make way for new enterprises. The black taxis are making way for Uber. Even Herbie might find a way to reinvent himself. There is plenty of observational stuff - the small talk of the middle classes; the sparsely attended local football game (I presume Glentoran); the airport and its connections to the disappointing public transport network; the topography of East Belfast (although I could never quite work out where Herbie lived - perhaps Ballyhackamore); the migration of businesses to the petrol station. The characters also feel real, even though most of them wander in and out of the pages without ever setting the story alight. They are bit part players in the bigger story of a city that is having a mid-life crisis. So this isn't particularly a plot led story; it isn't exciting or shocking. It is more a chapter in Glenn Patterson's life work that suggests a turning point. Let's see where it goes next. *****
  13. I've come to this quite late, but better late than never. Boy Swallows Universe is a heavily stylised bildungsroman set in Brisbane in the 1980s - by all accounts quite a sketchy place run by sketchy people. Eli Bell, our hero, has a life that is sketchy with the colour turned full on. He lives with his silent brother August in a house that was home made, room by room, with an depressive mother and a heroin dealing stepfather; his absent biological father is an alcoholic; his only friend is an elderly convicted murderer; and he aspires to work for Bich Dang and her drug cartel. Each chapter is written - and titled - with a sensationalist three word newspaper headline. Each chapter is a mini-story but they come together to form a narrative arc. Mostly this is Eli staying "one step ahead of the shoe-shine; two steps away from the county line" as Simon and Garfunkel put it. The various adventures are lurid, cartoonish. But despite the schlock-horror, there is always the sense that there's a real story at its heart, with likeable boys who are doing whatever it takes to survive in a world that would eat them for breakfast. There are gangsters, jails, social workers, a prosthetic limb factory and a host of other pitfalls just waiting for them, but we know Eli will win the day. For much of the novel, the reader wonders how on Earth this can be brought to a resolution. The situations get more and more absurd, and it seems to be impossible for all the ends to be tied up. But they do get tied up with a pretty bow at the end. And it is so very Australian. From the slang to the mannerisms to the locations. It's all about Indooroopilly, Darra and Boggo Road. It's about the stress of trying to seem casual while worrying that everyone else is trying to screw you (Australia is seriously the most uptight place I can think of). And it's about the truly abysmal standard of journalism we have to ensure. Boy Swallows Universe is a rollercoaster of a novel, but as if by magic, it stays firmly on the tracks. *****
  14. Paddy is a middle class man who has accepted a short term job driving an articulated lorry on a run from Northern England to France. This is supposed to take a week, there and back. Paddy has his daughter Kitty for company, unknown to Carl who is running the operation. This is one of those novels where everything seems to be deliberately opaque. It's not clear what the lorry run is all about. Why has Paddy decided to do it? Why was he even asked? Why is his daughter with him? Who is Carl and why is he shadowing the journey? The novel is divided into interleaving sections. One is the truck journey; dialogue between Paddy and Kitty; trucker cafes; and introspection. Sentences are left hanging, there are text messages from A, we slip from dialogue into introspection with little signposting. And the second thread is about Paddy's former partner - or is it his daughter - and her relationships with unsympathetic men. In a further attempt to obfuscate, characters share names. And there seems to be a lot of dying. It becomes apparent reasonably early on that something is not right, but for most of the novel it isn't clear exactly what. Timelines blur, stories slip into one another, Paddy seems to be hiding from Carl. There's something happening with the tachographs where Paddy slips from fastidious refusal to tamper with the system to not using it at all. I suspect some of this would make more sense from a re-read. But a re-read is unlikely, mostly because I found the characters unknowable - and that's not fantastic in what is perhaps a character led novel. The characters do things, and they think things, and they say things but they never seem to feel anything. Their pasts are too fragmentary to build into a clear picture of who they are and what drives them as people. Their actions don't seem to have clear motivations. Perhaps in the final pages it is possible to make some inferences and that is what redeems this in part, but for a short book this feels very long. ***00
  15. It might still be - I'm just one opinion. See what others think...
  16. Sisters is a difficult book to review because there is a massive potential spoiler that must be avoided; and without referencing it, the review is really not getting to the point. But being obliged to post a review in exchange for early access to the title, needs must. July and September are sisters and the novel concerns a move from comfortable Oxford to the Settle House in an undisclosed northern location, probably somewhere near Whitby. Most of the novel is narrated by July, the slightly younger of the sisters (if you assume they were named for their birth month, this could place them only ten months apart and in the same UK school year). They are close (at lease according to July) almost to the point of telekinesis. At times, July feels as though they are the same person. Yet September seems to have an unhealthy and dangerous controlling influence over July. They are both somewhat emotionally stunted, turning to one another for company and friendship rather than building links with their fellow school students and this is not to their advantage. They are described as being very young for their age. Then there is Sheela, the mother. Sheela narrates a couple of small sections. She is a writer although she hides this talent well in her sections. She is an emotional wreck. Her life in Oxford has been uprooted; the sisters have driven her to making a bolt for the Settle House. This is one of those novels that Has a gentle and straightforward first half and then things go weird. And, as I often do, I think the straightforward section was more successful. It created some beautiful characters, a quietly unsettling scene and hints of darkness. Then when the weirdness starts, the lucidity evaporates and events are referenced in obviously and deliberately opaque terms. It really feels like a cop out. Writers from past times - Sheridan Le Fanu, for example - had no difficulty in creating strangeness while remaining quite lucid. Sarah Waters manages it in modern times. The strangeness should come from the ideas rather than the language. And Daisy Johnston was managing it perfectly well in the first half. Sisters is a short novel but the second half (from Sheela’s first narrative onwards) feels painfully long. ***00
  17. Nia is a young Welsh woman who has dropped out of Oxford and is working in Vesuvio, a cheap Italian restaurant in London. She is of mixed Welsh and Indian heritage, but she is firmly a UK national. Shan, working in the same restaurant, is Tamil and having his application for residency processed. He is not allowed to work. He dreams of bringing his family over from Sri Lanka. Most of Nia and Shan’s co-workers are undocumented or illegal workers, always keeping one ear open for an Immigration Service raid. The linchpin for the story is Tuli, the owner of Vesuvio. Tuli is a curious character. He loans money and pays debts; he facilitates people trafficking; he employs illegal workers. He could be seen to exploit desperate people, but equally, he is able to persuade himself and others that he is some kind of saviour figure rescuing those in the time of greatest need. It’s never clear to the reader which side of the divide he falls, or even whether there really is a divide. Is that a metaphor for all of us - liking to do good but essentially looking after ourselves? The structure of the novel can seem a bit clunky. Nia and Shan narrate separate sections, and for much of the beginning their stories don’t really intersect - so a dual storyline. Then when they do converge, the chopping from one perspective to the other makes the novel feel a bit blocky when it might have been smother to be able to keep popping back and forth in paragraphs. There is also a fairly significant plot issue where Shan is required to be unable to seek treatment from the health service. But, having applied for residence, he surely would have had access to proper healthcare... Nevertheless, the story is engaging and Nia, as a terminal underachiever, is an engaging character. I have met Nias. Shan is harder to know. Although there is a bit of backstory, it doesn’t quite define Shan as a person, more as a refugee. I suspect that like Nia, Shan was supposed to come across as a man with way more potential than he could use in a pizza joint, and that we could compare the different journeys that had brought them to this pass. Shan’s route being one of ambition and a desire to improve his situation; Nia’s as one of running away from opportunity. You People does have plenty to think about, not least in considering the scale of investment that families are prepared to make for a journey of illegal migration and what seems to be a precarious and impoverished existence. But I think there is a deeper story to be told in terms of how people like Tuli reconcile their morals with their deeds. ****0
  18. The quirky female narrator in a Northern Ireland novel is not a new thing but it’s often an enjoyable thing. Big Girl is Majella O’Neill, an underachieving young woman of stout proportions who is squandering her considerable academic potential by working six nights a week in her local chip shop. The small town is Aghybogey, a thinly disguised version of Castlederg in County Tyrone. So Majella keeps a list of all the things she doesn’t like, including sub-categories. She also keeps a much shorter list of things she does like, many of which are related to food. She uses these lists to narrate the story of a week following the murder of her grandmother. Given that her father has disappeared ten years ago, Uncle Bobby died while priming a bomb 16 years ago, and her mother is a non-functioning alcoholic, this presents Majella with an opportunity to become an adult and master of her own destiny. Or she could just keep working for the Hunters in the fish shop. In truth, not much happens during the week; and what does happen is glossed over by Majella as she focuses her thoughts on the foibles of the chip shop regulars, hating alcohol (because of what it is doing to her mother and her home life) and looking for bedding. She drinks a bit, has sex a bit, and eats fish suppers. The charm is in her cynical, comical way of looking at the world, mixed with tragedy that she resolutely refuses to take her place in the real world, instead just hiding behind routines and tics. This is a really good evocation of small town Ulster, told in a local vernacular that will bring a smile to those who know it and frustrate them those who don’t. The self-segregation of the two halves of the community (the Protestants would only dare come to A Salt and Battered in daylight, even though it serves better chips than the Protestant chip shop); the relatives away across the water; the stories of what you did in the war... If there’s something that sets this apart from similar semi-comic Northern Ireland novels it would be the rural setting west of the Bann allowing for ludicrous ideas like the poshy-woshy Omagh accent and thinking of Strabane as urban. I just wish Michelle Gallen had done something a bit more with Majella. The story is mostly back-story. The story of the dead grandmother, although acting as a McGuffin, never really takes off and I’m not sure there’s any real character development. This means that some of the repetitiveness of Majella’s life does seep into the text. There are only so many ways of ordering a fish supper or having banter with your work colleague as you put the chips in the fryer. So four stars rather than five. Oh, and I read an advance copy. I do hope the final version is more consistent in the name of Johann-Pol, or Johann-Paul, or Yawn-Pawl, or Yawn-Paul... ****0
  19. Three Apples Fell from the Sky is a really strange novel. Written in Russian by an Armenian writer, the novel tells the story of Maran, a village in the Armenian mountains suffering from famine, drought, locusts and a hint of war in the East. The villagers live simple lives, farming the land, taking honey from the bees, living in ancient stone houses with the only connection to the outside world being a donkey track through the mountains to the valley below. The time setting is never revealed, but the occasional reference to food expiry dates, baby formula, Caesarian sections and the like give it quite a recent setting - perhaps the 1990s with the war referencing Azerbaijan and the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. But most of this feels as though it could have been a hundred years ago or more. In broad terms, Three Apples tells the story of Anatolia, a woman who is lying on her bed, bleeding to death and calmly awaiting her fate. The story then pans out backwards and forwards in time (often with very little signposting) as we see the world around Anatolia. The short novel includes a plentiful cast and their relevance and inter-relationships is not always obvious. There is some light and humour in Anatolia’s relationship with Vasily, the blacksmith, but it is bucking the trend in what is a fairly bleak tale of the demise of the village, slowly withering in the absence of a younger generation. The style of the narrative is journalistic; facts are presented with little background or commentary. It reads like a folk tale. After a while, I’m afraid, this can be quite disengaging. There’s a view of people travelling back and forth, intoning statements in grave tones but without the reader fully appreciating the significance of what is happening. The setting does ring true; the lives feel real; but it just never adds up into anything that really captures the reader’s imagination. ***00
  20. This one did come close to being a DNF. Even at 90% complete, I wondered whether it really warranted another 20 minutes of my life.
  21. Strange Hotel is Eimear McBride's third novel. I loved A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, written in an unusual and accomplished stream of consciousness technique. The Lesser Bohemians was a lesser novel, still applying the stream of consciousness technique but feeling rather more knowing. Strange Hotel simply doesn't work for me. Strange Hotel follows an unnamed woman staying one (maybe more) nights in hotel rooms around the world. She seems to have no purpose, no job and very little in the way of a past. Maybe she defines herself by a former relationship that she tries to avoid thinking about. But there's not much to latch onto. And she witters to herself while the novel - mostly written in third person - tries to carry off this interior monologue. This is often about men she has slept with in these hotel visits, sometimes not. There is no plot, no discernible character development, no resolution. Most of the narrative is deliberately opaque to the point that it might as well be rhubarb rhubarb. And in terms of interior monologue - nobody thinks or speaks that way. It isn't convincing. The novel is short enough that I kept reading to the end to see whether it would all come together. In some ways the pattern became clearer, but there was no rhyme nor reason why the pattern was being followed. There was no moment of reveal, and no particular sense of understanding to be had. Basically, it seemed to be a novel about a woman wasting her time and ours. *0000
  22. Strange Hotel is Eimear McBride's third novel. I loved A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, written in an unusual and accomplished stream of consciousness technique. The Lesser Bohemians was a lesser novel, still applying the stream of consciousness technique but feeling rather more knowing. Strange Hotel simply doesn't work for me. Strange Hotel follows an unnamed woman staying one (maybe more) nights in hotel rooms around the world. She seems to have no purpose, no job and very little in the way of a past. Maybe she defines herself by a former relationship that she tries to avoid thinking about. But there's not much to latch onto. And she witters to herself while the novel - mostly written in third person - tries to carry off this interior monologue. This is often about men she has slept with in these hotel visits, sometimes not. There is no plot, no discernible character development, no resolution. Most of the narrative is deliberately opaque to the point that it might as well be rhubarb rhubarb. And in terms of interior monologue - nobody thinks or speaks that way. It isn't convincing. The novel is short enough that I kept reading to the end to see whether it would all come together. In some ways the pattern became clearer, but there was no rhyme nor reason why the pattern was being followed. There was no moment of reveal, and no particular sense of understanding to be had. *0000
  23. The Mercies is a fictionalisation of real life events on Vardo, an island off the Northern coast of Norway. On Christmas Eve 1617, the fishing boat went down taking almost all the men of the island with it. Left to fend for themselves, the women take on the roles formerly carried out by the men, apparently with the blessing of the pastor. Some of the more pious women grumble, but some of the women positively thrive in the environment. Kirsten, a tall and muscular woman, finds trousers quite practical; Diinna, a Sami woman, sees the opportunity to stay away from the chapel and draw on the traditions of her heritage. But this way of life collides head on with authority when a dour Scots presbyterian, Absolom Cornet, is appointed to come to Vardo as the new commissioner and get the women back into line. He got the gig because of his expertise in finding and dealing with witches. And when witch-hunters come to town, they find witches. But with Absolom comes Ursa, a young woman from Tromso who had the misfortune to be in Absolom's line of sight when he was looking for a wife to accompany him to the island. Ursa has no experience of running a household - her family had servants for that - so she finds guidance in wifely skills from Maren, one of the islanders. This is a story about witch hunts, yes, but there are also themes of social class, feminism, urbanism and racism. The dual narrative lines - from both Maren and Ursa's perspective - is confusing at first (it is not completely clear that Ursa has no initial connection to Vardo - but once the storylines start to intersect it becomes a powerful device. The depiction of everyday life in 17th Century Norway is convincing; it is spartan but there are still recognisable social values - bitching about floorspace and food, petty jealousies. The land is evoked well, the weather, the hardships. And there is also love between women - not just the close friendship between Maren and Ursa, but also suggestions of sexual affection. The novel's ending is satisfying and brutal, albeit the story sort off eclipses some of the more observational work that is the real strength of The Mercies. Overall, this is a solid read - not spectacular but perfectly readable. ****0
  24. The Eighth Life (for Brilka) is a phenomenal novel – right up there with the best of the best. If it’s not my all-time favourite novel (and it might be) then it must be in the top three or four. Set over more than a hundred years in Georgia, we follow six generations of the Jashi family. There is the patriarch, a chocolate maker who creates a mystical recipe for hot chocolate that tastes divine but curses those who drink it. Generation after generation, the Jashis partake of the chocolate. The hundred years span the Great October Socialist Revolution, Stalin’s purges, the Great Patriotic War, the Czech uprisings, Perestroika, Georgian Independence and all the political turmoil in between. Readers with some knowledge of Soviet history will be ticking off the major events one by one. Each turbulent event forms its own story, but the Jashi line continues through the process, impacted by the waves from previous events. And casting a long shadow through the century is the Little Big Man, the Georgian head of the NKVD who is only named in the very last pages of the novel. The fate of the Jashis seems to be a mirror for the fate of Georgia. Full of promise; starting advantages and natural resources. Then falling into disastrous relationships. Flourishing when playing by others’ rules but falling apart when given the freedom to set its own direction. This is set alongside the fate of the Eristavi family, their lives intertwined with the Jashis, who do not have the Jashi’s connections and do not fit comfortably in the system. The novel focuses on the lives of seven women in the Jashi line, but each of these seven sections includes backstory; side stories; and continues the story of previous baton-holders. There is enough reference back to remind the reader of previous episodes although, inevitably in a book of nearly 1000 pages and with such an immense sweep of time, some of the references back feel like the ghosts of an ancient time. The ease with which the story skips back and forth; the asides from the narrator (Niza – herself not born during most of the story she narrates) to the young Brilka in the present day; the leitmotif of the chocolate – it utterly breathtaking. The willingness of the novel to embrace tragedy – stories don’t always have happy endings and villains don’t always get their just deserts – is unusual but refreshingly so. And just as the tragedy brings real and convincing emotion, so too does the love and the laughter that run through the novel. This is a long novel, but it never feels slow. The stories are told with pace and verve; they are significantly different to one another; the characters are well enough delineated that it never feels repetitive. The length is just because there is a lot of story to tell, and it is told so wonderfully that the effort is in putting the novel down, not picking it up. Many novels have grand ambitions. They seldom bring it off. But The Eighth Life manages it without breaking sweat. Nothing feels forced, nothing feels flashy. It is just – like the chocolate – sheer perfection. *****
  25. 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
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