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  1. Zingers (snack cakes from America) Next up - words that (however loosely) describe the weather. Arctic.
  2. The Wild Laughter is Caoilinn Hughes's follow up to The Orchid and the Wasp which was, for my money, the most complex and beguiling Celtic Tiger novel. This one is a big contrast - where The Orchid and The Wasp was a colourful novel about hope and good fortune set in Dublin and New York, The Wild Laughter is a dowdy novel set in dowdy County Roscommon. Is it just coincidence that this was John McGahern's setting for his loosely autobiographical The Barracks? We have a village. We have a farm. We have Doharty (Hart) Black about to inherit the farm from his mother Nora and his terminally ill father Manus, known affectionately as The Chief. Hart feels stuck. He has no great interest in farming and is envious of his brother Cormac who has escaped to town and gets to hang out with the arty crowd. Hart apparently got the looks and Cormac got the brains - and he doesn't think this was a fair trade. The farm is not healthy. It wasn't ever quite clear, but it seems the family made some poor investments that were wiped out when the Celtic Tiger collapsed. There's a sense that the Blacks are collateral damage while they imagine the financiers and dealmakers have survived. This feels like a significant evolution from the pastoral feel of McGahern's novels. But how far is this really new? Couldn't a parallel be made to the devastating impact of An Gorta Mor, driving tenant farmers broke while the landlords seemed to have got away unscathed? Couldn't Cormac be seen as an emigrant, fleeing the land for the prospect of a brighter life? But having set up the novel to be one thing, its focus seems to slide. First of all, we have a story of sibling rivalry over women. And then we have a story about assisted dying complete with a courtroom potboiler. The pace changes wildly between these different focuses - towards the end each successive chapter could almost have come from a different novel. It is unconventional, it's a bit distracting, but it also lifts this above a McGahern wannabe. Caoilinn Hughes can certainly write - probably in two languages. There were plenty of phrases as Gaeilge that were not translated into English. I got some of them from my basic knowledge of Scottish Gaidhlig, but a lot of it went over my head. I suspect the novel is highly referential on an academic level (characters' names, for example, are not chosen at random; a couple are spelled out but the others have meanings too). Sometimes, though, a novel can be too clever. The Achilles Heel in The Wild Laughter is that the crucial plot developments are written in such an oblique way that it is hard to be sure exactly what has happened. By all means invite readers to read between clever lines for small points of detail, but when the main thrust of the story is dissipated in this way it can be so frustrating. Overall, there's enough in The Wild Laughter to be readable, thought provoking and occasionally fun. The narrative angle is quirky and scenes of farmyard raids (links to Ribbonism?) are fun. But a more consistent narrative drive and clearer language in parts could have made this truly great. ****0
  3. Kate Grenville has a winning formula and she’s jolly well going to stick with it. That formula is to set a story around the early years of the penal colony that has now grown into Sydney; to focus on particular early settlers; their journey to the colony; their work in claiming a life for themselves; and the impact that had on the Indigenous population. Kate Grenville does this very well; her writing is evocative; she creates both the place and the atmosphere of the time. She poses the same difficult questions about the human instinct for survival even at the cost of others – whether that is the crime that resulted in transportation; the exploitation of the convicts by the naval officers – using them essentially as slave labour; or the dispossession and massacre of Aboriginal people. There is a sense that it might all have turned out differently with more respect; but equally a sense that people did not (and still do not) want to give up their privilege. Plus, there’s the difficult truth that there was a lot achieved in a very short space of time in those early days when human rights, procedural fairness and accountability did not present obstacles. It is unlikely that modern bureaucracies could achieve so much, so quickly. In a bit of a departure, A Room Made of Leaves names real people: the Macarthurs – wool barons – after whom many Australian things are named. The premise is that Elizabeth Macarthur left a written account of her life which is now being transcribed. In this account, she focuses on her turbulent but middle-class childhood in Devon, her obligation to marry and follow a rather mediocre Naval Ensign after falling pregnant, and her early experiences in New South Wales. She is a diplomat who seeks to achieve by listening, learning and implementing. Her husband John is a hot-headed, impetuous man with a fondness for duelling – a chancer who will wheedle and blackmail his way to success. Elizabeth’s narrative would have us believe that she created a wool empire in spite of her husband; the reality is that it took the mis-matched pair to achieve success. Elizabeth provided the ideas and sourced the knowledge of sheep-husbandry; John obtained the land and made sure the traditional owners were “dealt with”. We also meet Lieutenant Dawes, thinly disguised as Daniel Rooke in The Lieutenant, who provides some comfort for Elizabeth in the early years of an unhappy marriage. Dawes was interested in Aboriginal languages and culture, as well as learning more about the land and its plant-life. Through Dawes, Elizabeth came to meet some of the Traditional Owners whose land her husband was intent on acquiring. But when Dawes returned to England, Elizabeth lost both her lover and her moral compass. She understood that the Aboriginal people, just like her slave-convicts, were people too. She just chose to push that to the back of her mind as she amassed her fortune. Like her previous Thornhill series, A Room Made of Leaves is beautifully done, but it is bleak and the message can seem sometimes to take over the story. As a footnote, A Room Made of Leaves would have been written before the Black Lives Matter movement started to shine a spotlight onto specific historical figures. As a society, we are starting to question the iconic status that many colonialists have enjoyed; to question the legacy of place names and statues. The use of real names in this fiction may cause too much attention to be focused on the names rather than on the real legacy which is one of enduring privilege that was earned only through exploitation and genocide. ****0
  4. Indeed - but who knew she was still alive?
  5. I don't normally go for self-published books by the ubiquitous Anonymous, but this time I'm glad I did. Incel claims to be a How-to-Kill Handbook. It's actually a multi-layered literary fiction novel narrated by a lawyer, Calvin Loch, who is on a mission to right the sexual injustices of the world. Using the language of the Incel Movement, Calvin seeks to justify a series of ever more bizarre and paranoid revenge attacks. Through using a non-linear narrative, we come to understand what may have led Calvin to be such a broken man. He clearly has suffered injustice, and Incel offers him a convenient framing device , but ultimately his problems are not about a lack of jawbone; they are not about Stacy and Becky and Chad. This is a fairly long and carefully structured novel. It is complex, feeding background at just the right time. It is well written in a distinctive voice - a mixture of intelligent, whiny and self-entitled. Calvin is not loveable and his arrogance removes all possibility of sympathy. He is vile, but quite convincingly so. In between Calvin's misdeeds, we get some wonderful depictions of life in a New York legal firm; a village on a Caribbean island; and the world of the rich and famous - all of whom are blessed with Calvin's presence on his mission. So this isn't a How to Kill Handbook. It isn't teachy or preachy. It is a seamy, sleazy story of annihilation. All this adds up to read line something written by Sergio de la Pava. Who knows? Perhaps it is... ****0
  6. A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom is a difficult book. I mean, it’s technically amazing – a genuine and audacious piece of brilliance. But the reader experience is more of a rollercoaster. The basic set-up is the novel following the life of a man from childhood to (probably) late middle age through loves, feuds, betrayal and loyalty. He and the central characters form a continuous narrative arc, while the scene shifts wildly in geography and time – so for a while, the novel is set in Korea’ for a while it is in Brazil; for a while it is in Egypt. The characters’ names change with each progression of time to fit the local language but they always start with the same letter. Little details change – our central character is of artistic bent but in one setting he will be a stone mason, in another he will be a weaver, in another he will be a bookbinder. And the scene shifts are not part of a plot – so it’s not one character travelling in time and space; the action from one chapter in Italy might then become a parallel back story in another chapter in Namibia. It’s weird, it makes reader engagement difficult, but it is also breathtaking. So in each chapter, the scene shifts to an important historical setting. So we might have Attila the Hun (Hello Attila), or the Buddhas of Bamiyan, or Macbeth, or Shakespeare. These little vignettes are often more dazzling than the story itself – but whether they sparkle depends on how much you can identify the various references. Some of them that were unfamiliar to me (especially the ones set in Central and South America and the Far East) felt more like barriers to be circumvented. And I guess very few readers will get every section. At some points the story seems stronger than others. The hunt for the cousin can sometimes be quite exciting, but towards the end the plot fizzles out. It’s also at this point that the neutral observer of world history starts to feel a bit more politically pointy. The penultimate section in particular, set in the present day, seems to use the plot simply as a vehicle for some (well made) political points. The final section is just plain weird and I haven’t got much idea what it was trying to achieve – things just disappear into a mist of metaphysics. This is a brilliant book. I’m sure it is. Parts of it are treasure and will stay with me. There may be awards in due course. But after two and a half weeks (this was not a quick or easy read) I can’t help a slight residual wondering of what on Earth it was all about. ****0
  7. I do feel as though the author chose the page order so that's what I went with. But when the author suggests an alternative reading - especially when coupled with signposts to guide you and a strong implication that the alternative reading is better - it takes some strength of character to resist. I do remember an Ali Smith book (How To Be Both) that was basically two novellas and you were supposed toke able to read them in either order. And half the copies were printed with one novella first. and the other half with the other one first. Not that I could spot very much connection between the two halves.
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. 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
  11. 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
  12. 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
  13. 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.
  14. 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. *****
  15. 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
  16. 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
  17. 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
  18. 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?
  19. 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. *****
  20. 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. *****
  21. 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
  22. It might still be - I'm just one opinion. See what others think...
  23. 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
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