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Everything posted by MisterHobgoblin

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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...
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. 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. *****
  8. 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
  9. I notice on Goodreads that although Calliope has read this and given it four stars, she hasn't passed it on to me, despite my interest in parliament and government. Whereas she did pass on Apple Tree Yard with considerable enthusiasm. I can read something into that.
  10. Congratulations Anna Burns for winning the Booker Prize with Milkman. This really is an astonishing book that is so rich and textured and every time I think back on it I love it a little bit more.
  11. I have followed the Booker for a good few years now - I think this was the 15th year I have read a substantial portion of the list (all of them this year) and every year people will pop up and complain that the prize is losing its lustre and ignoring the big names. But some of those "weak" lists are now held up as exemplars of the golden age we all hark back to. I remember Hilary Mantel being one of the outsiders who had kept out the real talent. I remember when Ali Smith was a leftfield choice and when people thought Life of Pi was lightweight. But last year's outsiders become this year's establishment. By the bye, having read all of this year's longlist I think it is one of the strongest and most engaging lists I can remember. I love Milkman and it is good enough to become a classic. The Overstory is long, but rich, complex and twisty. Everything Under is both clever and gripping. The other shortlisters could also be worthy winners except, perhaps, The Mars Room. Long live the Booker!
  12. Perfidious Albion has the most gorgeous cover which, couples with a promising sounding blurb, sold the book to me. And having read it, I still think the cover is gorgeous. Sadly, the actual pages were a bit of a letdown. It is now many years since I left perfidious Albion. Since I left, the country has changed: the centre-left government has been replaced by a government of the far right; the Scottish referendum was stolen by lies; the European dream has died and xenophobia reigns supreme. The Little Englanders have won and are destroying all that I knew and valued. I stand by the maxim: nobody likes a Tory. So it is unsurprising that I did not enjoy spending 400 pages in the company of Tories – not even ones being held up for ridicule. We had the leader of an English separatist movement; we had a far right paramilitary force; we had corporate greeed, we had right wing bloggers and chat-show commentators. They were willing to foment discord, incite racial hatred, trample people and cheat them of their life savings. Yes, I can see the parallels between big business and political movements of the right – trying to trick the majority on false promises in order to further their own narrow interests. And setting this in middle England – Edmundsbury is a not-even-slightly disguised Bury St Edmunds – shows the transfer of power from the intelligentsia and the arts to knuckledraggers in crappy market squares paved in crappy red bricks, surrounded by crappy chain shops like Superdrug and Dorothy Perkins. God, has it really come to this? The trouble I had with Perfidious Albion was that I couldn’t tell most of the characters apart; I did not believe in half of them – especially the social commentators and fake bloggers – and the sole voices of social conscience were weak. I did not believe in some of the central ideas including the whole internet privacy thing or “The Field”. I did not believe in the fear and outrage behind the web hijackers. That’s not to say there weren’t some good set pieces and astute commentary – particularly the exploitation of zero hours contracts. I kinda liked the vacuous dinner party conversations pontificating about the way to save the nation, much as I didn’t particularly believe in the characters engaged in these conversations. But it didn’t quite redeem a novel that was too long, too relentless in its depiction of right-wing thinking, and too naïve in its ridicule of such thinking. So – an interesting reading experience but one I probably regret. ***00
  13. Elizabeth Keane is an Irish émigré, living in New York with her teenage son Zach, having recently split from a husband, Elliot. When her mother Patricia dies, Elizabeth winds up back in Ireland closing up her Patricia’s affairs – in the course of which she finds a stack of letters from the father she never knew, inspiring her to fill in the missing gaps in her own life history. The novel is told in dual timelines: Now and Then. Now is Elizabeth’s story, her quest for her past. She asks former neighbours, acts on half-heard whispers and discovers she has inherited not one but two houses. Then is Patricia’s story, set in the 1970s as she is seduced by lonely hearts letters from Elizabeth’s father, Edward Foley. This historical timeline is no mere backstory – it is the main event and although it starts out quite pedestrian, it becomes quite chilling. The two timelines work together to augment one another. Sometimes one timeline pre-empts the other, and sometimes it fills in details the other timeline has missed. It is handled very deftly. Together, they combine to depict an Ireland with an extensive rural hinterland that has still not completely shed its religious and moral shackles. Secrets abound – many taken to the grave after decades of silence. People’s roles in society are determined at birth and the only way to break free of those roles are to emigrate, either westwards or eastwards. And even then, the Elizabeth, Zach and Elliot situation is not without parallels to the Patricia, Elizabeth and Edward story. In particular, there is an undercurrent of the lives that gay people can be forced to live in order to comply with society’s expectations. One of the main surprises in A Keeper is how serious it is given Graham Norton’s fame as a comedian. The reader may expect the novel to come packed with one-liners, sarcastic asides, innuendo and single-entendres. The reader may expect something over-hyped that was published only because of the famous by-line. Not a bit of it. The novel is almost completely devoid of humour; it is black, it grips social issues and in parts it is genuinely terrifying. A Keeper is a mature and thoughtful work by a writer of considerable talent. ****0
  14. I'm new to graphic novels so I haven't got much of a yardstick to judge them by, but A Hell of an Innocent was a short but punchy offering. In broad terms, Ike Hopper, the lolly shop owner in Dubbo is on his deathbed and confesses to murdering Lee Duncan twenty-something years previously. Lee was the young wife of his brother Greg, who fled the scene of the crime. This confession allows Greg to return to Dubbo from his exile on a sheep station near Gundagai. The story is initially quite difficult to follow. The key to understanding it is that Ike, who narrates the story, is not seen in the visuals. At first, Ike's narration accompanies pictures of the sheriff who the reader will naturally assume to be Ike, and then accompanies Greg. Oh, and the reader will come to appreciate Lee in a different light. This initial confusion does resolve itself by the end and is likely to send the reader straight back to the beginning to resolve unanswered questions. The imagery is gorgeous. In hues of red and brown, there is a convincing representation of regional NSW and small country towns. It looks and feels authentic. And although some of the dialogue does feel a bit like the Strine is strained, overall it works. The characters feel real despite this being, essentially, a short story and the plot had a delightful twist to it. I believe this is a French/European production but I would not have known; this could easily have been authentic Australian. ****0
  15. Heads of the Colored People is a witty and - at times - savage portrayal of middle class African Americans. Through many of the stories there is a thread of expectations - the expectations of the black community of their own; the expectations of the white folk; and the expectations of the individuals themselves. There is a sense that it is very hard, if not impossible, to be an individual who just happens to be black. There are roles to be played and if you don't conform to the expectations, someone is going to get hurt. The stories themselves are very varied. We have a crotchety university professor who hoped for a quieter life by working at the black university; warring mothers waving qualifications at one another when botching about one another's daughter; a social media whore; a disabled guy and his stalker. None of the stories is boring, and for the most part they work well. Some of the stories interlink or have common characters - and I might spot more links if I went back to the beginning. This builds a sense of community and shows how some of the characters resent having expectations forced upon them while they force their own expectations on others. Despite the darkness, there's a healthy dose of positivity. Many of the characters are upwardly mobile - even the victims don't have a sense of victimhood. Poverty is something that happens to other people, although the legacy if poverty is hinted at occasionally - for example, one story centres around the first time a black person tasted potato bread. The writing is clear and the narrative direction is clear. None of those opaque short stories with ambiguous endings here. It's not pretending to be arty, but is quietly effective in giving the reader both entertainment and an insight into a community that may not be well known or well represented in literature. The collection is short - always a relief with short stories as collections can feel quite choppy quite quickly - and the individual stories feel just the right length, long enough to make their point but short enough not to go stale. Really, a very good collection. ****0
  16. So there's a widow called Frances, whose husband Franklin may have been reincarnated into a cat called Little Frank, and she moves to France in a novel called French Exit. Can you see what he did? I loved The Sisters Brothers and Undermajordomo Minor - both cartoony and quirky. But French Exit seems to be grounded in real places. For a while it was not set in any particular time, until someone spent euros in Paris which fixed it in a narrow timespan. We're dealing with reality here - and it's not what we were expecting. This short little novel starts off with an intriguing premise: Frances is a rich and eccentric widow - she discovered her dead husband but decided not to report the death until she had got back from a skiing holiday. As you do. She has blown through all the money and now has to decide what to do. There is never any great mystery that she is going to head to Paris on a last hurrah before ending it all. Which is what she proceeds to do. Even though this is a short novel, it takes a mighty long time to read. It manages the rare feat of being both predictable and hardy to follow. New characters pop up without warning; new issues seem to appear without ever having started. Still, though, the book plods on to its inevitable conclusion - we have mystics, talking cats, a private detective, the Eiffel Tower - but nothing really joins up. There are gags for gags' sake - with an unfulfilled need for some kind of intrigue to hold it all together. With hindsight I should have stopped reading but I was just waiting for it all to click together. I should have known it wouldn't This is not the worst book I have read, but it is one of the most disappointing. **000
  17. The Little Snake is a children’s story about a young girl, Mary, who befriends a beautiful golden snake called Lanmo. Mary lives in a fantasy land where people fly kites from their rooftops. Mary’s heart is pure and her willingness to converse with objects and animals opens up a charming world where she can bridge the gap between the real and the magical. The language is playful with the narrator making lots of asides and quips to the reader. There are lots of cutesy snakey words and cuddly imagery. But all is not as it seems. Mary’s city is deeply divided between rich and poor. Racism is rampant and diversity is a dirty word. The residents want to pull up the drawbridge, not seeing the wonderful cultural and social advantages that could be brought with more imagination. Mary’s parents are struggling to make ends meet as the city plunges into economic stagnation. War is a constant threat. Lanmo is actually a supernatural manifestation of death. So, these two angles inhabit the same short novella. Lanmo invites Mary to teach him about the ways of humans, about the ways of friendship and love. Lanmo learns to taste emotions; with a quick flick of his tongue, he can read a person and determine a fate. Lanmo and Mary share their bewilderment at the paradoxical life-choices of humans. And time passes. Meanwhile at night – and later for extended periods – Lanmo goes about his work, travelling across vast distances to seek out those whose time has come to an end. This offers an opportunity for vignettes – the warrior king, the dancing lovers, the third (or fourth) richest man in the world – and derive a wry look at human nature from their reaction to Lanmo. This ability to see ourselves from an outsider, alien perspective is very well done. Particularly as it moves from the bleeding obvious to more subtle and nuanced behaviours. But most of all, the joy is from the comic narration. Scenes like Lanmo trying to eat Mary’s pet kitten, for example, or the deadpan assertion of the importance of testing in schools. The Little Snake is an absolute treasure trove of wit, perceptiveness, prose-poetry and charm. The amount that AL Kennedy has packed into so few pages is breathtaking. There is no flab, no redundancy anywhere in this perfect little book. I loved every minute and have to resist the temptation to start all over again. *****
  18. If you are fascinated by the bed-hopping habits of students then this is the book you have been waiting for! Connell and Marianne are from Carricklea, a fictional town in Sligo (not the fashionable end of Ireland). Marianne lives in the big house with her mother. At school, she is ostracised for being weird – perhaps because she is rich, perhaps because her father is dead. Perhaps because she is clever. Connell is from the regular side of town. His father is also gone; his mother Lorraine works for Marianne’s mother as a cleaner. Connell is also clever, but he seems to have kept this hidden from his friends. Connell is popular and able to get dates with pretty much anyone he wants – even the most popular girl in school. Connell and Marianne have a clandestine relationship that Connell tries to deny is actually a relationship, and Marianne seems to be grateful for any company she can get, regardless of the terms. Each chapter moves the clock forward by a few weeks or a few months and the pair disappear off to Dublin to go to university. Dublin’s a different place altogether and Marianne’s wealth and intelligence bring ready acceptance into the beautiful people. Connell, meanwhile, is the poor bogtrotter who struggles to find his niche. Then, like a Russian novel, these two friends drift in and out of one another’s lives and in and out of one another’s beds. In between their brief periods of togetherness, we tick off heaps of social issues that are of great importance to undergraduates: academic pressure; prizes and scholarships; abusive older boyfriends; parties; finding the next drink… I suppose the theme of the novel is about social class and power imbalances. How in youth, fitting in is about reaching downwards whereas in adulthood it is about aspirations and reaching upwards. It’s like Bill Gates used to say: be nice to nerds because one day you’ll work for them. And associated with class, you have the urban/rural divide with the Dublin Jackeens ruling the roost, only admitting those from the big houses into their midst. But at the same time, there is a hollowness to this belonging. The sacrifices you have to make to your integrity as you adapt to fit in will ultimately lead to hollow feelings. This is a novel that could happily have been written twenty, thirty years ago. Things don’t change. But people do – and a novel that might have seemed wonderful and insightful in my own youth now looks trivial. Student relationships were only ever interesting if you were in them. You always remember your first love, but then life happens. And life is more interesting. ***00
  19. Astroturfing is a lot of fun. Ned is an internet designer who likes to keep fit at the gym. Unfortunately, his natural physique is never going to let him bulk up, so he looks to testosterone supplements to augment the hormones he naturally produces… This is a short comic novel (novella?) that mixes body-building with cybercrime. The plot is simple but strong, but the real strength is in the handling of a range of social and ethical questions. Perhaps the biggest of these is the question of physical attractiveness and the way it opens opportunities. Much of the current debate is around images of female beauty and the pressure women feel to meet unattainable standards as their social capital erodes as they age. Recently the very weird In-Cel movement has started to get some prominence – and in many ways, Astroturfing taps into the perception that the Chads and Staceys can access love, friendship, respect, career opportunities and wealth that is not available to the Beta Male. Then, flowing from this is the question of what is acceptable in correcting the imbalances created through genetics. Is it cheating to use artificial supplements? Why are some external supports deemed to be cheating when others – protein shakes, improbable amounts of time at the gym, hiring personal trainers – deemed to be OK? Is there a moral difference when the supplements are intended to help a person in life as opposed to within a sporting competition? And does a law mean anything if nobody actually enforces it? These questions – and more – are played out both in “real life” and in chatroom sock puppet discussions. The story is good and the format is engaging. The characters are necessarily limited given the length of the novel, but Ned walks a tightrope between being abhorrent and being amusing – not sure he ever quite managed to appear likeable. His boss, Piotr, is a comedic horror – laddish, competitive, sexist and bullying. The gym instructor, Darus, is also a great comic creation – slow-witted, vain and greedy. The women are less well drawn and, as one might expect in such a sexist text, largely decorative. If there is an Achilles heel, it is the dialogue. It doesn’t always quite ring true. Sometimes the characters sound as though they are speechifying, and some of the web forum posts feel rather more coherent – their arguments just a little bit too sophisticated – for the deliberately poor spelling and grammar. Oh, and I didn’t quite buy the ending which required Ned to embrace some life changes that didn’t seem quite consistent with his prior behaviour and personality. Look, this isn’t high literature and it doesn’t pretend to be. It is a bit of fun, and it delivers that in good measure. ****0
  20. Warlight is a story of espionage and intrigue, set in London in two distinct time spaces: the 1940s and 1959. In the 1940s narrative, Nathaniel, his sister Rachel and their parents have survived the war. Surviving the peace will not be so easy. First Nathaniel’s father leaves to work in Asia, and then his mother disappears. He and Rachel are brought up in the family home by a revolving cast of strange men who seem to drift around the edges of the criminal underworld. There are shady dealings with greyhounds and furtive nocturnal sailings up and down the Thames in a mussel barge. Nathaniel is at the transition from boy to man; he works in kitchens, sows wild oats and charms the various oddballs who hang around with his guardians. Until, one evening, this strange world collapses in on itself. Moving to the 1959 section, Nathaniel is older and works for one of the government security agencies. This gives him an opportunity to investigate some of the mysterious events of the 1940s. In particular, we discover what happened to Nathaniel’s mother and her relationship with the curiously named Marsh Felon, the son of a thatcher who had worked on her roof many years previously. For the first half, the reader is happy to go along with it all to see where it leads. Then, early in the second half, something goes awry. The point of view moves away from Nathaniel and somehow everything seems less immediate, less convincing. Nathaniel’s mother behaves inexplicably. Even when the explanation is attempted, it is inexplicable. As each character is explained in turn, the fundamental driving direction weakens more and more. It comes as no great surprise to the reader to discover that they everyone is a spook, but it is never clear how or why any of them became involved in espionage in the first place – or what they did while working as spies. The evocation of an atmosphere is well done if somewhat clichéd. I mean, was the whole of the 1940s foggy? Were the streets really full of spivs that would embarrass Private Walker from Dad’s Army? Did spies really behave quite so – er – mysteriously? The good outweighs the bad in Warlight. The first half and more is really compelling. The frustration is that the switch from intriguing to boring is quite sudden and quite irreversible. By the very end, with a greyhound nuzzling Nathaniel’s hand, there is an overwhelming sense that section after section has been added to get the wordcount up, but without any sense of whether it was actually adding to the story – which in a story-led novel is a problem. Three and a half stars rounded down. ***00
  21. The Church - Unguarded Moment https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Osz-GQbX37o
  22. The literary fiction caravan comes to Neasden. Previously known only for the ashen-faced Ron Knee, Sid and Doris Bonkers and Private Eye (see p. 94); we find ourselves in a council estate following multiple points of view within a diverse community. At first it looks as though it is going to be all about youth with Yusuf, Ardan and Selvon - but we also find other voices: Nelson, a Windrush generation man and Caroline, a refugee from the Troubles in the north of Ireland. The difficulty I had was in separating the different characters. The youths, in particular, were interchangeable. One was a rapper - although I tended to forget this between references to rapping; one was apparently sporty; a couple of them were the sons of the former imam. But I couldn't tell you which was which. And they didn't seem to do much more than play football and eat at the chicken shop. One of them had an interest in a girl, I think. Nelson (who spoke in patois) and Caroline (who spoke in pretty convincing Belfast vernacular) were easier to pick, but their stories seemed somehow removed in both time and place. There seemed to be a lot of action off camera. There had been the murder of a British soldier; there were areas cordoned off by police tape, there were crowds in the distance. But it was never quite clear what was going on or whether time was linear. Caroline's story, most of which took place in and around Belfast, was quite opaque and I had to keep flicking back and forth to see whether I had missed something - invariably I hadn't. There were some elements of the plot, such as it was, that really didn't ring true. I didn't believe the Belfast story and couldn't see what Caroline had done that would have led to her forced exile; I didn't believe in the way Claude - a radical West Indian - would have treated Nelson; and I didn't believe that someone could be radicalised just after a single conversation with a scary new imam. I certainly didn't believe in the fire. Or the epilogue, which I thought was twee to the point of undermining the supposed force of the rest of the novel. I guess the point the novel was trying to make was that every generation had its rebels and radicals; that they age and their crusades fade away; and therefore the current Islamophobia is probably a passing phenomenon that will be supplanted by something else in due course. And that's a viewpoint to which I would subscribe. I just didn't think this rather jumbled novel quite succeeded in providing new insight on the subject. **000
  23. Occasionally there is an American novel that features neither their president nor a prison. This is not one of those novels. Romy Hall is a stripper sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for murdering one of her clients. Most of the novel offers her perspective on life in the Californian prison system. This is done with competence, although there is nothing earth-shatteringly new. There are cinder blocks, chains and bunk beds. The women do mechanical jobs, they hang around the yard, they eat slop and get on each others' nerves. They communicate with neighbours by shouting down toilets or through inconveniently set grilles in locked doors. There's the obligatory film crew, death row, butches, fems, visits, phone restrictions... Then, occasionally, Romy shows us her past life as a stripper and a mother to Jackson. It isn't clear whether she is supposed to be a sympathetic character but she comes across as spoilt, resentful and manipulative. And there are sections that focus on Gordon Hauser, a prison educator who is naive beyond words - the only question is which woman will be his downfall and how many people will get hurt alone the way. Oh, and there are some sadistic diary excerpts [supposedly] written by Ted Kaczynski. This shifting in perspective is occasional enough to be disconcerting - it is still Romy's book. The characters are not complex. Conan is a butch - probably intersex - always referred to by masculine pronouns. Norse is a white aryan bigot. Buttons is the same, but hispanic. Laura Lipp is a delusional over-sharer. Doc is a male former cop who is in the wrong novel. But mercifully, Romy is not some sweet innocent doing time to protect some greater good. So in this sense, the lack of complexity is probably fairly authentic. But also authentic is the lack of excitement. Prison is apparently quite boring, which does make one wonder why so many books and films choose prisons for their setting. It is a routine and formulaic life which makes for some less than riveting narrative. It's not bad; any given section seems well written and engaging, but it just doesn't add up to anything that really hangs together. It's not clear what point Rachel Kushner was trying to make. The Mars Room is a bit generic. As prison novels go, it is quite competent. It's not doing anyone any harm. But neither will it change your life. ***00
  24. I think it's fair to say that when Richard Powers gets an idea, he runs with it. The Overstory is a novel about trees. Every other sentence mentions a tree. The main characters each have a signature tree. And most of them converge to protect trees. The structure of the book itself is designed to resemble a tree - each character has a backstory that is a root; the stories converge in the longest section - the trunk; the characters diverge again into the crown; and then in the smallest section they produce the seeds of a future world. And my goodness the book is long and involved. Most of the eight roots stories (featuring nine characters since two of them share a root - figuratively and literally) are novellas in their own right. We have a retired war veteran; a student; an academic who works out that trees communicate; a computer games designer; an intellectual copyright lawyer; a conceptual artist; a young Chinese American; and a psychologist. It should be a job of work to remember who they all are, but they are so well delineated and re-introduced that it is seldom a problem. Occasionally a couple of the characters blur but for the most part, they are quite distinct. And most of them play some role in defending America's ancient forest from the logging corporations. They take on the might of business, government, law enforcement agencies and a sceptical wider public. They call into question the wisdom of using non-renewable natural resources; on the one hand it seems churlish not to use the bounties that nature provides; but on the other hand what happens when they are gone? For all the examples through history that Richard Powers calls into play, the one he doesn't reference is Easter Island - the people who cut down all their trees to lever up giant statues, offering no future source of wood to build boats. It's all well and good to assume that something else will turn up, but what if it doesn't? Where some of the stories intersect, a couple of them don't. The computer games designer and the lawyer seem to have parallel narratives that are engaging, but somehow tangential to the overall novel. And those tangential links come right at the end. It is odd, but it does offer some relief from what would otherwise be some pretty intense eco-warrior battle stories. The stories are deeply hooking. The strength of the worlds that are created; the complexity of the characters is quite wonderful. There is an overall editorial narrative, but for the most part the eco-message is done through the characters and the story. Many books fall into the trap of telling, not showing. The Overstory shows. For me, the full power of the novel came through by the end of the Trunk section. The pressure built and built; we reached a glorious and terrible crescendo. After that, the timelines started to stretch and it felt as though the pressure had been let off. That doesn't mean the story didn't continue to develop - it did - but some of the passion that had driven the characters in their eco-crusade had gone. At first this felt like a disappointment, an anti-climax. But a few days after finishing the novel, it feels like a real strength. It shows the ageing and the decay which, as the book illustrates with trees, is what nourishes other species and future generations. I came to The Overstory with no great love of Richard Powers (I struggled through Orfeo); and no great sympathy for tree-huggers. I surprised myself by loving the novel; being persuaded by the message; and getting ever so emotionally attached to some of the characters. The Booker Prize has its critics, but if it can get me to read novels of this quality - against my natural instincts - then it is a wonderful thing. *****
  25. The Long Take is a book that is, for much of its length, written in verse. But is it poetry? And is it a novel? Set in the 1940s and 1950s, we follow Walker a Canadian who has served with the British Army in WW2, as he demobilises in New York and tries to create a role for himself in civil society. He is an acute observer of the world around him. He sees squalor. He witnesses fights, crime, sleaze. He is drawn into journalism but has a fascination with cinema - so it is a logical step for him to relocate to Los Angeles. The Los Angeles he finds is a macroscopic version of his own circumstances, trying to reinvent itself in a changing world. The small-town wild west is being shucked off for organised big business and organised gang warfare. All the time, though, it is haunted by its past. The verse format relies heavily on Robin Roberston finding just the perfect word or phrase to conjure up complex imagery. The writing is very concise and the depth that Robertson creates with so few words is breathtaking. And where it would be too easy for verse to sound stilted, to become inaccessible, The Long Take is actually a pretty easy read that flows naturally. For much of the book, the reader doesn't even really notice the verse form, it just looks like prose that has been arbitrarily chopped into lines. Closer inspection, though, does reveal a consistent meter. My hesitation, though, is in accepting The Long Take as a novel. Robertson creates a vivid world, but then doesn't really do much with it. There are issues - the plight of returned servicemen unable to reintegrate into society; race crimes; police corruption. However, there is no real plot and precious little character development. Walker is just as his name suggests - a man who walks around in order to observe. In this sense, I couldn't help thinking of the Flaneur in the Booker Longlisted Communion Town - although The Long Take provides observations of a far more real and credible place than Communion Town. So rather than being a conventional narrative, The Long Take is really a series of images, places, smells and emotions. It's almost a graphic novel put into words. It does what it sets out to do with perfection, but this reader, at least, was frustrated that Walker didn't seem to have any clear destination to his perambulations. ****0
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