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MisterHobgoblin (Melbourne)

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A Brief History of Seven Killings: Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015
A Brief History of Seven Killings: Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015
by Marlon James
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars ... but I did not get the deputy, 30 July 2015
Brief it is not.

Marlon James serves up a patchwork quilt of narratives relating to politics, intrigue, spying, music and murder in Jamaica from 1976 through to 1991. The level of detail is astonishing if, at times, a little confusing.

The story - which is very much secondary to the style of the narrative - is around Bob Marley (known as The Singer) and his foray into politics that did not end well. The multiple narrators makes the story somewhat more opaque than it might have been, but the reward is an insight into the psyche of a people who lionise their musical celebrities as an escape from the poverty and violence of everyday life.

Politics as a whole comes out the loser. It is seen to be corrupt from top to bottom, but more than that, it is devoid of any real leadership or strategic direction. It is about power being either an honour for those who have succeeded in other fields; or as an end in itself held by strongmen. But nowhere is power used to effect real change - just cheap slogans.

Meanwhile, lurking in the wings, we have the CIA trying to manipulate things but getting sucked down into the mire by their disaffected, disillusioned men on the ground.

It's a long and dense read, much written in Jamaican patois (the reader does get used to it, but it slows things down initially) and I suspect trying to understand every detail or follow every line is a fool's errand. Much better to just lie back and let the atmosphere wash over you, absorbing what will be absorbed.

The novel's longlisting for the Booker Prize shows this to be more than just a crime novel; it is a great piece of literary fiction. But I can't help feeling that Ryan Gattis's All Involved covered similar territory even better.

Agamemnon's Daughter: A Novella and Stories (Myths)
Agamemnon's Daughter: A Novella and Stories (Myths)
Price: £7.59

3.0 out of 5 stars Ancient and modern history, 20 July 2015
The Canongate edition of Agamemnon’s Daughter is actually a collection of three stories.

The longest is the story after which the collection is named: a story set in socialist Albania of a writer who has been invited to view the annual parade in from the grandstand. The story is intriguing, not least by offering glimpses into everyday life in the most isolationist nation on Earth. Under socialist rule, almost nobody went in or out of Albania. When the Iron Curtain fell, Albania was seen to be a nation that had not developed since the end of World War II, where the people could barely afford bread; and where the landscape was covered in gun turrets, all pointing inwards. It was refreshing, then, to see Albanian society shown to have had education, jobs of status, cafés, petty rivalries, and lazy bureaucrats who were more likely to ignore dissention than fill out the forms needed to punish anyone for it. Dissent, indeed, was seen to be a pretty common occurrence and not to be treated very seriously unless it got caught up in a bigger issue or showed any sign of becoming organised.

The story is striking too for the extent to which the supposedly equal society had become stratified. As the writer makes his way along the streets to the grandstand, he gleefully feigns embarrassment when, at successive checkpoints, lesser people are diverted from the path to inferior vantage points. At the same time, he is conscious that there are others who are closer than him to the leadership – people whose company he is deemed unworthy to keep, including his lover Suzana.

And ultimately, the privilege of sitting in the grandstand is hollow. The parade is as dull and predictable wherever it is viewed from. Having to watch it is an inconvenience and sitting in the grandstand would make the writer’s absence obvious. After the parade, as people drift off home, the moment of privilege has ended. All the awe and respect has gone as the writer just merges back into mainstream society.

The story is told with many references to history and legend, both ancient and modern. Much is made of Albania’s relationship to Ancient Greece, but even more, there are references to bloody and brutal Albanian folklore. It is like a melting pot where civilization and brutality come together.

The second story is the strongest. The Blinding Order is a more horrifying version of The Crucible, with an apparently historic Ottoman emperor addressing complaints that people were putting the evil eye on key projects by designing a programme of disoculation. Five methods of blinding were to be available to those in the population deemed to have an evil eye, and those who surrendered themselves willingly would be blinded in the most sympathetic way and receive the best compensation packages. This was an exercise in popular appeasement that was dropped just as suddenly as it started, leaving a legacy of needlessly broken people. But at no point in the process did it appear anything less than reasonable. The story is told well, both at the national level and then at the personal level. And as the story progresses, there are more and more references to contemporary society that make the reader see that the story is not set in Ottoman times, but in modern day Albania.

The third, and shortest, story is The Great Wall. This was written long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and relates to the use of the Great Wall of China as a barrier to free travel in and out of the Empire. It asks (obviously and clunkily) whether the wall was for keeping invaders out, keeping peasants in, or more for stopping the free exchange of ideas. It is clearly a parallel to the Berlin wall on the one hand, and the isolation of socialist Albania from the rest of the world.

The collection as a whole feels haphazard. The stories don’t link and have no obvious reason to be presented together other than for convenience given their length. Ismail Kadare’s style is very plain, verging at times on journalistic, but with a departure every now and then for the inclusion of an ancient legend or another reference to his favourite three-arched bridge.

I’d recommend Agamemnon’s Daughter more from a historical and social perspective than for reasons of literary aesthetics. But that’s still a recommendation.

The Motel Life
The Motel Life
by Willy Vlautin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Doubling down, 20 July 2015
This review is from: The Motel Life (Paperback)
The Motel Life shines a light on a peculiarly American sub-culture: people who have no permanent address but drift from one motel to another. These are not necessarily bad people, they are just poor. The motels they stay in may once have accommodated holidaymakers, but as their paint has faded and newer motels have opened, they start to become “residential”.

Frank Flannigan is one such resident. He lives in Reno, a sort of poor man’s Las Vegas, and was finishing school when his mother died. His father’s in Montana somewhere, but they’re not in contact. Frank looked like his mother might have left enough money to let him and his brother Jerry Lee finish school, but they had to spend the money on medical bills. Now the brothers drift around, working sporadic shifts labouring or doing chores for a mate of a mate.

The aimless drifting then gets shaken up a bit when Jerry Lee announces that they have to leave town in a hurry…

This is a story of modest ambitions. Even when telling stories – as Frank seems wont to do – his heroes are sidekicks or wingmen; their good fortune is limited by the horizons of Frank’s own imagination to things like drinking beer and eating nice food in the sun. Jerry Lee is supposed to have a talent for drawing, but he squanders it on doodles of the motel signs of Reno (supposedly the illustrations that sit at the top of each short chapter of the novel).

The Motel Life creates an atmosphere of melancholy and neglect. The characters are trapped in a holiday resort off season. Perhaps the town attracts those who like to gamble; perhaps it is a lack of alternative entertainment. Either way, there is a sense that local people see wages as a way of raising stake – fate in the form of casino tables, slot machines or betting shops then deciding whether the paycheque is going to be the jackpot or just another busted flush.

This is not a long novel. It is generously laid out with plenty of white space and illustration. Yet it still feels padded. The reader doesn’t need to hear Frank’s stories told verbatim. It breaks the flow and, perhaps intentionally, and despite the praise heaped upon them by other characters Frank’s stories are not really very good. Neither are Jerry Lee’s line drawings. And when Frank relates his past, that also feels like filler. It doesn’t seem to offer much insight into him as a man, it is just anecdote – the kind you’d get on a daytime chat show.

The characters are not always very engaging. Frank is clearly supposed to be a sympathetic hero – he has no really bad traits and he is loyal to his brother and cares for animals – but he doesn’t seem to have quite enough about him to get the reader to care about his fate. He’s more about filling an everyman role, just to provide a platform for Willy Vlautin’s real intention – depicting the marginalised lifestyle.

Overall it’s not a bad novel and it is a quick read. But it also isn’t the seminal American novel of our times that the blurbs and cover quotes might have you believe.

by Mike Nicol
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Cape Town Confusion, 13 July 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Payback (Paperback)
Payback looked like a gorgeous book – lovely cover, set in Cape Town, glowing reviews.

On the positive front, it offers a wonderful view of contemporary South Africa; the landscape, the suburbs, the townships and the atmosphere of Cape Town; journeys off to the safari lodges and a weekend away to the Angolan capital of Luanda. Every scene, every house, every street has been re-created with love. The conversations and the vibe all ring true; the will to live in an optimistic present even if it means reconciliation to an unhappy past. It’s a lively, pulsating, throbbing picture viewed through the eyes of both black and white; through the eyes of South African and visitor. The politics is there if you look and want to see it, but nothing is laid on too heavily; the reader is left to work things out for themselves – including sometimes that clear wrongs in the past don’t necessarily make for clear restitution in the present.

Alas, the story is not up to the setting. Payback is a story of gangsters and criminals, variously running guns, drugs and diamonds, all trying to rip one another off. The reader is invited to side with Mace Bishop and his sidekick Pylon Buso, independent “security consultants” who seem to have had violent and colourful pasts. Their enemies – a lawyer by the unlikely name of Sheemina February, various heavies, and some unusual from the United States are the baddies. To support this conceit, we are allowed to see Mace Bishop’s homelife and know a little about his past. The others are just cardboard cut-outs who are no more than their actions on the page.

This is a problem. A reader doesn’t have to like a protagonist, but a reader does have to care. In a traditional crime novel, the reader may not like the detective, and may secretly admire the criminal, but the ability to differentiate the two is crucial. These characters are too underdeveloped, and the difference between Mace Bishop and the baddies is too slight, to allow the reader to start cheering either for or against them.

The plot is confusing at best. It is never quite clear who is scamming who, and in what way they are being scammed, or even why they are being scammed. Even at the end, after a somewhat hurried reveal, only one character’s motivation is revealed. Great heaps of plot seem to be inexplicable – whole story lines seem to be redundant. And in a book that seems to last for ever, that matters. Another failing of the ending is that it isn’t even an ending – it’s really just a signpost to the start of the next book in the trilogy. Perhaps some readers really haven’t quite got the idea and desperately want another two instalments. For me, it’s a temptation I will find quite easy to resist.

Overall, I suspect this to be a competently written novel – I will forgive some of the clunky phrasing as South African verisimilitude – and it is nice to be taken back to sunshine on a dreary Melbourne winter’s day. But this does not forgive a confused, confusing story that is too easy to put down and quite hard to start up again.

Live Bait
Live Bait
Price: £11.39

4.0 out of 5 stars Gentle this soul, 4 July 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Live Bait (Kindle Edition)
Live Bait is set in a fictional inland Tuscan town of Muglione. It is a sleepy, unattractive town; the main recreations seem to be fishing in the irrigation ditches and cycling. The cover, showing a stunning coastal town is somewhat misleading.

The star of the story is 19 year old Fiorenzo. He had been a cyclist until he lost his right hand in a fishing accident. Fiorenzo, who narrates most chapters in first person, is acutely self-conscious of his missing hand and resents the inconveniences it presents – whilst trying to persuade both himself and the reader that he is managing with stoicism.

Fiorenzo’s father is a cycling coach and he was disappointed when Fiorenzo was no longer going to be a competitive rider. However, his disappointment is tempered by the arrival of a young cycling prodigy, Mirko, who seems to be pushing Fiorenzo out of the nest. As the novel progresses, Mirko starts to become the second significant character, sometimes narrating his own chapters and sharing his school essays.

The third main character is Tiziana, Mirko’s thirty year old teacher. Tiziana is very bored and Fiorenzo is in need of, um, companionship… Tiziana narrates variously through her blog and through the irritating use of second person present. She pops up after several chapters of Fiorenzo narration and it is not immediately clear what is going on or that this is a new narrator. Tiziana offers Fiorenzo an opportunity to explore his angst, but as a character she feels like a bit of a dead weight. All the spark is between Fiorenzo and Mirko.

So what actually happens? The answer is not much. This is a kind of bored teenager in a village kind of rambling – the kind of thing William Trevor or Patrick McCabe might have written. Fiorenzo is endearing, sometimes very funny, but he doesn’t do or say anything profound. He does teenage things like rowing with his father, hanging out with his mates, helping out in the family shop that sells fish bait – mostly worms and maggots that make a disgusting noise as they writhe and climb on top of one another only to give up when they realise there’s no benefit to being on top (metaphor, anyone?).

Live Bait is a gentle novel, pretty long and undemanding. I doubt readers are going to learn terribly much about the human condition from it, but it is a pleasant read.

A Book of Death and Fish
A Book of Death and Fish
Price: £4.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Read about fish and pretend to be dead, 3 July 2015
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I wanted to love A Book Of Death And Fish. Stunning reviews, promising the definitive Hebridean novel, centred on Stornoway where I spent a happy year of my life. What could there possibly be not to like?

Sadly, the reality was a hotch potch of short articles, mostly telling us things we already knew (the fate of the Iolaire) or things we could never possibly want to know (the intimate details of fishing for business and pleasure). It read like journalism, not fiction. The voice varies from wooden and factual to outlandish Scots. This, despite (as far as I could tell) the supposition of a single narrator. For a novel, there is precious little narrative drive. It’s basically one man’s observation of what is going on around him, sliced and diced into little packages and put into a seemingly random order. And repeated.

And repeated.

And repeated again.

I should confess at this point that I read only the first 20% of the book. Perhaps things pick up after this. Perhaps the Martian landing on Barbhas Moor galvanised the Lewis people to set up a people’s army in defiance of the policy of appeasement being fed to them by the Scottish Office, leading to meetings in smoke filled rooms to plan the unilateral declaration of independence, supported by clandestine importation of arms from Libya. But if this is where things went, I will never know. The first 20% was simply so boring, disjointed and clunky. And sprinkling in a couple of helpings of Gaelic words and Lewis dialect may persuade some that this is a work of fine poetry but to this reader it looks like window-dressing to hide a very plain view.

Stornoway deserves better. It should be possible to relate the social changes alluded to in this book through a more engaging protagonist and a supporting cast of real people, not just cardboard cut-outs. The subject matter cries out for a real, human voice with a soul, not some newscaster reciting facts set out on a script.

Can I have my money back?

Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine & beyond
Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine & beyond
by Olia Hercules
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.00

4 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Obscure ingredients, 30 Jun. 2015
This looks to be an interesting cookbook, but the problem is that almost every recipe includes at least one obscure ingredient that you won't find outside a Russian delicatessen. Sadly, there are no Russian delicatessens in Melbourne. The book suggests that some ingredients should be available in supermarkets, but not in the ones I go to. I can't comment on the recipes - although others (presumably living in other parts of the world) think they work well. But especially given that you can't access sample recipes or browse the list of recipes, buyers will want to be aware that access to obscure ingredients may be an issue.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 6, 2015 5:01 AM BST

Crimespotting (One City Trust)
Crimespotting (One City Trust)
by Ian Rankin
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Fear and Lothian, 24 Jun. 2015
Charity collections of short stories are a bit of a gamble; this one pays off. Ten writers, all top rate (many of whose full works I have previously read) and all contributing good stories. The theme is crime; in many cases this means good old murder, but one or two of the writers have taken a more oblique angle. In the case of Christopher Brookmyer's and Alison Kennedy's stories, it's not actually clear what crime, if any, has been committed. Nevertheless, these are perhaps two of the standout stories. Only a couple of the stories didn't quite work for me; the rest may not all have been deep, but they were diverse and entertaining. And in this case, having ten different voices worked well and avoided the sameness that you often get from reading ten stories by the same writer.

There is supposed to be an Edinburgh theme to the stories (the collection is to raise money for a city trust) but this never feels forced and, in truth, a couple of the stories didn't really seem to have an Edinburgh angle at all.

This is an inexpensive collection; it's a quick read, but well worth it.

One Foot Wrong
One Foot Wrong
Price: £1.89

4.0 out of 5 stars It's hard to dance with the devil on your back, 19 Jun. 2015
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This review is from: One Foot Wrong (Kindle Edition)
Meet Hester. A young girl, living indoors without any contact to the outside world. Hester’s friends are inanimate objects – Table, Spoon, Handle – and Cat. Hester’s parents, Boot and Sack, are deeply religious and offer Hester an illustrated Children’s Bible for entertainment and promise her that one day she will have her own room.

It seems a bit like Emma Donoghue’s Room at first, but it starts to become clear that rather than being a captive held against her will, Hester has learning difficulties and complies with the restrictions placed on her. Hester is known to the authorities and when she is assessed as fit to go to school, off to school she goes.

The relationship between Hester and her parents is complicated. From Hester’s perspective, there is an absolute dependence and an acceptance of her situation. There are occasional streaks of rebellion, but they are small and, when thwarted, are given up with little complaint. Boot and Hester both show a conflict between a love for Hester leading to over-protectiveness (she is their only child), and a wish to punish her for not being like other children. Sack, in particular, seems to blame Hester’s condition (which is never overtly defined) on her late pregnancy and this causes a maelstrom of guilt, disappointment and frustration. Moreover, it seems Sack has her own health worries.

Hester is constantly and consistently betrayed, and this seems all the more heinous given her guileless nature. The reader wills Hester to recognise the betrayals and rise up against them, but the reader also recognises Hester’s powerlessness to respond or to cope with the consequences were she to do so. The light, such as it is, seems to be Hester’s ability to form friendships with the rare outsiders whose paths she crosses: her grandmother, Mary and Lorna.

One Foot Wrong is narrated by Hester in a curious language. Having been deprived of childhood company and television, having never been able to read, Hester’s only cultural reference points are the biblical terminology her parents have given her. Hence, cars are chariots, birds are gods, imagery centres around trees, fire and the sun. At first, the language doesn’t seem quite authentic. Perhaps Hester thinks too deeply or too vividly for someone of apparently limited intellect. But these doubts settle down and the reader becomes willing to go along with it.

The novel comes in two halves; to describe the latter would give away the former, but it breathes life into a narrative that might have got into a bit of a blind alley. My question would be whether this comes at the expense of consistency of Hester’s established character. On the other hand, perhaps it makes us question the impression we had all formed of Hester.

This is a short novel but it has a lot in it. It will make the reader think and question his or her preconceptions. It will horrify, appal, disappoint and give hope in various measures. It’s a roller-coaster ride and the pacing works. It is an important example of seeing the person, not the intellectual disability or mental illness. It asks questions of how we treat people with disability and/or mental illness in contemporary society and just what safeguards we put in place to ensure their wellbeing. Most of all, it is an excellent answer to those moments when one questions the value of spending money and effort to develop people whose potential seems to be limited.

The Buried Giant
The Buried Giant
Price: £8.55

3 of 7 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Reading The Buried Giant is a memory I have no wish to retain, 17 Jun. 2015
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This review is from: The Buried Giant (Kindle Edition)
I feel a sense of relief finishing this tedious book.

Kazuo Ishiguro can write. The Remains of the Day is a study of very human, well rounded characters deisplaying enormous pathos. Never Let Me Go told a long allegory in pitch perfect tones, building a connection between the reader and the characters.

So what went wrong with The Buried Giant? It starts well - an omniscient narrator bridging the gap between the reader and characters in ancient Saxon Britain. The main characters, Axl and Beatrice, converse in a chatty way; details of their way of life are gently drip-fed. Axl realises that people are getting forgetful; events of only a few weeks ago seem to be forgotten.

Then, the novel just starts to disintegrate into a bad pastiche of other writers and other genres.

Axl and Beatrice, for example, start to sound like the characters in Raymond Briggs's When The Wind Blows. Everything Axl says ends in "princess", and Beatrice hangs on his every word, even though he has little idea of what he is saying.

Then, Axl and Beatrice decide to set off on a journey to find their son. They think he has gone to a nearby village; they can't remember why they want to find him but following some altercation over a candle, they think the time is right to leave their Hobbit-like warren. We then find ourselves in the land of Monty Python and the Holy Grail as they head off across the countryside having a procession of encounters with Arthurian knights, crazy ferrymen, soldiers guarding a bridge, some creepy monks, and the list goes on. Some of these chaps then decide to tag along with Axl and Beatrice.

The way these characters seem to have no real lives; no means of support; no purpose other than to wait in the clearing to be found by our plucky adventurers is reminiscent of the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks of Steve Jackson and Gary Gygax. At one point, in tunnels underneath a monastry (that is also some kind of doom machine whose mechanism is not very clearly explained), you can almost hear Kazuo Ishiguro rolling his twelve sided dice to determine what monster will be lurking behind each door.

Oh, and it's in this monastry/doom machine that we discover that nobody is quite who they say they are.

Then, after some mountains (where did they come from, the land was featureless and flat the day before), some ogres and a dragon later, it all kind of wraps up. They all get their memories back and remember that they have grievances and sorrows.

All this sounds quite frenetic, but the overwhelming sense is ennui. None of the characters has any depth; they just stand around talking to each other in long and repetitive speeches. There is a formula, repeated every thirty pages, of our travellers walking for a bit, discovering they are in great peril, and then escaping using strategically placed tools.

The ending adds some enigma to what was really just a terrible, derivative mishmash. There is a Question (with a capital Q) flagged up at the end in neon lights - would we be better off without our memories (i.e. should secrets remain buried?). And then the answer is set out in full - just in case readers can't work it out for themselves - that we are better off with memories even if some of them are unhappy ones.

Nevertheless, reading The Buried Giant is a memory I have no wish to retain.

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