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MisterHobgoblin (Melbourne)
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Company (Vintage Contemporaries)
Company (Vintage Contemporaries)
Price: £7.36

4.0 out of 5 stars Out on the look horizon, 10 April 2014
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Company is another one of those novels about a dystopian company with fearsome bosses, mindless bureaucratic processes and subjugated staff. In this case, Zephyr is a company with an orange corporate colour, an office building with the floors numbered from top to bottom, and a senior management that nobody has ever seen. There are slogans, superstitions and arguments about missing doughnuts. There are protocols about who sits where, with training sales team on one side of the great partition (aka The Berlin Wall) and their assistants sat the other side. Enter stage left, a new employee, Jones, who imagines that it doesn't have to be this way. Even more dangerously, he tries to find the meaning behind Zephyr's mission statement.

It's a bit of a me-too novel. The great corporate conspiracy, the satire on office politics, the naked greed of corporate America - it has all been done before (e.g. Iain Banks, Scarlett Thomas, Rupert Thompson). But Company is a reasonable addition to the canon. Max Barry is a good story teller although his achilles heel is that he can't do endings. In this case, the ending is as chaotic as all his others but is mercifully short. His characters are unashamedly cartoony stereotypes and his plot is incredible (actually, probably impossible). But his ideas are interesting and conveyed with humour.

As holiday reading, Company was amiable ... er... company for a couple of days. But don't expect it to change your horizons.


In the Morning I'll be Gone: Sean Duffy 3
In the Morning I'll be Gone: Sean Duffy 3

4.0 out of 5 stars London Calling, 7 April 2014
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In The Morning is a lurid, over the top police procedural set in 1980s Northern Ireland. Our hero, Sean Duffy, has been busted down to sergeant and has been posted to the South Armagh border due to past indiscretions Sean is not happy, despite the helicopter rides.

In a roundabout way - and without giving too much away - Sean Duffy finds himself given one last chance to prove himself. He is put on a mission to find a missing man. This gets him out of Armagh and back knocking on doors of Derry Housing Executive flats and making furtive trips across to Donegal. So far so good. But then Duffy gets involved in investigating a coid case murder of young woman who had been minding a bar on the shores of Lough Neagh near Antrim. Things go a bit Jonathan Creek as Duffy wrestles with a locked room mystery. To be honest, it all feels a bit improbable, and the relation of this plot-ette to the main story is contrived. But it is also a bit of fun.

The main manhunt, once we get back to it, seems to be stuck on with sellotape. But despite the far-from-seamless join, the denouement is well done. There is an OMG moment when you realise the main historical event it is all leading up to, and Adrian McKinty has a nice touch in blending subsequent reality with some personal speculation. These end scenes rescue what would have been a fairly poor novel and redeem it int a fairly good novel.

I still don't believe in Sean Duffy. He doesn't act or think like a policeman. His living arrangements, walking up his front driveway on a loyalist housing estate in riot gear is just not the way things were. Buying dope off the crime squad ditto. And I know Adrian McKinty will read this and say 'but I created this fiction and if I want to have policeman walking up their driveways in riot gear I can', but when you trade on verisimilitude, it just punches a bit of a hole in the suspension of disbelief.

Adrian McKinty is worth reading. He tells a good story and his style is engaging. However, I do wonder whether he could sometime do something slightly less lurid.


An Elegant Young Man
An Elegant Young Man
Price: £7.27

3.0 out of 5 stars I will call on my fully sick boys, 5 April 2014
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Much is made in the publishers blurb of the fact that literature has shunned Greater Western Sydney. That may be true, but An Elegant Young Man is hardly a mainstream attempt to remedy that deficit.

Luke Carman calls himself an anti-folk monologist working in epigrammatical short fiction. Talk about pseudo. Anyway, it basically means Carman writes short stories that don't have much plot. It's a bit stream of consciousness, and it is about setting a scene, painting a picture rather than telling a story. He is quite successful in this - he does convey the racial tensions, chaotic lifestyles and constant feeling of insecurity of the western suburbs. He depicts a bright and successful man who works his way out of the west through hard work and good luck in dodging the various (metaphorical) bullets that are fired his way. There are people trying to suck everyone down to their level; there's suspicion and hostility directed towards anyone who risks any degree of success; and there's a kind of competition for misery - my suburb's worse than your suburb - the Serbs get a worse deal than the Lebboes - etc.

The problem with marshalling short stories or monologues into such a collection is that once you've read one, you've read the lot. The voice is unvarying and the stories don't go anywhere. As a collection, it suffers from the cardinal sin of being a bit boring. I suspect it is also not very memorable - though time will be the judge of that.


Cairo
Cairo
Price: £4.32

5.0 out of 5 stars We could be heroes..., 4 April 2014
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This review is from: Cairo (Kindle Edition)
Wow! I mean WOW!

Tom Button is bored. He lives with his parents in Dunley, a fictional small town in remote Regional Victoria. His schoolfriends’ plans for escape and adventure have withered and he is bored. So, when his favourite aunt passes away and he has the opportunity to move into her apartment in the Cairo building, just a stone’s throw from the University of Melbourne, he jumps at the chance. The contrast between Melbourne and Dunley is extreme. Cairo oozes art deco style; the city is vibrant and large; its people are exotic and mysterious.

So it’s unsurprising that Tom, with all his 18 years of experience, is entranced by a couple of bohemian neighbours, Max Cheever and Edward, as they drink whisky and play cards on the rooftop one morning. Tom’s first person narrative is delightfully and obviously naïve. What follows is a kind of coming of age story, told with ripe humour and great irony. The reader never quite knows where the story is going to go, but nevertheless has the satisfaction of always being one step ahead of poor Tom.

The novel is a slice of pure Melbourne: gangsters, red brick warehouses, alleyways, cafes and art galleries. Tom drives an aging blue Mercedes Benz. Max and Sally drink champagne. Edward has a heroin habit. Everyone seems to like swinging. And because the novel is set a few years ago – circa 1985 – we are able to focus on the style and not the house prices. These days, of course, the inner suburbs are so pricey that bohemians have long since fled to the outer north east. Compare and contrast with the modern day inner suburbia depicted so lovingly by Christos Tsiolkas in The Slap.

Cairo has a cracking plot – and I don’t want to give the game away – but it is the writing that makes Cairo such a pleasure. There is not a word wrong, not a sentence that jars. The creation of place and atmosphere is fantastic, 3 dimensional and in vivid colour despite being really very economical in wordcount. Where technical detail is included (e.g. in the process of painting) it is kept light and focused. It makes the reader feel smart rather than stupid. One imagines that Chris Womersley undertook some quite extensive research for the novel and it is to his credit that he has managed to use it to inform the novel rather than to pad it. It is even more to his credit that this, his third novel, maintains the extraordinary quality of his previous works whilst being utterly, completely and totally different. Monty Python would have been proud.


Dogs at the Perimeter
Dogs at the Perimeter
Price: £7.59

3.0 out of 5 stars Flawed, 3 April 2014
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Dogs At The Perimeter is a flawed novel.

Loosely, it is about the separation, dislocation and loss of identity caused by the Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia. We open in Vancouver with a woman, Janie, a neurological researcher looking for her colleague, Hiroji who has gone missing some three months earlier. Both Janie and Hiroji have ties to Cambodia – for Janie, it was the country of her childhood; for Hiroji it is where his brother disappeared in 1975.

What follows are a series of narrations, some set in 1970s Cambodia and some set in later (uncertain) times. The narratives can flick back and forth, use multiple points of view and characters change their names as various points in their lives. It is difficult to piece together a coherent narrative from the fragments – made all the more difficult by every key event being shrouded in opaque language. It probably could be pieced together but the characters all seem rather wooden and it hardly seems worth the effort.

There are some positives. The description of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge are written with a care and compassion. Yes, there were atrocities, but this was set against daily life, hope, ideologies. Some of the Khmer Rouge were kind idealists and some of the rural people (the old people) were welcoming towards the displaced urban people (the new people). However, the good was far outweighed by the bad – the arbitrariness of decisions and behaviours; the shortage of food; the mistrust of education; and the suspicion and intolerance of dissent. There are scenes of the evacuation of Phnom Penh; scenes in the villages; and scenes in a prison. Powerful though these scenes are, they are quite similar to Vaddey Ratner’s (far superior) Shadow Of The Banyan, suggesting that the two novels may have drawn their material from the same source.

Alas, the positives do not outweigh the negatives. The story of Hiroji is disjointed and the structure is wrong. Hiroji’s mystery is mentioned very briefly at the outset and is then followed by Janie’s story, only for Janie to be abandoned and Hiroji revisited at the end in a time sequence that frequently left the reader imaging one era and one character whilst then metamorphosing into someone else, somewhere else and at some other time. Much as one would like to express solidarity with those brave people who survived this awful time, it does not redeem a flawed novel.


419
419
Price: £3.79

5.0 out of 5 stars I Go Chop Your Dollar, 27 Mar. 2014
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This review is from: 419 (Kindle Edition)
Laura Curtis’s father has died. His car ran off the road and down the cliff. He had lost all his money trying to help a Nigerian girl in distress…

As Laura unpicks the details, sifts through the e-mails, she is horrified at what she sees. It’s never quite clear whether she mourns her father or his money, but she is definitely at grief central. And so she arrives in Lagos on a mission.

Meanwhile, we follow two stories in Nigeria. On the one hand, we have Winston, an internet scammer. Winston is articulate, personable and operates with a very warped sense of morality. He believes he has a right to take the mugus’ money.

And the third main story is Nnamdi, a fisherman’s son who has been displaced by oil workers and winds up as a back-up driver on a lorry trip up north. On the way, he meets a pregnant woman and his life is changed irrevocably.

Inevitably, the stories tie together. The plot is taught and writhes like a snake. But it is the characterisation that shines. Each character has strengths, weaknesses and flaws. The reader’s sympathies change, lighting on one character for a while until reminded of the alternative perspective, or that character’s place in the wider scheme of things.

There is a strong sense of place, too. Nigeria feels real, large and complex. It is not just a den of thieves, there are real, decent people trying to earn a living. There is wealth and there are natural resources. Lagos becomes real – has suburbs and a history.

419 is a complex, well thought out novel that leaves a deep emotional imprint. It is written with panache. There is a visible narrator engaging in little asides to the reader, teasing and tantalising. Right from the start, as Henry Curtis dies, the prospect of a satisfactory resolution is lost. Will Ferguson nevertheless pulls off a stylish ending, even if it leaves the reader feeling rather hollow.


Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground
Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground
Price: £4.35

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Walk On By, 27 Mar. 2014
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A great premise – walk every London Underground line in its entirety, on the surface, and report all the weird and wonderful sights you see and people you meet. Throw in a bit of map trivia and Tube trivia and what could go wrong?

Well, for a start, you could find that most of what you saw was not very interesting. Just endless housing estates and main roads threading through industrial estates – interspersed by visits to the same central London locations you have visited on your previous three lines. You might fail to meet interesting people and instead have to pad out an entire line’s narrative with the planning guy from the City of London. Or you might find the top of the NatWest Tower a bit disappointing.

You see, these types of travelogue books depend so much on the geniality of the company. I would trek every mile of the Andes with Michael Palin because he is an all round entertaining guy who observes without judging. Or I might walk along the River with Iain Sinclair whose depth of knowledge of local historic arcana is unparalleled. Or I could walk along the Irish Border with Colm Toibin, whose flawless use of language is used to show, not tell.

But Mark Mason is no Palin, Sinclair or Toibin. He is prissy and judgemental; his trivia is superficial and probably came out of Schott’s Miscellany; and his writing is clunky. He tries so hard to be wry but it falls flat. He finds irony where there is no irony; he finds meaning where there is no meaning. And most of all, it is so repetitive. Each walk starts out with earnest but dull observation of the tiniest details of his surroundings. No shop is too small to mention; no station too bland to describe.

After taking half the chapter to travel the first four stations, then a long conversation, the remaining stations are barely mentioned. Whitechapel to Upminster in half a page. This is a big failing since most readers will be Londoners looking for some kind of namecheck for their own station. And after reading pages of loving description of Wimbledon or Morden, it’s a bit galling to find your own Bromley-By-Bow or Totteridge & Whetstone dismissed as a passing mention, sharing a sentence with other stations. It’s as though Mark Mason has bored himself with the walk. And as line after line is paraded, Mason feels the need to inject novelty for its own sake. The Circle Line is done as a pub crawl – in which he is abandoned by his travelling companion. The Jubilee Line is done at night, thereby guaranteeing that nothing of interest will be seen and nobody of interest will be met. The final line – the Metropolitan – was done at Christmas, in the snow.

Mark Mason keeps namechecking Geoff Nicholson’s novel, Bleeding London, which was about a man who wanted to walk every street in London. Indeed, Nicholson flies in from Los Angeles to meet Mason on one of the walks. It is clear that the Underground project was inspired by Bleeding London, but the frequent name checks just make Mason’s book look two dimensional. Nicholson’s novel may have mentioned maps and walking, but it was about people, not buildings. It was the story that mattered, and Walk The Lines has no story.

The high point of the book, such as it is, is the appearance of Bill Drummond, erstwhile member of the KLF. Drummond is a conceptual artist who has more ideas in his little finger than Mason packs into a book – and his concept of a Cake Circle is really quite wonderful. If Cake Circles appeal, then this is your book. Otherwise, try Bleeding London. Or Pole to Pole. Or Lights Out For The Territory.


The Matrix
The Matrix
Price: £4.93

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars لا شكرا, 18 Mar. 2014
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This review is from: The Matrix (Kindle Edition)
The Matrix is a gothic horror, written in the kind of scientific first person style of Sheridan Le Fanu. Except, unlike Le Fanu, it is set in the here and now. We meet Andrew Macleod, a Gaelic native speaker from Lewis as he arrives in Edinburgh, only in his 30s and already grieving the loss of his young wife. He has taken a post at the university and sets out to explore historic occult groups. This draws Macleod into a terrifying world of hooded men, mysterious texts and unexplained illnesses.

Truly, Jonathan Aycliffe creates a creepy, eerie world and sustains it as the narrative moves from Edinburgh to Morocco and back to Scotland. This is done mostly through innuendo, scratching in the attic, glimpses in the shadows and builds into blips in the timeline. The characters feel real; there is a great sense if interface between the real, contemporaneous world and an ancient, Arabic, occult world. Thus far, it works well.

But something happens towards the end. As the mysterious happenings cohere into a plot, the pace starts to race and the strength of the imagery weakens. The ending itself is weak and implausible - it is a huge letdown for a novel that has been so intriguing.


Dust: (Wool Trilogy 3) (Wool Trilogy Series)
Dust: (Wool Trilogy 3) (Wool Trilogy Series)
Price: £5.85

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The trilogy crumbles to dust, 12 Mar. 2014
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Wool was surprisingly inventive and engaging. Shift gave an interesting backstory. And realistically, given where Wool left off, there was only one direction the trilogy could go. And it goes there.

Dust is slow. The depth of characterisation seems to have disappeared - we have to take it on faith (or memory of Wool) that Juliette has a personality and that we care about her. But, alas, she seems to have become a generic heroine on a mission - much activity, mostly illogical and counterproductive - but very little reason to care about it. We meet Solo, Lukas, Donald and Charlotte from Wool and/or Shift and Hugh Howey helpfully reminds us of those story lines. But this also reminds us that Dust is a pale shadow of the previous novels, entirely driven by the breathless (bad) plot. Characters who had been integral to the story are treated as disposable; and new characters are created for the sole purpose of being cannon-fodder. The result just feels chaotic.

The novel does tie up loose ends. But these were largely knots that had been implied by the two previous novels. Somehow putting it down in black and white diminishes the impact. It's always a risk to start out with a self-contained world and then set it in a wider context, and in Dust, the wider context really causes some of the basic premises to crumble. For example, the silo with endless stairs and no lift is enigmatic and intriguing. But giving a logical explanation for it just makes it seem less plausible. Although I liked Shift, I can't help feeling that it created a need for a third novel that has undermined the series. With hindsight, it might have been better to leave things with Wool.


The Rest Just Follows
The Rest Just Follows
Price: £5.03

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Three characters in search of a plot, 7 Mar. 2014
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Glenn Patterson is a long-established Belfast novelist whose works tend to focus on mundane lives with a backdrop of the Northern Ireland sectarian divide. Often these references are subtle, almost incidental.

The Rest Just Follows starts out in much the same way – Craig Robinson is a young Grammar School boy. Maxine Neill failed the 11 Plus. StJohn Nimmo is a new boy at the Grammar School with a fondness of cigarettes. All three seem to have dysfunctional families. But unlike some of Patterson’s other novels, the details seem confused and hazy. Patterson has always had a thing where timelines blur a bit and we can switch from the present to the past in the course of a single sentence. But this has always been made navigable through clear and distinctive storylines and a single uniting theme. The Rest Just Follows lacks the clarity of storylines and doesn’t seem to have a central focus, meaning the opaque timelines just confuse things even more.

The narrative moves, almost without notice, from school to university to work to parenthood to adulthood. There are some signposts of passing time – movements in the political process, known atrocities, social and physical change in the built environment. But the known events are often fictionalised, making it unclear as to exactly how much time has elapsed – and hence how old the characters are. Some of the details are plain wrong – the first civil partnership ceremony in fact took place in 2005 rather than the late 1980s/early 1990s that would fit with the novel’s sequencing – which make them unreliable as markers of time.

The narrative is also disconcerting as it moves from the generic backdrop of the The Troubles to some very specific events and specific people. We see the formation of the Women’s Coalition, for example; and we meet a thinly disguised Jim Gray. Some of the other details seem close but not quite a match for real events. Craig, for example, is approached by a unionist political group – was this supposed to be U3W or something else?

As well as the blurring of fiction and fact, the blurring of timelines, there is a fuzziness of purpose. In Patterson’s previous novels, there has been a clear story at play. Sometimes that was an individual moving from point A to point B; in Number 5 it was the story of a house; in The International it was the human story behind a known atrocity. This just feels like there is not enough to tie the characters together – not enough to make them interesting. All the brothers and sisters and boyfriends and girlfriends means the focus shifts too much for the reader to remain really engaged. It is all a bit too slippery.

It’s a shame for such a consistently good writer to have produced a novel that is so disappointing. It feels like an attempt to recreate Fat Lad, Patterson’s Belfast classic, but without the sense of immediacy or concentration. Patterson is apparently working on novel Number 10 right now; I hope it sees a return to form.


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