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MisterHobgoblin (Melbourne)
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The  Complete Asian Cookbook
The Complete Asian Cookbook
Price: 7.79

2.0 out of 5 stars Sanitised and simplified, 26 Jun 2014
I have had my eye on this book since seeing the gorgeous (but expensive) presentation of this work as six separate volumes. Deciding that the single volume would be better value, I headed off to the shop to pick up a copy.

Before going to the checkout, I sat down with it and began to look at it in some detail. I'm glad I did - the whole thing seemed to be sanitised for a western palate. One recipe (a prawn curry) said that the rich red colour achieved by paprika would have been created through the amount of fresh red chilli or chilli powder used in Sri Lanka. Another recipe said that the authentic version of a dish (forced rice balls) should use a particular kind of short grain rice but that the distinctive flavour was not to everyone's taste, so it was presented here using basmati rice. For a work that sells itself on authenticity, these substitutions should not be made. Various other recipes seemed to have been toned down for a Western palate or simplified for a Western timescale.

And speaking of timescales, it would be good if the recipes showed clearly how long they would take. As it is, you have to read through the text, add up the different timings and then judge for yourself how long the prep would take. This is irritating at the best of times, but with Asian food where you would be trying to get many things ready for the same time it is most unhelpful.

This is basically a "classic" text with a few additions. Its time has been and gone. Western understanding of Asian cooking has developed a lot over the past 38 years and our expectations these days are different. There are better products on the market for this price; and there are simpler simplifications if that's what you are looking for.


Layla
Layla
Price: 5.39

4.0 out of 5 stars I'm begging darlin' please, 25 Jun 2014
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This review is from: Layla (Kindle Edition)
Layla takes poor decisions. She’s 19 years old, living in a shared flat in London and earns her living as a dancer in a strip club.

The subject matter tends to channel people’s thinking down pre-conceived channels. Perhaps Layla is a poor innocent, being exploited for men’s pleasure. Perhaps she is a drug addict. Perhaps she is really a lovely person just waiting for the right man to rescue her. Perhaps she hates men.

But Layla is way more subtle. There may be shades of these preconceptions that apply, but basically Layla is a selfish and headstrong woman who is trying to earn enough money to run away with the son she seems to have abandoned back home in Peacehaven. Her motives mix good and bad, but mostly are just not thought through. There’s little consideration of the consequences of her actions on others and very little attempt to match short term decisions to her long term strategy.

Layla is not going to have a good life.

The novel is told, unusually, in second person. Whilst this is normally irritating in a novel, here it is mostly successful. It creates a sense of immediacy and is presumably supposed to add to the authenticity of Layla’s voice – as though she is narrating aloud to herself. On balance I think the first person would have been a wiser choice – at best the second person screams of quirkiness for its own sake – but it’s not a biggie.

The subject matter is grungey and explicit. We get to see the inner workings of the club; the expectations of the clients and the services on offer. At times it becomes quite gynaecological. We also get a good insight into Layla’s private life; her back story; her flatmates; her boyfriends. It isn’t a pretty picture but, at the same time, one has to conclude that Layla is pretty much the architect of her own misfortunes. There are so many points, in the story itself and in Layla’s past, where you just will her to take a different course of action. And despite past experience, each future choice brings fresh hope that Layla will get it right.

This is not a light, heartwarming novel. It has been described as James Kelman-esque in the offering of an [almost] unbroken monologue from the margins of society. I’d say that’s a fair comparison. And just like James Kelman, a reader’s perception of the novel will hinge entirely on whether or not they bond, however loosely, with the narrator.


Nanoparticles: Allen & Unwin shorts
Nanoparticles: Allen & Unwin shorts
Price: 0.77

4.0 out of 5 stars Sweat the small stuff, 24 Jun 2014
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Lisais waiting to pay her vehicle tax at her local motor revenue office, thermoprinted number in hand, trying to find the least bad plastic seat. As she begins her interminable wait, she looks around and observes her fellow man. Fellow man doesn't come out looking good. Then Lisa notices that someone is reading a magazine article written by her friend Olivia about nanoparticles.

This is a short story that looks at ordinary people and how they look based on a single occasion in a mundane setting. The situation is familiar to all of us, is closely structured based on the serial calling of numbers; and there are clear social protocols against interacting with one another. People may watch one another but they don't interact. It's a story about constraint and boredom, with Olivia representing a bright, glamorous alternative existence. With just a bit more application, Lisa could have been Dr Lisa, being in magazines instead of the motor revenue office queue.

In the end, Lisa discovers that, like nanoparticles, small things, small gestures can make a big difference.

This is a delicate story and the simplicity of the language shines. Lisa and the people in the queue are so believable. The setting rings perfectly true. But by observing and recording, Charlotte Wood gives them depth and meaning. This story is only a short half hour's read but well worth it.


Teddy Wheeler and his Wise Bear Friend Part  1: New Edition
Teddy Wheeler and his Wise Bear Friend Part 1: New Edition

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars this wheels on fire rolling down the road (wot no punctuation), 20 Jun 2014
Someone popped up on the Bookgrouponline website under the name of mikedavid65 pretending to be a satisfied customer posting up numerous messages promoting this book. mikedavid65 used an e-mail address to register for the site that included the name wheeler (yes, all in small letters). Spooky or what?

And just like the author of this book, mikedavid65 seems to have difficulty with punctuation. Here's a sample post from BGO: "I have found this great new writer who has written teddy wheeler and his wise bear friend on the kindle and I think it is a great read for my young children who can really engage with the characters. Also I think carole wheeler has real ability when writing. What do you all think, read the sample or download free for the next two days." Compare it with the free sample here and see what you think.

Incidentally, the free sample is dreadful. The text slips carelessly between first and third person; between present and past tense. It's pretty near unreadable.


Blackberries: Allen & Unwin shorts
Blackberries: Allen & Unwin shorts
Price: 0.37

5.0 out of 5 stars Hey, teacher!, 19 Jun 2014
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Austin North is an English teacher, determined to make poetry relevant to his pupils. He is under no illusions that he could have been a poet himself – he knows he could have had the same experiences as the great WWI poets and written nothing more profound than a postcard home. But he still loves his subject and wants to share that love with the kids.

Blackberries is a strange story about cultural values and expectations. Austin is well used to resisting improper relationships; he is happy at home and seems to be competent at work. Yet there’s something missing. Maybe it’s not composing poetry or the bombs or the pathos – but Austin still seems to want something more, some kind of adventure. To an extent, he seems to have found this in his friendship with David Malwai, a South Sudanese migrant. He also finds himself captivated by a new student, a teenage South Sudanese girl who seems to have a gift for distance running. After years of following the straight and narrow, Austin seems to open his eyes to new possibilities.

There is an underlying theme of cultural differences. Austin represents old Australia and the South Sudanese represent new Australia. How far should the new go to assimilate with the old? At the same time, Austin raises the issue of the young Aboriginal people, many of whom have issues with crime and substance abuse. Of course, the European migrants to Australia did not look to assimilate with the Aborigines. Now there is a debate about whether Aboriginal people should be expected to assimilate with the European migrants. Why should they, they ask, given that they were there first and so are not the problem.

It’s a complex little story that doesn’t present easy answers or glib truisms. Instead, it leaves us considering their own attitudes and, in all probability, recognising some of the contradictions in our own minds.


In the Approaches
In the Approaches
Price: 8.83

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars To cut a long story short, 19 Jun 2014
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This review is from: In the Approaches (Kindle Edition)
Nicola Barker’s novels have always been a bit quirky, a bit off beat. In The Approaches takes things to a new level. This anti-novel is ostensibly a story of two middle aged people: Miss Carla Hahn, a woman of German Jewish heritage who lives in a cliff-top cottage in Sussex; and Franklin D Huff, a man who normally lives in Monterrey and has rented a cottage from Miss Hahn. For no adequately explained reason, the two do not seem to get along. Most chapters are narrated by this gruesome twosome.

However, occasional chapters are narrated by Theobaldo, a female parrot, or by Clifford Bickerton, a man who understands his role as a supporting character in the story who is at the mercy of the cow Author.

To start with, the story feels like joining in a conversation half way through. There is stuff going on that seems unexplained – the posthumous influence of a half-Aboriginal girl with thalidomide stunted arms; the death of a woman called Kimberly Cousins; some comical characters speaking in bad Sussex dialect whilst others speak Yiddish. With Bickerton’s first narration, it becomes clear that the novel is nonsensical as he worries about the fate of characters in previous Nicola Barker novels and wonders how he can know about these novels when the current one is set in 1984 and Barker did not start writing until 1987. Although Bickerton is the only character who is in on the conceit (at least until the end when other characters start referring back to events by Chapter numbers), he does perplex the others by referring to the Author and having streams of printed text coming out of his mouth.

This all sounds zany, and it is up to a point. However, the overall feel of the novel is a cross between Darkmans and Wide Open with more than a passing nod to the pilgrimage of Behindlings. It feels a bit like a cut and paste; a rehash of old ideas. The slightly weird note of a eucalyptus scented ghost wreaking havoc on an eccentric and unhappy coastal community was too similar to previous works. Whilst the Clifford Bickerton concept was new, it felt somewhat diluted by the huge volume of other material. Even though Bickerton’s self-awareness seemed to be well controlled and he is a compelling character when actually present, it renders the Hahn-Huff material less relevant. When one or other of them has an actual story to tell – e.g. the trek to Douai – it is entertaining but too much material lacks any real sense of anchor. The plot, such as it is, is opaque at the best of times and even when subsequent revelations are given to make sense of past mysteries, they don’t seem to lead anywhere.

I suspect a reader coming at this with no prior knowledge of Nicola Barker might feel that this is innovative and be wowed by the wit and inventiveness. Seasoned readers, however, are likely to sense that even though this is shorter than Darkmans and no longer than Behindlings, it is too patchy, too padded and outstays its welcome.

It’s a toss up between three or four stars. Three would probably be fairer, but I did like Baldo…


Ithaca in My Mind: Allen & Unwin shorts
Ithaca in My Mind: Allen & Unwin shorts
Price: 0.37

4.0 out of 5 stars Paperback writer, 19 Jun 2014
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Vincent Duncan is a novelist. He was first published at the age of 23; he has never had a rejection; he has a cushy job teaching creating writing at the local university and an annual tour of the US to look forward to. Duncan likes fast cars and fast women. He’s a success.

Ithica In My Mind is a short story of a lazy man who has not noticed that the world has changed around him. People (both punters and publishers) are no longer queuing up to buy his books. He is no longer the star draw in his university department. His poor choices in wives and investments have left him in a precarious place. There is some insight into the life and mindset of the famous.

This story is a well told moment of realisation. All Duncan’s chickens come home to roost and, as they do, the reader discovers what stuff he is made of – whether he has the inner resilience and agility to adapt to the new situation.

This is a very brief work and, unlike Peter Temple’s longer works, is not in the crime genre. It is quite stylised and there’s not much development or depth of characterisation. It’s a bit of a one trick pony. But as a bit of fun, the story works well, the pacing is right and there is pay-off at the end.


Manuka: Allen & Unwin shorts
Manuka: Allen & Unwin shorts
Price: 2.47

5.0 out of 5 stars Milk and honey, 19 Jun 2014
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Manuka is the story of Tom and Reuben, a couple of Australian chancers who set out for New Zealand to teach the locals how to break in horses. It’s set in the 1970s, but with the men finding themselves living out of swags in a remote camp, trying to clear the land of manuka scrub, it could have been at any point in the last 200 years.

This short story starts out as a battle between the men and the elements – the cold seeping through the enclosed gorge is a far cry from the hot and open plains of Australia – but soon becomes a battle between the men and their own minds. Isolated from all external intervention, seemingly abandoned by the farm owner, they have to deal with a hopeless situation by whatever means come to hand.

For a short story, the pace is slow. The focus is on the descriptive, creating the setting and atmosphere. It is claustrophobic and dark. The threats and perils build slowly but are real. The story concentrates on the two men as people rather than as actions and deeds. The result, at the end, is a memorable piece of writing that feels bigger than the sum of its parts.

The story opens with the statement that it was written in prison in 1976. This was a strange and enigmatic preface and pairs with a similarly mercurial coda. On first reading, this gave the impression of creating a fussiness that was not needed. But on reflection, it leaves the reader wondering…


Sticks, Stones: Allen & Unwin shorts
Sticks, Stones: Allen & Unwin shorts
Price: 0.37

4.0 out of 5 stars So long, Marianne, 12 Jun 2014
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E-publishing allows short stories to be published as their own, stand-alone products. Sticks, Stones is a very short example.

We are introduced to Marianne, a travel agent who pressure-sells holidays to families visiting travel fairs. Broadly, she likes her job; she has friends who are just about close enough for her needs; she has a family and knows her children's friends and their families. It's not an exciting life - a counterpoint to the holidays she sells - but it works for her.

The story hinges around her collecting her son Jack and his friends from football and seeing him taunting a girl with Downs Syndrome. It's confronting; it makes Marianne ask herself whether she even knows her son. Like any parent, she starts to ask herself why she bothers, whether she actually hates her son.

Marianne is a real person living in Melbourne's bland northern suburbs. She is perfectly created - right down to little details such as the car stereo jammed permanently on Gold FM (where our would be if I had my way). She shares thoughts and sentiments that most parents will have encountered but never dared to voice. That makes this story quite reassuring.

Credit is due to Allen and Unwin for publishing this story - one of five short stories by Australia's leading contemporary writers. I hope the project was as enjoyable for the writers as it was for the readers.


Burial Rites
Burial Rites
Price: 3.14

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Vísur Vatnsenda-Rósu, 12 Jun 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Burial Rites (Kindle Edition)
Burial Rites has won heaps of praise and prize nominations. Set in 19th century Iceland, chronicling the possible story of the last Icelandic woman to be executed, it sounds like a break from the norm.

The trouble is, it is very dull. Burial Rites has clearly been heavily researched and there are extensive references to the legal system; to court documents; to sagas and prayers. Pseudo-contemporaneous documentation has been created; a story woven around them; and the geography is immaculately correct. However, this research sits heavily on the text. It results in long lists of farms; townships; lineage of priests etc. Why use an English word when there’s a perfectly good Icelandic one available? Moreover, the people are two dimensional. They exist only in terms of their actions and their words; they do not have feelings or souls or characters. The words themselves are starchy and wooden; there is no differentiation between the voices of the seemingly endless cast of characters. For all the emphasis on Iceland, there is little to convey a real sense of place. The occasional reference to a mountain; to snow; to hills is thrown in to remind us of the landscape, but there is no sense of scale or distance or variation. For a sea-faring nation, the coast gets barely a mention.

The story is slo-o-o-o-w. In fact, it’s glacial. [Can you see what I did there?] We know from the blurb that Agnes is going to be executed. So there’s no suspense there. And we meet Agnes right at the start – so the entire novel is a plodding progress to the execution. All that happens is that Agnes is forced to live on a farm, working for her keep according to the direction of a reluctant woman Margrit. Gradually, as trust builds up, Agnes reveals the rather straightforward circumstances of her crime. But since Agnes, her co-convicts and her victims never feel three dimensional, there is little emotional engagement. Too often, it just feels like words on a page rather than an image of real life.

The language is mostly fussy, with a tendency towards self-conscious metaphor. The grammar is achingly correct apart from repeated examples of “and I” in the accusative case – things like: he came to see Margrit and I. This is put into more than one mouth so it is not an intentional tic. It irritates in an already irritating book. I found I spent way too much time looking at the progress bar and wishing it would hurry up. The good news, though, is that the Kindle edition finishes at 93% which feels like a 7% bonus – time off for good behaviour, perhaps?

In fairness, there are one or two set pieces that are well done – the murder scene itself, for example. But these are too far apart in word count, and feel completely unlinked in terms of narrative drive. It’s not enough.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 16, 2014 1:57 PM BST


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