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MisterHobgoblin (Melbourne)

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5.0 out of 5 stars The ocean will have us all, 10 Jun 2014
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This review is from: Barracuda (Kindle Edition)
Australia lionises its swimmers. They are recognised; they have nicknames; they are showered with sponsorship and gifts.

Danny Kelly, a schoolboy from Melbourne’s unfashionable northern suburbs has been awarded a swimming scholarship at one of the top private schools. He’s an outsider, but once he beats the rich kids in the pool he finds himself welcomed by those who had first given him the cold shoulder. He is christened Barracuda in recognition not only of his swimming talent but also his pugnacious attitude. The school swimming coach, Frank Torma, offers personal training twice a day and entertains the elite swimmers at his house, buying in the best pizzas they will ever eat. Danny’s future is already written.

For a moment, we could be forgiven for imagining ourselves in a Chris Cleave novel.

But, as each chapter progresses relentlessly forward from 1994 to the present day, the chapters have little codas in which time starts now and works backwards. After a couple of chapters, it becomes clear that there is a disconnect between the anticipated future and reality. There is one chapter, at the end of Part One, where the unwinding future narrative and the forward paced main narrative pass one another. That is the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the moment Danny and coach Torma had been planning for…

As in The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas shows us the seamy, venal, unsympathetic face of modern Melbourne. It’s back in Barracuda – the bigoted, blinkered views are on display in abundance. There’s the Jehovah’s witnesses; the chip-on-the-shoulder working class Scot; the grand old lady; the gay lover; the Turkish tomboy; and Frank Torma, the sports mad Slav. Danny is selfish and whingey; he sees others purely in terms of what they can – or won’t – do for him. Danny does change through the course of the novel, and we come to reappraise a number of the characters. We start to see human sides behind the veneer, but it doesn’t totally excuse the behaviour.

As some people tiresomely point out, there are some sweary words in Barracuda. But there’s nothing quite as rude as the way Tsiolkas bursts our bubbles – holds up a mirror and shows us what we really are. Danny may be superficial, but we are even more so for caring about his destiny. As in The Slap, we are left feeling that we, as with the characters, are essentially ephemeral, doing things of no consequence against a background of relentless progress that will sweep us away into oblivion.

The Farm
The Farm
Price: £5.70

4.0 out of 5 stars Dark secrets, 4 Jun 2014
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This review is from: The Farm (Kindle Edition)
The Farm is an intelligent psychological thriller. Daniel, who lives in London with his rich boyfriend, receives a call from his father to say that his mother has been admitted to a mental hospital in Sweden. Daniel decides to make a mercy dash to visit her when he gets a message from her telling him she is coming to London to see him and to ignore anything his father says.

What unfolds is a long and winding tale of lost fortune, of retiring to a childhood country in which you are now a stranger, of insular communities and veiled threats. As the story progresses, Daniel realises he is going to have to re-evaluate who his parents really are. Just as he has kept his sexuality secret from his parents, it seems his parents have also been good at keeping secrets.

The story is told as a two hander - Daniel's naive lines (what is it Doctor?) set out in childishly large letters whilst his mother's sophisticated ramblings are set out in microscopically small type. The contrast of the two voices is very convincing and the sense of unreliability in the narration is perfectly up front. We learn of the plans to retire and live off the land, perhaps setting up the farm as a holiday retreat for keen salmon fishermen. We see Daniel's parents Tilde and Chris try, and largely fail, to integrate into a closed society. Or do we? The story is tense and relies essentially on whether you believe Tilde's account or whether you think she is simply misinterpreting everything around her. It is eerie, and Tom Rob Smith creates a sense of impending danger that Tidle's enemies are coming to find her.

The story paints a bleak picture of rural Sweden confirming what many readers have seen in Wallender. Yes, there's beauty but it is unforgiving. The local kingpin, Håkan, gives his friends carved wooden trolls to display in their windows. The more trolls you have, the higher your status - with only a few homes boasting the full set of four. Tilde believes Håkan is not all he seems, and she has a bag full of evidence to prove it. There are local festivals and parties to which outsiders are not invited; there are social expectations and everyone seems to be judging everyone else. Curtains twitch; as meetings end, phone calls are made...

In the end, the story does resolve itself clearly - mercifully avoiding the ambiguous endings of so many psychological thrillers. It is intelligently and sensitively done, avoiding degenerating into a straight piece of detective work with dead bodies piling up.

Not a long novel, but put together very well indeed.

Where There's Smoke
Where There's Smoke
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23 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars We're Materialists in a Spiritual World, 4 Jun 2014
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One of the really interesting effects of e-publishing is that it is now possible to publish works that are far shorter or far longer than the traditional novel. Freed from the constraints of paper, distribution and shelf space, it is possible to price works in a more adventurous way. In this case, Jodi Picoult's short story is actually distributed without any charge at all. It features a character in a forthcoming novel - perhaps Where There's Smoke is a taster, perhaps it is promotional material or perhaps it is a great piece of writing that just didn't fit into the novel. Who can say?

But this is very much the reader's gain. Jodi Picoult's covers alone would tend to put me off. But a short read (perhaps 40 minutes) and a tale of a TV psychic were enough to draw me in. The psychic - pink haired Serenity Jones - is a narcissist, obsessed with her talent, her ratings and her prospects of getting an Emmy. She has a pride in her work, but only because she believes this is what makes her better than anyone else. She has not the first concern for her clients or her spirits.

Despite the lack of wordage, Picoult manages to create a very solid world with authentic smell of greasepaint, warm glow of studio lights, weird people in Hollywood and more than a passing fascination into America's somewhat overblown sense of patriotism. It's a story of its time: decadent, gaudy and entirely materialistic. It's kind of the reverse of the Police song: We're Materialists in Spiritual World. I would happily sign up for the main course (Leaving Time) when it's released. If that was Jodi Picoult's aim in sharing this delightful story, she has truly succeeded.

Dept. of Speculation
Dept. of Speculation
Price: £6.69

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ephemera, 2 Jun 2014
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Dept of Speculation is one of those ultra-short novels (OK, let's be honest, it's a novella) where one is supposed to interpret the brevity and fragmentary nature as a mark of brilliance. To be fair, Dept of Speculation is very delicate and is carefully formed. It offers a wonderful insight into the mind of a woman who has been wronged but still loves her husband. We see the mental wrangling and reconciliation of the self in a way that can preserve dignity. It feels well done; it feels authentic.

But is it enough to sustain a novel(la)? This reader was torn between an immediate re-read to pick up the subtlety or setting it aside and letting time take its course. It was a close call, and the latter option won. The result, I'm afraid, is that most of it evaporated pretty quickly. So, a pleasant and thought provoking read, but one which doesn't leave a deep impression.

Irène (Verhoeven Trilogy 2)
Irène (Verhoeven Trilogy 2)
Price: £4.12

5.0 out of 5 stars Ceci n'est pas une pipe, 2 Jun 2014
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Most Anglophone reviewers of Irene are going to be coming to this having read Alex. That's a pity.

In French, Irene was published first. Alex was the sequel. The strength of Alex was in plunging straight into the action without the need to introduce the detective and those around him. It also created a detective with a backstory that was described briefly. In Alex, we find that introduction to a detective we already know, and the backstory that we already know is what is supposed to drive the suspense in Irene.

In truth, Alex is a better book and does shine when read first, but that is at the expense of getting the most out of Irene which is, on its own, still pretty good.

Pierre Le Maitre is an excellent writer who has benefitted from a wonderful translator. The novel appears to be a standard police procedural centered around a warped but intelligent serial killer who plays games with the investigating team. This isn't what happens in real life and it does feel a bit pedestrian. Especially coming on from the brilliant Alex, it seems ordinary. Actually it isn't - it is very clever indeed. But by the time the reader realises this in the last fifth of the text, there is a fair chance that some of the readers will have either been lost or be skimming. Their loss.

Le Maitre creates a real, three dimensional world. Yes, it's Paris and it still feels authentic without being romantic. It's a world more of Gitanes and brandy than the Eiffel Tower and Sacre Couer. But we do still have Camille's love of painting and a fair dose of literature to remind us we are in a city of art and learning.

It would be unfair to reveal the trick, but it is a good one. When it happens, it's probably best to sit back in amazement than probe too deeply.

I recommend Irene as a work of literary fiction, not just as a detective fiction. Pierre Le Maitre is real talent and I hope we can see more of his works coming into English translation in the near future.

Price: £8.49

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Paradigm shift, 26 May 2014
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This review is from: Glow (Kindle Edition)
Ned Beauman is a quirky, inventive writer. He writes with an immediacy, a sense of playfulness. Much of his material is quite surreal and ever-so-stylised.

So with Glow, we find ourselves in a pastiche of an urban lad-lit novel. Young men hop from bedsit to bedsit doing drugs all night and crashing in cafes all the day. They sleep around and don't have proper jobs. You know the genre.

Unlike the pulp fiction it emulates, Glow buries itself in huge pharmacological levels of detail and includes surreal undercurrents involving white vans, foxes and Burma. Add to this a chap called Raf who has a rare sleep disorder causing him to operate on a 25 hour cycle, a pirate radio station, a Staffie called Rose and a heap of soundproofed warehouses popping up all over the place. It's mad.

After engaging the reader for about half the novel, where intricate conspiracies within conspiracies just about stay intelligible, the novel just gets too clever for its own good. One paradigm shift too many and the reader is lost, bewildered and there's no way back. The bluffs within bluffs within bluffs are technically incredible, but end up disengaging the reader.

It's a pity, because at its heart there is a good novel trying to break out. The back story of multi-nationals shafting Burmese farmers; the corporate greed and cynicism; the industrial espionage could have worked if only it had stayed within some sort of limits.

The ending is a whimper - two codas tacked on that don't seem to lead anywhere or originate from anywhere. Clearly some significant changes have happened, but they happened in a drug fuelled blur and it feels like a cop out.

The ideas make the whole novel worth reading (just about), but it is liable to leave the reader feeling frustrated that the execution was not as elegant as the concept.

Moon in a Dead Eye
Moon in a Dead Eye
Price: £2.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I've got a roving eye..., 22 May 2014
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This is a bleak little novella. We visit a new gated retirement village sold on promises and goodwill. Alas, the five residents (two couples and a single lady) don't really like each other. Nor do they like M. Flesh, the caretaker. Their dislike is reciprocated. In a Ballard-esque way, the retirees gradually break down and their humanity disintegrates. Fans of High Rise and Concrete Island will enjoy Moon in a Dead Eye.

There is an inevitability to it all - you aren't reading Pascal Garnier for a love story - but it is intriguing to work pout exactly how it will all unravel. The characters are relatively straightforward although some of them only become clear towards the end. The atmosphere is done well, with a feeling of isolation and helplessness, the initial optimism that things might work out evaporating slowly. There is surprising subtlety in a work this short and the reader is left wanting more.

A Mad and Wonderful Thing
A Mad and Wonderful Thing
Price: £5.56

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars For the love of one's country is a terrible thing..., 22 May 2014
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Johnny Donnelly is the thinking man’s paramilitary. He sees himself as a latterday Cuchulain, achieving glory by taking on the fight of his ancestors. He is angry – with reason – at the British occupation of the six counties and believes it his duty as an Irishman to fight the oppressors. That he lives in Dundalk, just a stone’s throw from Teamhair, the epicentre of Irish legends, just adds to the weight on his shoulders.

So, a combination of personal slight, the frustration at the senselessness of the Hunger Strikes, and the gentle encouragement of a schoolteacher sees Johnny set his personal life aside to join the struggle.

But as an intellectual, Johnny struggles to reconcile his own involvement in an organisation full of bullies, thugs and racketeers. He struggles to cope with the lack of engagement of his southern compatriots. He struggles to deal with the lack of recognition that should come to a hero.

Johnny is the South Armagh sniper. He is a professional in an army of amateurs. Each hit is prepared, calculated, mapped out in minute detail. The squeeze of the trigger and the gentle bloom of red are just details in each operation that was weeks in the planning, and hours in the fleeing. Johnny’s targets are carefully chosen, each making simple procedural errors to seal his fate.

Johnny is also a magnetic attraction to the ladies. Everywhere he goes, every evening, every day, Johnny gets lucky. But as a gentleman, as a thinker, Johnny uses his charm judiciously. He has complex emotions and a burning love for Cora. Johnny is a decent man.

A Mad and Wonderful thing is a poignant novel charting the disillusion of a true Irish rebel caught between wanting victory but enjoying the fight. As a love story, it has a shining beauty – the love of Cora and the love of Ireland. But both of these loves are ultimately unrequited leaving Johnny as a disillusioned, lonely man travelling the length and breadth of Ireland in a futile attempt to gain self-knowledge. Rather than Cuchulain, we find a latterday Leopold Bloom, wandering in constant search of endorsement and affection from those who are not fit to polish his shoes.

The language is marvellous. The title, when it appears in the text, is unexpected and subsequently becomes haunting and moving. The locations – bleak hilltops, forests, the bare stone pavement of The Burren – all come alive. The people feel real, understated, human. Sometimes there seems to be just a bit too much navel gazing and philosophizing, but it adds to a complex picture in which paramilitary involvement was as much about boredom and loneliness as it ever was about exciting operations. That we are able to relate to Johnny on a human level whilst also loathing the fear and suffering he imposed on others (and himself), is a sign of a delicate, intelligent novel that doesn’t seek to impose a political slant or lead to a trite conclusion.

The Pedant In The Kitchen
The Pedant In The Kitchen
Price: £4.68

3.0 out of 5 stars Food glorious food, 19 May 2014
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Once upon a time, when he was only moderately famous, Julian Barnes wrote a column for The Guardian called The Pedant In The Kitchen. The idea was that a “Late Onset Cook” would slavishly adhere to recipes and run aghast at the idea of improvisation in the kitchen. This book bring together those columns into a single (very) slim volume padded with pictures.

The concept appealed to me – I am an enthusiastic cook and would happily spend a day following recipes of some considerable complication. I do so to the letter; I see cooking as a co-production between myself as the technician and the writer as the conceptualiser. I think there’s a dose of art on both parts, but I know I will never be able to generate my own culinary ideas.

It was therefore reassuring to find Julian Barnes to be a soulmate. He has an obvious care and passion to put out the best food he possibly can. He too will adopts one or two recipes in a book whilst leaving many untested for no obvious reason. And he shares my frustration at imprecise wording or processes that are logistically impossible (such as the instruction to cook pork chops and halved endives face down in the same pan at the same time). It was even more heartening to find it all written with a delightful, self-deprecating humour. Julian Barnes’s recipe books are very much of his generation – Sophie Grigson and Elizabeth David rather than the names that fill my shelves – and he spends rather longer talking about soufflés than he might. What even is a soufflé? .

However, the columns run out of steam. After the initial rantings against specific recipes and specific writers, we depart into name dropping where Barnes discusses recipes with the various celebrity chefs, even eats at their homes. Then, in a futile attempt to breathe life into the series, Barnes falls back on cookery as discussed in literature. The series ends with a sort of whimper as Barnes tells us he’d rather be in his kitchen, trying out something new. By this point, so too are his readers.

The Pedant In The Kitchen is worth reading, is funny and is very human. The home cook will see himself or herself in at least some of the descriptions. The work will not take long to read, may not leave a deep impression, but will offer reassurance that what we try in the kitchen is OK. It’s OK to muff things up. It’s OK to buy stuff in. The only way to fail would be to stop trying.

Blue is the Night (Blue Trilogy 3)
Blue is the Night (Blue Trilogy 3)
Price: £5.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tangled up in blue, 18 May 2014
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A long time ago, Eoin McNamee wrote a novel called The Blue Tango about the true unsolved murder of a Judge Lance Curran's daughter Patricia in 1952. The novel did not offer up any answers, but did nudge readers in various directions. There wasn't anything at the time to indicate a trilogy in the making.

We met Judge Curran again in McNamee's 2010 Orchid Blue. Here, he was presiding at the 1962 murder trial of Robert McGladdery, the last man to be hanged in Northern Ireland. It offered a greater insight into the life and mind of Lance Curran.

Now, with Blue Is The Night, we find the two previous novels joined by a third that is part new case - the murder of Mary McGowan and trial of Robert Taylor, and partly a revisiting of Patricia Curran's murder with the occasional mention of McGladdery thrown in for good measure. It is a strange novel that doesn't quite fit within conventions. Perhaps it is the power of suggestion with a quote from David Peace on the front cover, but it is not unlike Peace's Nineteen Eighty-Three in revisiting past novels.

Again, as with The Blue Tango and Orchid Blue, this instalment doesn't really answer the unknowable questions. Instead, it focuses on the sleaze and decay that was eating the heart out of Ulster society in the days before The Troubles. There was a constant threat of violence and breakdown of civil order. There was an understanding that ends justified means, and if a guilty man walking free was the price to be paid for civil order then it was a price worth paying (compare and contrast with guilty men being released from jail under the Good Friday Agreement, again to secure civil order in Northern Ireland). Now, of course Eoin McNamee is not a neutral observer. As an Ulster Catholic, he is bound to have his own perspective and will have his own points to make. But, even accepting that there may be two sides to a story, McNamee presents his story well. There are enough discontinuities and nuances to add plausibility. There are lines to read between. There are nudges and winks.

And at the heart of it all, we have Lance Curran. Eoin McNamee has a fascination with players who step outside their roles. Justice Curran is such a man - on the one hand, a unionist Member of Parliament and Attorney General; a successful lawyer and member of the establishment, but on the other hand he is willing to prosecute a Protestant for the murder of a Catholic; he is a problem gambler; he has a "fast" daughter, a son who is training for the priesthood and a wife who grew up in Broadmoor. He comes across as reckless, lacking strategy and living for kicks. He is a man who would play with law and order - play with people's lives - just as he would play with dice. He has ambition, but no direction.

Curran has a number of foils, particularly his election agent Harry Ferguson with whom he seems to have a relationship of mutual contempt. But also there is his dysfunctional family and a revolving cast of the great and the good. We see government as being tight and shady, double-faced.

The murder, the trial and Robert Taylor are well drawn. McNamee manages to wring tension from the courtroom drama even though Taylor's guilt is not in doubt and the outcome (by inference) is known. If there is a gripe, it is that the dialogue scenes from the 1960s between Harry Ferguson and Curran's estranged wife Doris are hard to follow and seem to obscure rather than illuminate. Also, the revisiting of Patricia Curran's murder serves to reopen The Blue Tango and suggest that not all the relevant material had been presented to the reader at the time. That grates a bit.

But, overall, I have to agree with David Peace that this is a genuine, original masterpiece.

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