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MisterHobgoblin (Melbourne)
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Jesus' Son
Jesus' Son
Price: 5.72

3.0 out of 5 stars Heroin: it's my wife, and it's my life, 11 May 2014
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This review is from: Jesus' Son (Kindle Edition)
Jesus' Son is a collection of interlinked short stories, setting out the young adult life of an American man as he drifts between girls, jail and the next fix of smack. The opening story finds our anti-hero hitching a ride, having a vision of death coming to the family that gives him a ride. At this point, one wonders whether our anti-hero might actually be Jesus' Son - actually have some kind of deity status. But future stories confirm that he is only human, named, presumably, after a line in Lou Reed's Heroin.

The stories are atmospheric, creating a window on America's underbelly. The characters are all real people and demonstrate complex emotions - no mean feat in stories that are only half a dozen pages long. They are violent, but there are also moments of compassion, of rationality, of decency. The stories sort of piece together into a story, told in non-sequential chunks, as our anti-hero progresses from youth to adulthood. But along the journey, some of the immediacy is lost. The barroom fights and drunken night-time drives are far more interesting than settling down with the girl.

And a further issue is that, even though there is a narrative progression, it starts to feel samey after a while. It would be interesting to see how a writer of such obvious talent could manage a novel where the option of restarting every few pages was no longer an option - where pacing was necessary.

I would read more Denis Johnson but, perhaps, not for a while...


The Light of Amsterdam
The Light of Amsterdam
Price: 4.12

4.0 out of 5 stars The times they are a-changin..., 8 May 2014
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Three parties travel from Belfast for long weekends in Amsterdam. As their paths cross, and free of the constraints of home, they have an opportunity to take stock of their lives and address their deep seated dissatisfaction. It's not a new premise, but David Park draws his characters well. They might appear to be stereotyped at first blush, but Park has the sympathy and generosity to turn them into real, whole people with hidden qualities to balance their very obvious faults.

The novel opens with George Best's funeral cortege, winding its way through the streets of East Belfast. It grounds the novel. It shows us we are exploring a slice of life in Belfast - straddling the working class through Karen, a cleaner at a retirement home, visiting Amsterdam on her daughter's hen party; Marian, wife of a garden centre owner is worried that her husband is no longer interested in her, travels with him back to Amsterdam to relive a honeymoon; and Alan, forced by circumstance to take his teenage son with him as he travels to see Bob Dylan in concert. We see the characters in their home lives; we see them starting out their journey to the airport, and we see them finding their feet in Amsterdam. We see them taking decisions we would never take ourselves, we see them finding meanings that we would never find. But that's the point - these are people who are not like us. Although, as they grow and develop, as they use the clear light of Amsterdam to see themselves, we find connections. We care about their fates. There is humour but it is not a comic novel.

Amsterdam takes a bit of a back seat. The city is there, Rijksmuseum, red light district, canals and cafes, but it is only ever a backdrop for the human drama. It could just as well have taken place in Prague, Krakow or Dublin - it just needed to locate the characters somewhere outside their comfort zone. In this sense, it is a bit like some Alan Warner, a bit like Alan Bissett's Pack Men. Ironically, Belfast - the city where most of the action doesn't take place - has a much stronger presence.

The pacing errs on the side of being slow. Although Light of Amsterdam is not a long novel, it feels as though there is a lot of space in it; a considerable amount of languor. That's appropriate, but it does take a while to get into the story - the scene setting at the beginning feels like a luxury that some readers would be reluctant to pay for. But those who do pay will ultimately be rewarded with a satisfying experience.

The high point - for the reader at least - has to be Alan's night with Bob Dylan. David Park captures the moment with perfection; the moment when one finally sees a childhood hero in the flesh. There is not a word out of place in that section and we feel every twinge of Alan's conflicted emotion. There are other great set pieces too, but Dylan rang so true...

The ending is not going to please everyone. Without spoiling things, it is coloured heavily by a dose of realism. Of course the characters have learned things about themselves but they end as the same people they began - perhaps a bit wiser, but still the same people.


The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales (Salt Modern Fiction)
The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales (Salt Modern Fiction)
Price: 3.59

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Patchy, 8 May 2014
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It is difficult to sustain quality through a collection of short stories and I'm not sure Kirsty Logan has managed it.

There is one gem of a story - Una and Coll are Not Friends - that shines far brighter than any other story in the collection. It is gentle, subtle, humorous and human. It has a depth and makes one think about the nature of being an outsider. There are a couple of other interesting stories, particularly the Tiger Palace. Most (but not all) stories have some current of lesbian love. And most seem to have some reference to fairy stories as a genre, although few seem to be readily identifiable to specific stories.

The problem is that the collection is very patchy and, like a 1980s pop album, seems to be mostly filler. Many stories seem to be quirky for its own sake - e.g. the Rental Heart or the Coin Operated Boy - but don't actually seem to go anywhere or have anything to say. Maybe they just didn't press my buttons, but the whole did seem somewhat dull and repetitive. Few of the characters seemed to have much humanity or warmth which tends to further disengage the reader.


The Book of You
The Book of You
by Claire Kendal
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 9.09

4.0 out of 5 stars Won't let you go, 5 May 2014
This review is from: The Book of You (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The Book Of You does not let you go. The characters and the images follow you around; just when you least expect it, they pop into your head and squash everything else out.

Just like Rafe Solmes, the man to whom Clarissa has dedicated her diary – the work colleague who will not take “No” for an answer. We open the book to find Clarissa being signed up for jury duty on a lengthy trial in Bristol. She is happy because this means seven weeks away from her work as a university administrator in Bath where she cannot avoid Rafe.

Rafe, of course, has other plans and soon tracks Clarissa down to the court house in Bristol. But he cannot penetrate the inner sanctum – the jury room – where Clarissa and her panel of eleven peers are able to live a fleeting, rarefied existence and consider a criminal case that has startling similarities to Clarissa’s own situation.

As the novel progresses, Rafe’s presence causes Clarissa to narrow her own life down further and further. Meanwhile, Rafe’s appearances, taunts and correspondence becomes ever more sinister. Even though the novel progresses relentlessly in the expected direction, the build up of tension is done well. We see Clarissa’s fear and shame; we see the uselessness of the official guidance leaflets for victims of stalking; and we become aware of Clarissa’s difficulty in viewing her own situation objectively, set into relief against her need to evaluate the evidence in the court case.

The novel is written partly in diary form - a monologue from Clarissa to Rafe that is inherently subjective and liable to reinterpretation over time. And partly the novel is written in third person, providing objective, incontrovertible narrative looking at Clarissa from above. It is subtly done and adds greatly to the depth of the novel.

The characterisation is well done too, with Clarissa portrayed as fragile and fallible, yet also intelligent and determined. She takes some poor decisions and feels some responsibility for her own position, yet is also able to rationalise and see that some of her beliefs are illogical. Perhaps some of the other characters – fellow juror Robert; Rafe; Lottie and others are not as complex or well drawn – although all have some element of hidden depth.

The writing is convincing but does suffer, perhaps, from being unswerving. Twists in the tail are sometimes overdone, but the complete absence of any twist in The Book Of You feels perhaps like a lost opportunity. But, even though the novel travels a straight course, it is well enough written to still pack a punch.


The Ghost of the Mary Celeste
The Ghost of the Mary Celeste
Price: 8.97

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Drifting, 28 April 2014
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An unsolved mystery, ghosts, Victorian melodrama, the collection of numerous source documents and narrative strands. It sounds like something Sarah Waters might have written. What’s not to like?

Quite a lot, actually.

Some of the story lines are well written. The opening scenes, the tragic story of the Early Dawn in 1859, are told with a compelling urgency. The storm is real, the sea spray fills our nostrils. And then bump – we’re back on dry land following the story of the Briggs family who lost their loved ones from the Early Dawn. From this moment on, it is like wading through treacle. The language is deliberately impenetrable; any reference points are swathed in extraneous verbiage just to make them harder to grasp; the pace becomes glacial. Worst of all, it is boring.

Then, after a brief and tantalising reference to the Mary Celeste, we find ourselves following a young Arthur Conan-Doyle on a ship bound for Africa. This ensures that any momentum that might have built in the Briggs section (if only…) is lost. The African section flits backwards and forwards, drifts from reality to dreams and back again. And it seems irrelevant, creating a distance between the text and the reader.

So it carries on, section after interminable section. Some are more readable than others and, for a brief moment in the middle of the book, the reader feels that it might al be starting to make sense. But then we drift off into more blind alleys, following Arthur Conan-Doyle on a tour of the US and his encounter with a medium. It all unravels again. Names and pseudonyms change on a whim and relationships seem to be left deliberately obscure. There’s something about a book, but by this point I had given up trying to make sense of it all.

The end, when it eventually comes, is a mercy. However, it does little to resolve anything. Like the Mary Celeste herself, the narrative just drifts. At the end, it is difficult to describe just what Valerie Martin might have been trying to write. It looks like something that presses all the buttons to win awards, but the incoherence suggests that Martin was not in proper control of her material. The lack of engagement with the reader made it an ordeal to complete – and it was too easy to put down in favour of alternative diversion. One can forgive bold ambition that doesn’t quite come off, but boring the reader is unforgivable.

The Mary Celeste mystery is enigmatic enough to have deserved something better than this.


600 Hours of Edward
600 Hours of Edward
Price: 1.00

2.0 out of 5 stars 600 Hours of Edward = 6 Hours of My Life that I won’t get back, 22 April 2014
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Edward Stanton is a 39 year old, unmarried man who lives in a house bought for him by his father, living on a credit card paid off by his father. Edward has Asperger Syndrome. 600 Hours of Edward is a story narrated by Edward, showing the ways in which his life changed over a 25 day (600 hour) period.

Whether or not the reader will “get” the book depends to a great extent on the degree to which the reader “gets” Edward. Judging by Amazon reviews, most readers have great sympathy for Edward and find the novel amazing.

I’m afraid I don’t.

My big problem was that I didn’t believe in Edward. For the most part, he displays the obsessie-compulsive behaviour of a man with Asperger Syndrome. He notes his waking times, keeps a list of the high and low temperature each day, and watches an episode of Dragnet every night at 10pm without fail. His life is ordered but empty. He displays little ability to grasp what others might think and learns emotional cues by rote from his doctor. Except, that is, for the times when Edward displays great emotional insight. The problem is that for all the repetitive narrative, Edward does not behave consistently. When the narrative requires it, Edward behaves with generosity; he is truthful to the point of self-harm except when he perceived that a white lie will spare someone’s feelings. His daily letters of complaint betray a level of empathy and understanding that is not borne out in his regular activities.

The plot is quite straightforward and has a habit of unfolding several pages later than the reader expects (i.e. you can see it coming a mile off). The narrative is pretty leaden and emotionless (verisimilitude, I hear you say…) that makes the novel a bit of a slog. Even positive commentators have questioned the need to read the synopses of each episode of Dragnet with care and attention.

It is inevitable that 600 Hours will be compared to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (Mark Haddon), given that both purport to portray a central character with Asperger Syndrome. It may also be worth considering The Rosie Project (Graham Simsion) in the mix. Sadly, Edward comes up wanting. Where Rosie and Curious Incident create humour in the gap between an unreliable narrator and what the reader knows to be happening, Edward seems to be a thoroughly truthful narrator. With the exception of a single dating scene that is genuinely comic, there is really no sense of misunderstanding. Sure, there’s the odd occasion where, for example, Edward and his neighbour Donna act at cross purposes because Donna is not aware of factual information, but nothing is ever made of the difference in perceptions.

Overall 600 Hours drags. It is slow to start and slow to end, with just a little bit of implausible and frenetic action in the middle. It feels like a missed opportunity; it could have been funny or it could have been profound but it ended up being neither. 600 Hours of Edward = 6 Hours of My Life that I won’t get back.


Cooking With Fernet Branca
Cooking With Fernet Branca
Price: 4.79

4.0 out of 5 stars One trick pony, 19 April 2014
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Cooking With Fernet Branca was long listed for the 2004 Booker Prize and won the BBC's "People's Booker" title. However, Chris Smith, the chair of the panel that year, dismissed it as being "a bit of a one-trick pony". This seems terribly unfair.

The novel is a comic farce, set in Tuscany, where Gerald Samper, a British ghostwriter of sporting 'auto'biographies has set up a pastiche of the rural idyll. He writes by day and cooks by night - he believes himself to be quite the gastronome and intersperses his narratives with recipes that abound with ludicrously large or ludicrously small quantities of ingredients, many of which are ... um... exotic. Gerald is disappointed to find that he has a neighbour, Marta, a Voynovian composer of songs. The humour, chiefly, revolves around the mismatch between the two characters' self perception and their perception of each other. James Hamilton-Paterson manages to keep this up throughout the novel, with neither character getting stale. The more we get to know them, the more we want to know more.

Both Gerald and Marta introduce side-characters who are all, in their own ways, just as grotesque. We have Italian film directors, boy band stars, Eastern European oligarchs, playboys driving sportscars. It's perfect light holiday reading, but working on a number of levels. It's really very clever.

If Cooking With Fernet Branca has a weak spot, it is a rather rushed and chaotic ending - yet not one that is terribly closely related to the farcical misunderstandings. It's more just chaos for its own sake and the novel might have been stronger without it. But this is a minor blemish on an otherwise rather wonderful comic novel. I shall look forward to rejoining Gerald in the sequels in the near future.

Right now I feel inspired to go out and buy a bottle of Fernet Branca. If I don't like drinking it, I could always use it to make ice cream.


The Falling Sky
The Falling Sky
Price: 0.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do, 19 April 2014
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This review is from: The Falling Sky (Kindle Edition)
I wanted to like The Falling Sky, but it just didn't gel.

The novel has various strands of story line, each presenting disparate strands of Jeanette's life. In the present, we have Jeanette as a newly minted post-doctoral researcher, exploring the night sky looking for a niche in the academic world of astronomy. She is on the verge of dining at the top table, slightly overawed by that position but very much in love with her subject. Then we also have Jeanette, the slightly awkward social misfit, comfortable in her own [homo]sexuality but still searching for true love. In both these settings, she is in a liminal state, transitioning from student to adult. Then in Juliette's past (chapters headed "Then"), we find an amalgam of her own childhood and that of her sister, Kate.

Much of the book drips with science - and I'm not sure I ever quite believed in it. This was used to set the scene for the kind of academic politicking that seemed more genuine, but the bit part characters seemed more interesting, amusing and generally three dimensional than Jeanette. This is a pity, because I suspect Jeanette's personal journey was supposed to be the main event. Instead, it felt jumbled, muddled and to have a discontinuity between the Then and Now sections that was never quite bridged. In short, again, I didn't believe in it.

There was just about enough in the novel to keep the reader going, but it did feel like a bit of a slog. For a relatively short book, it seemed quite slow and a bit baggy.


Company (Vintage Contemporaries)
Company (Vintage Contemporaries)
Price: 5.39

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.


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