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MisterHobgoblin (Melbourne)

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Ways to Disappear
Ways to Disappear
Price: £5.69

5.0 out of 5 stars Very black, 21 Feb. 2017
This review is from: Ways to Disappear (Kindle Edition)
Ways to Disappear is a delightful little crime-intrigue set in the sun of Brazil. Despite the colourful colour in Brazilian green, blue and yellow, the story is black. Very black.

Emma is an American translator who has worked on a number of novels by Beatriz Yagoda, a Brazilian writer of poetic literary fiction. Emma has made translating Beatriz a personal mission, so when Beatriz disappears after climbing an almond tree in Rio de Janeiro, Emma thinks nothing of abandoning her fiancé Miles to the Pittsburgh winter and leading the hunt.

Moving at breakneck speed, Emma finds herself caught up in an terrifying criminal underworld, with only Beatriz’s high maintenance adult offspring to guide her through it. Following leads, hunches and memorable paragraphs in Beatriz’s novels, the trio head off on a tour of Brazil’s islands and secondary cities in the hope of picking up the trail. As they do so, they are pursued by loan sharks and unseen journalists keen to make scandal and revel in the Yagodas’ misfortune.

The novel is short – made even shorter by fragmentary paragraphs and heaps of white space – but it feels complete and satisfying. The narrative is interspersed with e-mails and pseudo-definitions to create a more documentary feel. The language is spot on; every sentence conveying huge volumes of meaning. The reader is effortlessly transported in place and emotion; gets to know several characters in some depth (I personally loved the Brazilian literary editor); and is hypnotised by a writhing, twisty plot that could go anywhere. In this sense, it read like a novel in translation – not through any awkwardness of language but just because it felt culturally and stylistically different to typical western novels.

If there was one area that didn’t work quite as well for me, it was when the narrative tried to incorporate Beatriz’s own writing. I can see that it was designed to set up a contrast between the highbrow, sensitive life of a writer and the sordid world in which she had found herself. However, the highbrow stuff just didn’t convince; it read like stand-alone pieces designed to slot into the novel rather than pieces that could plausibly be part of a bigger whole. This, though, is a minor criticism and it has little impact on the reader’s overall sense of the novel.

Overall, this is an excellent novel and I recommend it without reservation.

Between a Wolf and a Dog
Between a Wolf and a Dog
Price: £4.31

3.0 out of 5 stars More dog than wolf, 19 Feb. 2017
Between a Wolf and a Dog is getting many plaudits and prizes. I can see that it is a good quality example of a family drama, but basically I struggle to find family dramas interesting.

In this Sydney-based novel, we have Hilary, a matriarch, terminally ill with a brain tumour. Her two daughters April and Ester have a feud dating back three years, and Lawrence, Ester's ex, is having some work related problems. We explore how the characters got there, and over the course of a day, get some thoughts about how they might move forward if they can only find the courage.

Of the various characters, I engaged most with Lawrence. A disillusioned journalist who specialises in opinion polls, he has a self destructive streak that seems to press into action ever few years. He is thoughtful and tends to avoid self pity, but is certainly aware that he has stuffed up his life. I didn't really engage with the female characters - arty, flighty, spoilt - which probably did limit my enjoyment of the novel as a whole. Nevertheless, whilst I didn't engage with Ester I was amused by the counselling sessions she ran for a living and pitied the poor people who turned to her for advice when her own life was so thin.

There is some drama near the end, but it takes a while to get there, and particularly the events of three years ago feel over long and written in a frustratingly obscure way.

So it's not a bad book - just not one I found special. The main talking point seems to be that the author Georgia Blain, was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2015 and died in December 2016. Thus, there are obvious parallels between her lead character and her own destiny. I am not sure whether she would have known of her own diagnosis whilst writing Between a Wolf and a Dog; I feel she must have done but others have said it was purely coincidental. But if I think of other novels written shortly before the writer died (e.g. This Thing of Darkness or 2666) the talking point is the novel, not the writer...

King Crow
King Crow
Price: £2.63

4.0 out of 5 stars Good effort, 14 Feb. 2017
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: King Crow (Kindle Edition)
King Crow is a weird book about a weird boy. Paul Cooper is a high school pupil who views the world in terms of its relation to birds. Anyone he meets, he works out what kind of bird they equate to. His life's ambitions are mapped out in terms of birds. He's like a twitcher except he doesn't seem to travel anywhere to actually see the birds of his dreams. His life is mapped out in suburbs of Manchester.

So one day, when he sees Ashley - a new and good looking boy at school - Paul sees new possibilities.Although they are initially hostile, Paul sees a blossoming friendship. And as Ashley's bad boy tendencies come to the fore, Paul finds himself sucked into an exciting and criminal world.

There are parts of the novel where one doubts that a reticent character like Paul would so readily become involved in a criminal underworld and walk away from all that he knows. And would Ashley really reach out to Paul? Bear with the book - it is worth it. The contradictions are resolved. There is a feeling, though, that a great novel really ought not to shake the reader's confidence in the narration in this way. Surprises ought to be surprising rather than explanations of previous inconsistencies.

Nevertheless, King Crow is interesting enough in itself to make this a worthwhile read and make Paul Cooper an intriguing character. It's not perfect, but King Crow is a good effort.

Radio Sunrise
Radio Sunrise
by Anietie Isong
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Colourful and entertaining, 7 Feb. 2017
This review is from: Radio Sunrise (Paperback)
Ifiok is a journalist at a government radio station in Lagos, Nigeria. He has a lovely girlfriend, Yetunde, dreams of entering his radio series The River into the BBC Africa drama competition and his boss seems to like him. He seems well set up.

From a narrative perspective, this allows Ifiok to travel freely around the city, observing different vignettes of everyday life - whether in big business or dramas on the street with begging scams and petty thievery. Ifiok himself is part of the emergent middle class, dining in restaurants and buying Yetunde designer dresses, but not in the same league as the army generals driving around in their high black people carriers. And these vignettes are well told, colourful and often amusing.

What is lacking, though, is an over-arching narrative thread. At first it looks as though it might be a quest for funding for The River as government funding for it is cut. This could have lead to all sorts of nefarious schemes and scams, motivated by some form of community spirit. But the story line fizzles out. Instead, Ifiok returns to his family home in the oilfields and has a think about his love life. It feels like the wrong choice of narrative direction.

Nevertheless, this is a colourful, entertaining and short read. Three and a half stars perhaps nudging slightly on the side of four.

I am grateful to Netgalley and Jacaranda Books for sending me an advance reading copy.

This Is Memorial Device: An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Music Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and environs 1978-1986
This Is Memorial Device: An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Music Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and environs 1978-1986
Price: £7.19

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars World famous in Airdrie in 1984, 2 Feb. 2017
This Is Memorial Device is a fictional documentary of a fictional band, Memorial Device, that hailed from Airdrie, a small town in the west of Scotland where religious sectarianism was not unknown.

The documentary is compiled by Ross Raymond, a wannabe journalist whose youth was greatly impacted by the local music scene. The four band members of Memorial Device were his heroes. The band was seen as the culmination of various precursor bands, and shone brightly and briefly before the members went off to pursue different directions.

Some chapters are editorial, written by Ross himself. Others are in the form of interviews or reminiscences of those who were close to the band at the time – archivists, lovers, rivals. The introduction of these chapters is not terribly well signposted, and much of the content is rambling which can lead to confusion about the relationships between the dozens of characters – never fear, there is an Appendix listing everyone who is mentioned, however briefly.

The result is a fragmentary story with little plot and absolutely no direction. There’s not even a terribly clear timeline to cling to. Instead, we have microscopic level of detail and analysis, focused on the music scene in Airdrie in the 1970s and 1980s. Occasionally there is a hint of aspiration – an interview at a record company in London – but mostly we are talking about people who are absolute legends within a circle of no more than 50 others. Their celebrity status is portrayed without question and without irony; the detail of their lives is picked over in such forensic detail because it really matters to Ross and those who were there at the time.

There are drugs, there is drink; there is deviant sex. This is not a novel for the faint hearted. But what makes it is that it is so recognisable. Those of us fortunate enough to grow up in small towns in the same time period will recognise the importance of pub bands, cafes, the local independent record shop, the local weirdo, the time Steve Sims got a pint of beer poured over him for talking to the wrong girl. The beauty is in the sincerity with which people there at the time believe in the importance of these markers, even though they appear utterly trivial and irrelevant to those who were not in exactly that point of space and time.

Memorial Device is not an easy read. At times, in truth, it is bewildering, repetitive and boring. It is written with a slavish adherence to authenticity, much as Roberto Bolaño achieved with his History of Nazi Literature in the Americas or his meticulous list of murders in 2666. And almost half the length is an index of pretty much everything that is mentioned anywhere. The reader has to marvel at the effort that would have been required to produce this despite the certainty that it would be of no value to anyone. The ultimate effect of this strange text is something that is satisfying to have read, even if the journey makes the reader wonder whether it is worth the effort.

I am grateful to Netgalley and Fabers for an advance reading copy of this novel.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 23, 2017 10:05 PM GMT

Welcome to Lagos
Welcome to Lagos
Price: £6.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Welcome to Lagos, 25 Jan. 2017
This review is from: Welcome to Lagos (Kindle Edition)
Welcome to Lagos. Is there a city in the world that offers a more improbable welcome?

This is a comic satire on the corruption, poverty and violence of modern Nigeria. We see all of Nigeria’s ills paraded through the lens of Chike and Yemi, soldiers who have deserted in disillusionment at being asked to torch a village and shoot the fleeing villagers. With no plan, they head into the jungle, rescue a couple of runaways (a chancer called Fineboy and a young woman called Isoken) and head off for Lagos. Along the way, they pick up three more runaways. Collectively, in spite of each other, they end up on a venture to create a better city.

The novel contrasts the wealth and the poverty in Nigeria. On the one hand, we see the wealthy ruling class, living off oil revenues and graft, buying multiple mansions around the world. And then we have people living in shanties, under bridges, fishing and bathing in human waste. We have those sent off to study internationally contrasted with those in rural areas in schools with no equipment and whose teachers seldom bother coming in to work.

Our heroic seven span this spectrum of wealth and education. They are thrown together by circumstance and unlikely plot twists enable them to sample life at each of their different levels. They adjust to their rapid changes of fortune with varying degrees of success, but in the process they have to re-base their opinions of one another.

The novel proceeds at a lively pace. There are short chapters, led, in the middle section of the novel, by articles snipped from the Nigerian Journal. These touch on the subsequent chapters with greater or lesser degrees of obliqueness, often displaying the kind of folksy wonder at modern technology. There is a fair use of Nigerian language – probably both Yoruba and Igbo, but I am no expert. And some of the English language dialogue is written in Nigerian pidgin. This can be disconcerting at first, but after a while it just becomes part of the fabric.

The reader is given a good Cook’s tour of Lagos and the wider Niger delta, visiting different neighbourhoods, villages, international hotels, offices and mansions. It creates a picture of a vibrant, multi-cultural union of nations, full of surprises and way more colourful than non-Nigerian readers might expect. Whilst the individual characters of the novel may be a bit cartoony, together they combine to create a city (and a nation) that is complex and three dimensional; viewed from multiple perspectives. It is almost a character in its own right and fully justifies the title of the novel.

Welcome to Lagos.

I am grateful to Fabers and Netgalley for sending me an advance review copy.

Rain Dogs (Detective Sean Duffy Book 5)
Rain Dogs (Detective Sean Duffy Book 5)
Price: £4.07

3.0 out of 5 stars A pretext to join a middle aged bachelor behaving badly in 1980s Northern Ireland, 24 Jan. 2017
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Inspector Sean Duffy, token Catholic in the Carrickfergus RUC, is no stranger to murder. Rain Dogs is his fifth outing. In the preceding four novels, he has committed a long list of transgressions, has fallen out with many colleagues and most if his near neighbours have been caught up in previous investigations. This creates a fair amount of baggage that has to be disposed of at the start of each subsequent novel.

One particular feature of Sean Duffy’s previous novels is the link between Carrickfergus crime and the big political picture. We have previously had the Brighton bombing, John de Lorean and Freddie Scappaticci. This one, set in 1987, is a bit different: the political events are national rather than Provincial and this allows Duffy and his team to go across the water – and ultimately to Oulu in Finland. Duffy, who has previously met Margaret Thatcher and Gerry Adams now gets to meet a genuine TV celebrity.

Oh, and did I mention that the murder (there is a murder-suicide question for a long while but this is an Adrian McKinty novel so the reader is never in any real doubt) is a locked room mystery? It is a bit of a cliché, and one that the reader will work out much sooner than Duffy (smoking lots of dope doesn’t make for quick thinking). It feels too theatrical, and when the mystery is finally explained it all seems a bit, um, improbable.

But really, the crimes are just a pretext to join a middle aged bachelor behaving badly in 1980s Northern Ireland, smoking, drinking and playing tunes. To that extent, the novel fully delivers on expectations.

Self-Improving Schools: The Journey to Excellence
Self-Improving Schools: The Journey to Excellence
by Roy Blatchford
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A lot of different, sometimes contradictory ideas to choose from, 20 Jan. 2017
Self-Improving Schools is a collection of thought-provoking essays on school accountability. The essays come from a variety of perspectives, divided particularly between voices from school leaders and voices from the national or regional perspective. However, within these categories, there is a great diversity of opinion.

There is a lot of focus, understandably, on Ofsted. Some of the contributors feel that Ofsted was once a necessary evil, imposing a quality floor that schools had to reach – whether willingly or kicking and screaming. Others feel that Ofsted was ill-conceived and put schools through Hell for no real gain. However, there is a broad agreement amongst the contributors that inspection and accountability needs a major rethink. Whether this is a matter for schools, acting independently or in small peer groups, or for a rethought inspectorate is the matter for debate.

The balance between autonomy and accountability is difficult to find, but it is argued that whilst a proscriptive set of standards may be useful in dragging poor schools up to a satisfactory level, once 90% of schools are good or better the standards act as a brake for innovation and further improvement. On the other hand, it is argued that at least with inspectors a school is judged by people and can, to an extent, argue its case. Without an inspectorate, the risk is that schools would be judged on data alone and would not be able to plead their case with a league table.

This is an intelligent collection of essays that are generally very readable, and two or three are works of brilliance. It is very Anglo-centric with a lot of focus on Multi Academy Trusts, but the arguments will strike a chord with readers more familiar with other education services, regardless of their current models of regulation and accountability. Ultimately, there is no clear answer on a way forward – just a lot of different, sometimes contradictory ideas to choose from.

Learning Beyond the Classroom: Education for a Changing World
Learning Beyond the Classroom: Education for a Changing World
by Tom Bentley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £33.62

3.0 out of 5 stars Appeals to the head, not the heart, 19 Jan. 2017
There are some interesting ideas in Learning Beyond The Classroom. Despite being published some 20 years ago, the basic thesis that schools are no longer meeting the needs of their students or of wider society remains pertinent.

Basically, we send kids off to schools to be sat in lessons structured around a rigid curriculum geared around passing exams and then we are surprised that many of the kids become disengaged. Bentley argues that the same kids may well be enthusiastically engaged in non-school settings, doing voluntary work, employment or personal study.

The fault is not with the kids, it is with a school system that does not value the more holistic skill set sought by employers, and lacks creativity in blending meaningful non-school experience into the curriculum; and in an assessment system that values performance under extreme pressure in academic disciplines that inevitably crowds out non-assessed skills from the curriculum.

The book itself contains interesting ideas, but goodness me it is a slog to get through. The language is dense and the real life examples , when they are given, tend to be generic rather than specific, pitched at the organisational level rather than the individual level. A text that is supposed to be a call to arms for radical change should feel more inspiring and urgent; it should appeal to the heart as well as the head. Unfortunately, this text doesn’t manage that.

How to Run A Government: So that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don't Go Crazy
How to Run A Government: So that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don't Go Crazy
by Michael Barber
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

4.0 out of 5 stars Auto-hagiography, 2 Jan. 2017
This is a book that purports to set out guidelines and rules by which governments can maximise their chances of successfully implementing policies (or delivering change). Yes, these rules are set out. But this is essentially an autobiography. Michael Barber details the triumphs of his various delivery roles in Britain and overseas (primarily in the US, Canada and Pakistan). It is written in an engaging way and there are touches of self-deprecation, but only ever in aspects that are not very important.

Sir Michael has a high opinion of himself and for most of the book he portrays himself as some kind of angel blessed with divine understanding of delivery, spreading the light through the darkness. He is strongly critical of public servants and too often seems to see them as dull witted people who seek an easy life and lack the imagination or will to drive change. This does a great many people a disservice. He fails to notice that his roles were always specially created, a charmed existence for a man who was chummy with the Prime Minister and was authorised to tell it like it is. By way of example, he writes about the need to tell it straight to Ministers and criticises officials who only like to say yes and tell ministers what they want to hear. But working under David Blunkett in the Department for Education, saying no or giving unwelcome advice would have been career suicide - particularly if the Permanent Secretary at the time, Sir Michael Richard, had got his stated wish to sack 10% of his staff every year.

Having said that, How To Run A Government does give good insight into the mechanics of delivery and the need for leaders to be willing to get into the detail on really important matters. Having witnessed the changing zeitgeist from one of policy to one of delivery, project and risk management, the points that Michael Barber makes are relevant. Some of them are not terribly original - Barber seems to be a fan of John Kotter - but in relating them to the political environment I think Barber has created something new and of genuine value. The value is exemplified by the applicability of examples to other situations - hence, the reader may read an example set in Lahore but feel how similar it was to something that happened more locally - and recognise the similarity in the way things played out between the two examples.

The other real beef I have is that the book makes a cogent case for establishing separate Delivery Units within government - to ensure real focus on delivery and to avoid being eclipsed by a focus on strategic policy. But the book is light on how the many officials who are not enlisted into these small, elite units should engage with delivery.

These, though, are small gripes in an interesting cooks tour of recent delivery activity. This is a worthwhile read, even if it can sometimes feel like an auto-hagiography.

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