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MisterHobgoblin (Melbourne)
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Merciless Gods
Merciless Gods
Price: £6.71

4.0 out of 5 stars The gods may roll the dice..., 22 May 2015
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This review is from: Merciless Gods (Kindle Edition)
I never know exactly how to approach a collection of short stories. Are you supposed to open it and read from cover to cover, following the sequence laid out in the book and not pausing to draw breath? Are you supposed to dip in and out in any sequence you like? Should you just slot a couple of stories in between novels?

In Merciless Gods, I have decided after about half the book to set it down for a while. Not because I am not enjoying it, but rather because I am feeling that the stories lose their impact coming too soon after one another. These stories are too good to waste in a race to get from one cover to the other.

Christos Tsiolkas, for anyone who doesn’t know (maybe they were living on the Moon for the past five years), is a gay writer of Greek heritage from Melbourne. His writing, both in short and long form, comprises social observations of the kind of people Tsiolkas sees in his daily life; many characters are gay, but his writing does not seem to be about *being* gay. He focuses more on generations, on friendships, and on cultural baggage that comes from ancestral homelands.

Tsiolkas has an extraordinary eye for authentic detail. In Tourists, for example, Bill and Trina visit New York and determine to visit an art gallery. Poor planning and an unwillingness to look like “tourists” by referring to a map causes Bill to get more and more frustrated, culminating in an ill-judged comment about the supercilious ticket-clerk. Trina’s reaction, silent sulking and contrariness, is spot on. We’ve all been there. The story then wraps up with a nice little ironic twist.

There is much of Melbourne to be seen – the inexplicably expensive Brunswick shoeboxes, the larger but poorer wastelands of Westmeadows, the arty-sleazy beach at St Kilda: where there are Greeks, there are Merciless Gods. Each location, just like each character, cut down to size. But there is also a wider world – one from which Melburnians come, and to which Melburnians go.

Merciless Gods is a perfect slice of here and now.


Florence and Giles
Florence and Giles
Price: £3.85

4.0 out of 5 stars She's a strange girl, 20 May 2015
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She's a strange girl. She comes from a strange family.

Florence lives in a large house in upstate New York in the 1890s. Her parents have met tragic ends, so she and her half brother Giles live in their uncle's house. The uncle is not there, but his retinue of servants are quite capable of looking after the children. But owing to his own sad past, the uncle makes just one stipulation: Florence is to be denied any form of education. Giles, on the other hand, is allowed to go away to school for all the good it will do him.

No matter, Florence has secretly taught herself to read and has devised ingenious ways to access the forbidden books in the well stocked family library... Telling her story in a curious secret language (consisting principally of verbing any and every noun she can think of), Florence seems both odd and endearing. We feel for her; we despise the injustice of keeping a woman away from learning; we tremble as the servants threaten to stumble on her guilty pleasures.

What unfolds has been compared to The Turn Of The Screw. I'm not sure that is quite fair. Sure, it's a gothic little ghost story, but whilst The Turn Of The Screw has a hidden double meaning, Florence And Giles is rather less coy about it. By the very end, there's really only one way it can be read. It is still a damn fine story, full of tension and twists, full of atmosphere and history. But it isn't The Turn Of The Screw.


The Busker
The Busker
Price: £7.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The world would think I was mad..., 20 May 2015
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This review is from: The Busker (Kindle Edition)
The Busker promises three cities, two years, one chance. Yes, the cities bit is correct, and I’ll take Liam Murray Bell’s word for it that it takes place over two years – although it is difficult to gauge the passage of time – but “one chance” is a bit misleading.

We open the book to find Robert Dillon, homeless on the streets of Brighton, having pawned his guitar to buy a bit of food and some drugs to help him sleep. Since Robert – or Rab – is a busker, this seems to reflect some pretty short term thinking. Rab seems to be a stereotypical Glaswegian junkie, having incoherent arguments with his incoherent homeless buddy Sage. Certainly, Rab is at rock bottom.

So it challenges pre-conceptions to discover that Rab is an articulate man from a middle class part of Glasgow who recently signed a recording contract and had an album released.

The novel layers back in time, first to London where Rab is living the high life, raiding the mini-bar in his swanky hotel room, being ferried about the place by record company limousines, and looking forward to a life of fame and wealth. And then it is layered further back to Hyndland, Glasgow, where Rab’s friends are looking at universities as Rab is making preparations to head down to London for the big time. He is full of hopes and expectations; perhaps his girlfriend Maddie might come to join him; they could buy a house and once the royalties start to pour in, Maddie’s English uni tuition fees wouldn’t be a drop in the bucket…

Obviously, we know that Rab’s music career is not going to end well; part of the intrigue in the novel is seeing how such a low ebb can be reached from such promising beginnings. The journey gives a searing portrayal of the music industry which seems so cut-throat and unsentimental that it’s a wonder anyone would ever consider joining it. Everyone seems to be in hock to someone else – those who seems to be screwing over the artists are being screwed over themselves.

There is also a good deal of cynicism about celebrity endorsement of grass-roots movements. Rab is encouraged to involve himself with the Occupy movement, pretending to be sincere, pretending to live in a tent, pretending to be in touch with the streets. The irony, of course, is that this is exactly the future that is waiting for Rab.

One of the strengths of the book is the development of Rab as a character. He may not have been much chop as a rock star, he may take some poor decisions and sometimes seems callous, but he does have an innate optimism that is hard to dislike. He doesn’t want charity; he doesn’t want to admit defeat; and he seems to still have hope that he’ll be able to pull himself up. In each of the three sections, he is counterpointed by more pessimistic characters – Sage in Brighton, Price the record mogul in London, and Maddie, the girlfriend in Glasgow. Rab is never deterred by the fact that the voices of pessimism often seem to be right; and the reader cheers for him.

Does he get there in the end?

Perhaps.


The Paying Guests
The Paying Guests
Price: £9.50

5.0 out of 5 stars Return to Form, 13 May 2015
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This review is from: The Paying Guests (Kindle Edition)
Sarah Waters writes slow burning books. They tend to be long, descriptive and start out creeping forward at glacial pace. But half way through, things tend to start to speed up and end up running at full pelt.

The Paying Guests is just such a book. Starting out in 1920s London, we join Mr and Mrs Barber, a young couple, moving into lodgings with the Wrays. Mrs Wray, it seems, has been recently widowed and lives with her adult daughter Frances. There are ghosts of men about the place - Mr Wray and his sons, presumed killed in the war, but Mr Barber is one of very few male characters in the piece. He is a rakish man, anxious to climb the pay scale at his assurance company and always keen to impress Frances. Frances, on the other hand, starts to build up a friendship with his wife Lilian...

This is classic Sarah Waters stuff. Explaining the plot would give too much away, but it is as intriguing as Fingersmith, as romantic as Tipping The Velvet, and as tense as Affinity. For this reader, at least, it is a return to form after the somewhat quiet Night Watch and Little Stranger. Suffice to say that as the story develops, there is a building tension; moments of hope and despair. The ending is a cliffhanger that asks as many questions as those it (satisfyingly) answers.


The Faithful Couple
The Faithful Couple
Price: £4.78

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A novel to miss, 13 May 2015
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There's no easy way to say this: The Faithful Couple is pretty boring.

AD Miller's first novel, Snowdrops, succeeded by holding up a mirror to a world that was little understood: post Communist Russia, and supported this with a cracking story. His characters and situations were credible and interesting.

In The Faithful Couple, we still see an intriguing reflection of a society - 1990s and 2000s London - but it is a world that many of us already know well. AD Miller doesn't really tell us anything we don't already know. There is what appears to be some inside dope on the Immigration Department of the Home Office, some stories of dotcom start-ups and financial service providers. It may be well portrayed, but the reader is left with a feeling of knowing recognition rather than enlightenment.

The weakness, though, is the story. Adam and Neil first meet as backpackers in California; they are drawn together as two Brits in a strange land, a friendship cemented by an encounter with a girl. But the two characters - Adam, patrician, good looking but under-performing; and Neil, working class, hungry, risk-taking - are just not a credible pairing. And as we follow their lives, Adam in the lower reaches of the civil service and Neil as an entrepreneur, their continued friendship is just too unlikely. The holiday bonding was not enough to make them want to stay together; they would have been taken off by girlfriends/wives and work colleagues into totally different social circles. This is compounded by the fact that they never seem to have anything in common and, California notwithstanding, very little in the way of shared experience. They just seem to spend time together for the purposes of creating a contrast for the reader.

Plus, Adam and Neil are so bo o o o oring. What starts out, perhaps, almost as a Jeffrey Archer Kane and Abel type rivalry just fizzles. It is clear which will succeed and which will sink, and they stick relentlessly to their pre-determined courses. There are no shocks and surprises; non epiphanies or revelations.

The result is a novel that is well written on the surface, but does not do enough to capture the reader's interest, and meanders on for far too long. It is redeemed in part by some nice observational stuff, but overall this is a novel to miss.


The Teddy Wheeler Story: Teddy Wheeler tells his own story
The Teddy Wheeler Story: Teddy Wheeler tells his own story
Price: £2.24

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Bad Teddy, 9 May 2015
Teddy Wheeler apparently wrote this book himself. It is an autobiographical book by a teddy bear. One published by a vanity press. Teddy Wheeler is a colourful character who, judging by his Facebook page sharing posts by Nick Griffin and Britain First, has quite an agenda. One that does not include good spelling, grammar or immigration.


Moving Tigers
Moving Tigers
Price: £6.33

3.0 out of 5 stars It's a worry, 23 April 2015
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This review is from: Moving Tigers (Kindle Edition)
Jeannie Cooper and her boyfriend Andy have left their comfortable Melbourne suburb to do a stint of voluntary work in Nepal. The placement starts with a bit of tourism, and then the volunteers are farmed out to small towns to teach English.

Jeannie doesn't seem to know what she is doing in Nepal. She has no great affinity for the place; she is creeped out by everyone she meets; she lives for her next drink; and she doesn't even seem to like Andy much so it can't have been the prospect of spending more time with him. Like her fellow volunteers, Jeannie has no experience of teaching; has had no training; and just makes it up as she goes along.

Moving Tigers feels like it has a message to carry. The mismatch between third world needs and first world offerings is laid out clearly. The Western volunteers make tokenistic, symbolic gestures - trying to get a bed and blanket for the porter; asking for dal baht instead of eggs for breakfast - whilst unwittingly insulting the hospitality of the Nepalese managers. There are excellent depictions of ancient traditions; sacred monuments; atmospheric guest houses all being under-appreciated by the hordes of visitors who see it all as wallpaper for their 'life experience'.

But, the story itself feels somewhat skimpy and under-done. Jeannie is apparently terrified after refusing to give money to a beggar. She sees demons around her, lurking in the shadows and in her dreams. This feels like it was tacked on, perhaps to make a straight travel story seem more exciting. It doesn't work. The terror is never adequately evoked, and certainly not explained. Jeannie would have encountered many beggars, most of whom would have been brushed aside. There is no reason why this one in particular should have caused such a reaction. Whilst an explanation does emerge, it doesn't satisfy.

The narrative, too, seems too plain. It is constructed as Jeannie's diary, but the entries are both too lengthy for a genuine diary (including lengthy conversations, etc.) but the language is just too plain to carry the story.

The title - Moving Tigers - is apparently a game played in Nepal. But there is not enough in the story to make the linkage to the volunteers. Sure, the blurb on the back of the book does its best to make the link but there is nothing in the story to suggest a metaphor of goats and tigers.

Overall, this is a short read that does have some interesting ideas and some political messages (laid on quite thick). These do redeem the novel to an extent, but at best it is middling.

Oh, and the Kindle version has a short story added to the end - Made In China - about a woman who designs jeans outsourcing the production to China. Her chickens come home to roost. This is worth reading, but is pretty similar in both narrative and political vein to Moving Tigers.


Solving the Strategy Delusion: Mobilizing People and Realizing Distinctive Strategies
Solving the Strategy Delusion: Mobilizing People and Realizing Distinctive Strategies
Price: £28.49

5.0 out of 5 stars Throw off your mental chains, 19 April 2015
Solving the Strategy Delusion is a short but very readable text. The authors adopt a conversational style, illustrating their points with various recent and well known examples. But for all the readability, it is also a masterpiece of concision; it packs an awful lot of thinking into a pretty small package.

The central thesis is that strategy fails for various reasons - principally being developed by a small and internal group at a one off group, conflates strategy with strategic plan, is not well understood or communicated even within the Boardroom, let alone to wider staff, and tends to be under-resourced in its implementation. These are not new concepts - they owe a debt to Heifetz and Kotter - but the way they are articulated and made accessible is new. There are also good insights in relating the theory to practice, drawing frequently on recent performance of Fortune 500 companies.

The sections that spoke particularly strongly too me were:

(a) the need to develop strategy from an outside perspective - and I have tried out the illustration of the North View with colleagues and it works very well and
(b) the need to develop a purpose, mission and collective story - which is too often seen as something to be retro-fitted to explain what has been done rather than developed up front as a statement of intent

The authors conclude (and in fact assert up front) that 20th century corporate practices are not fit for purpose in the 21st century; they are not flexible enough or fast enough. I was a convert to the cause already, but feel emboldened by this text.

I am grateful to Marc Stigter for giving me a copy of this book.


The Vegetarian: A Novel
The Vegetarian: A Novel
Price: £8.79

3.0 out of 5 stars Strange Fruit, 15 April 2015
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The Vegetarian is a strange novel. It starts out in a low key mannet – Korean housewife Yeong-Hye has decided to stop eating meat and this causes some distress to her meat-loving husband. Being set in a society in which marriages are often made by arrangement rather than through love; and in which women are expected to obey their husbands, it poses some interesting cultural questions. Just how far should the will of the individual prevail against the strong social expectations of family? And how about if we throw in the husband’s employer’s expectations too?

But a third of the way through, the narrative perspective changes. The reader realises that the first section was narrated in fairly chatty fashion by Yeong-Hye’s husband. The second section is altogether darker, narrated by Mr Cheung, Yeong-Hye’s brother in law. Mr Cheung is an aspiring conceptual artist who has a fascination with flowers and birthmarks. He selects Yeong-Hye to feature in a video artwork.

And the third section is narrated by Yeong-Hye’s sister. By this point things are very weird indeed. Yeong-Hye’s idiosyncrasy is no longer just a matter of personal indulgence; it is clear that she wishes to become a tree. This ambition is harming her and those around her. It is hard to understand just what the author was trying to do. Was Yeong-Hye’s condition some deep allegory or was it just an exercise in demonstrating that every reader has a line beyond which personal expression should not be allowed to cross? The questions of conformity raised in the first section still pertain, but now the answers are different.

The Vegetarian is a short novel that is initially engaging, but for this reader at least it became significantly less engaging once the line had been crossed and we could no longer see Yeong-Hye as a harmless individual. As it becomes less engaging, it also becomes less easy to follow; more fractured. It is an interesting work, but not sure the gain quite outweighs the pain.


Station Eleven
Station Eleven
Price: £3.59

5.0 out of 5 stars The Deer Hunter, 14 April 2015
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This review is from: Station Eleven (Kindle Edition)
The cover of Station Eleven seems to target itself quite clearly at a young female market. That’s a pity; this novel is good enough to pitch to a wider audience.

It’s one of those novels that has multiple narrators/points of view, zipping back and forth between the present day and the near future. This creates a rich and varied patchwork of a story; the story never gets stale because it always moves on when the reader still wants more.

It is tempting to say that the book is the story of Kirsten, a young girl in the opening chapters who kind of ties everything together. Or perhaps to say that it is a story about the legacy of Arthur Leander, a famous Canadian actor who dies on a Toronto stage in the opening scenes. Or to say that it is the story of a travelling symphony orchestra; or the story of an apocalypse. It is all of these things, but each of these descriptions falls short of conveying the full extent of the story and its various strands. It’s like a literary version of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction – stories within stories. And told very well indeed.

Way above the plot line, there is a clear depiction of just how fragile our modern world could be; how little it would take for components of our complex systems to fail, bringing down the whole show with it. But unlike other post-apocalyptic novels, Station Eleven is not unremittingly bleak; from the ashes we see the emergent signs of a new society. Of course there is an element of raiding abandoned homes for supplies, but there is also a tendency towards self-sufficiency and even the occasional glimpse of luxury.

There are contrasts with a better life that people once led, but actually those lives are shown to be pretty hollow.

In particular, there is a scene where Arthur (before he died, obviously) is walking through a hotel lobby to the lift, aware that all eyes are on him. He is aware of the need to portray a ma who is time-poor; for whom everyday chores are just too mundane. Yet when he gets to his hotel room, he breathes a sigh of relief, is immediately bored and in the absence of a real job, has very little other than everyday chores to fill his time.

We see people in the old world travelling helter skelter in cars, ships, planes – all quite effortlessly. In future world, travel even between neighbouring cities represents an epic adventure. Yet in both worlds, travel has no great purpose.

The book is not perfect. There is a heavy reliance on coincidence and the onset of the apocalypse (disease) seems a bit too sudden and a bit too comprehensive. But for the most part, the ideas are well thought through; the characters are three dimensional and the reader cares about their fates – even when we already know them.


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