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MisterHobgoblin (Melbourne)

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Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine & beyond
Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine & beyond
by Olia Hercules
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.00

3.0 out of 5 stars Obscure ingredients, 30 Jun. 2015
This looks to be an interesting cookbook, but the problem is that almost every recipe includes at least one obscure ingredient that you won't find outside a Russian delicatessen. Sadly, there are no Russian delicatessens in Melbourne. The book suggests that some ingredients should be available in supermarkets, but not in the ones I go to. I can't comment on the recipes - although others (presumably living in other parts of the world) think they work well. But especially given that you can't access sample recipes or browse the list of recipes, buyers will want to be aware that access to obscure ingredients may be an issue.

Crimespotting (One City Trust)
Crimespotting (One City Trust)
by Ian Rankin
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Fear and Lothian, 24 Jun. 2015
Charity collections of short stories are a bit of a gamble; this one pays off. Ten writers, all top rate (many of whose full works I have previously read) and all contributing good stories. The theme is crime; in many cases this means good old murder, but one or two of the writers have taken a more oblique angle. In the case of Christopher Brookmyer's and Alison Kennedy's stories, it's not actually clear what crime, if any, has been committed. Nevertheless, these are perhaps two of the standout stories. Only a couple of the stories didn't quite work for me; the rest may not all have been deep, but they were diverse and entertaining. And in this case, having ten different voices worked well and avoided the sameness that you often get from reading ten stories by the same writer.

There is supposed to be an Edinburgh theme to the stories (the collection is to raise money for a city trust) but this never feels forced and, in truth, a couple of the stories didn't really seem to have an Edinburgh angle at all.

This is an inexpensive collection; it's a quick read, but well worth it.

One Foot Wrong
One Foot Wrong
Price: £1.89

4.0 out of 5 stars It's hard to dance with the devil on your back, 19 Jun. 2015
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This review is from: One Foot Wrong (Kindle Edition)
Meet Hester. A young girl, living indoors without any contact to the outside world. Hester’s friends are inanimate objects – Table, Spoon, Handle – and Cat. Hester’s parents, Boot and Sack, are deeply religious and offer Hester an illustrated Children’s Bible for entertainment and promise her that one day she will have her own room.

It seems a bit like Emma Donoghue’s Room at first, but it starts to become clear that rather than being a captive held against her will, Hester has learning difficulties and complies with the restrictions placed on her. Hester is known to the authorities and when she is assessed as fit to go to school, off to school she goes.

The relationship between Hester and her parents is complicated. From Hester’s perspective, there is an absolute dependence and an acceptance of her situation. There are occasional streaks of rebellion, but they are small and, when thwarted, are given up with little complaint. Boot and Hester both show a conflict between a love for Hester leading to over-protectiveness (she is their only child), and a wish to punish her for not being like other children. Sack, in particular, seems to blame Hester’s condition (which is never overtly defined) on her late pregnancy and this causes a maelstrom of guilt, disappointment and frustration. Moreover, it seems Sack has her own health worries.

Hester is constantly and consistently betrayed, and this seems all the more heinous given her guileless nature. The reader wills Hester to recognise the betrayals and rise up against them, but the reader also recognises Hester’s powerlessness to respond or to cope with the consequences were she to do so. The light, such as it is, seems to be Hester’s ability to form friendships with the rare outsiders whose paths she crosses: her grandmother, Mary and Lorna.

One Foot Wrong is narrated by Hester in a curious language. Having been deprived of childhood company and television, having never been able to read, Hester’s only cultural reference points are the biblical terminology her parents have given her. Hence, cars are chariots, birds are gods, imagery centres around trees, fire and the sun. At first, the language doesn’t seem quite authentic. Perhaps Hester thinks too deeply or too vividly for someone of apparently limited intellect. But these doubts settle down and the reader becomes willing to go along with it.

The novel comes in two halves; to describe the latter would give away the former, but it breathes life into a narrative that might have got into a bit of a blind alley. My question would be whether this comes at the expense of consistency of Hester’s established character. On the other hand, perhaps it makes us question the impression we had all formed of Hester.

This is a short novel but it has a lot in it. It will make the reader think and question his or her preconceptions. It will horrify, appal, disappoint and give hope in various measures. It’s a roller-coaster ride and the pacing works. It is an important example of seeing the person, not the intellectual disability or mental illness. It asks questions of how we treat people with disability and/or mental illness in contemporary society and just what safeguards we put in place to ensure their wellbeing. Most of all, it is an excellent answer to those moments when one questions the value of spending money and effort to develop people whose potential seems to be limited.

The Buried Giant
The Buried Giant
Price: £8.55

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Reading The Buried Giant is a memory I have no wish to retain, 17 Jun. 2015
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This review is from: The Buried Giant (Kindle Edition)
I feel a sense of relief finishing this tedious book.

Kazuo Ishiguro can write. The Remains of the Day is a study of very human, well rounded characters deisplaying enormous pathos. Never Let Me Go told a long allegory in pitch perfect tones, building a connection between the reader and the characters.

So what went wrong with The Buried Giant? It starts well - an omniscient narrator bridging the gap between the reader and characters in ancient Saxon Britain. The main characters, Axl and Beatrice, converse in a chatty way; details of their way of life are gently drip-fed. Axl realises that people are getting forgetful; events of only a few weeks ago seem to be forgotten.

Then, the novel just starts to disintegrate into a bad pastiche of other writers and other genres.

Axl and Beatrice, for example, start to sound like the characters in Raymond Briggs's When The Wind Blows. Everything Axl says ends in "princess", and Beatrice hangs on his every word, even though he has little idea of what he is saying.

Then, Axl and Beatrice decide to set off on a journey to find their son. They think he has gone to a nearby village; they can't remember why they want to find him but following some altercation over a candle, they think the time is right to leave their Hobbit-like warren. We then find ourselves in the land of Monty Python and the Holy Grail as they head off across the countryside having a procession of encounters with Arthurian knights, crazy ferrymen, soldiers guarding a bridge, some creepy monks, and the list goes on. Some of these chaps then decide to tag along with Axl and Beatrice.

The way these characters seem to have no real lives; no means of support; no purpose other than to wait in the clearing to be found by our plucky adventurers is reminiscent of the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks of Steve Jackson and Gary Gygax. At one point, in tunnels underneath a monastry (that is also some kind of doom machine whose mechanism is not very clearly explained), you can almost hear Kazuo Ishiguro rolling his twelve sided dice to determine what monster will be lurking behind each door.

Oh, and it's in this monastry/doom machine that we discover that nobody is quite who they say they are.

Then, after some mountains (where did they come from, the land was featureless and flat the day before), some ogres and a dragon later, it all kind of wraps up. They all get their memories back and remember that they have grievances and sorrows.

All this sounds quite frenetic, but the overwhelming sense is ennui. None of the characters has any depth; they just stand around talking to each other in long and repetitive speeches. There is a formula, repeated every thirty pages, of our travellers walking for a bit, discovering they are in great peril, and then escaping using strategically placed tools.

The ending adds some enigma to what was really just a terrible, derivative mishmash. There is a Question (with a capital Q) flagged up at the end in neon lights - would we be better off without our memories (i.e. should secrets remain buried?). And then the answer is set out in full - just in case readers can't work it out for themselves - that we are better off with memories even if some of them are unhappy ones.

Nevertheless, reading The Buried Giant is a memory I have no wish to retain.

Hallmark Large Wife Traditional 3D Birthday Card
Hallmark Large Wife Traditional 3D Birthday Card
Price: £3.99

1.0 out of 5 stars If you can't think of anything to say to your wife..., 10 Jun. 2015
This is a really bland card. Just plain gold qwith some trite writing and some bits glued on. The product description says that the words inside will tell your wife how much she means to you. It will indeed. It will tell her that she means so little to you that you couldn't be bothered to think up anything to say yourself so you just went with a generic card with a pre-rpinted generic message that could apply to anyone. I feel sorry for recipients of this card. It is horrible to tell your wife you don't love her, but to tell her on her birthday seems senselessly cruel.

Tree Palace
Tree Palace
by Craig Sherborne
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.68

3.0 out of 5 stars No income tax, no GST, 10 Jun. 2015
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This review is from: Tree Palace (Paperback)
Tree Palace is an odd novel. It creates a world on the edge, somewhere out in the wheat fields of northern Victoria, many miles from any major towns. A world whose population included an itinerant "blended family" of six, only two of whom shared a surname (probably - nobody seems that sure) who work very hard casing abandoned houses, stealing the fittings and selling them on to dodgy antique dealers. Brothers Shane and Mitch run the business side of things; Rory tries to avoid school; Shane's partner Moira is bringing up Zara's baby whilst Zara thinks of ways to avoid going back to school.

The setting, Barleyville, is fictitious but feels authentic; a small town with an independent supermarket, a school, a pub, a charity shop, a clothing shop and not much else. The town is quiet to the point of being soporific; the police are interested only in getting people to rub along together, happy to turn a blind eye to minor indiscretions if it saves on paperwork.

The family call themselves "trants", apparently derived from "itinerant". It's not a term I have come across before, but I could believe it to be genuine. The family seem to believe it is a kind of sub-culture or community with its own code of ethics. But having found a derelict house to stay in, the family starts to look for ways to bring a bit of stability to their lives. The frustration is that the effort they go to in trying to step around the law could have been applied to so much better effect in just working within the conventions of wider society. Sure, the family enjoy rent free accommodation, but if they worked legitimately and paid for housing, it would be watertight and have utilities. Craig Sherborne is able to humanise the characters, make the reader feel some empathy for them, and then snatch it away quickly as they make another bad call or revert to leeching off people.

Tree Palace has some evocative imagery, none more so than the chandelier hoisted up a tree that gives its name to the novel and the image to its cover. The problem is the focus. The focus drifts around in search of somewhere to lodge. There is no main protagonist; no particular narrative thread that drives the rest. Each character gets some moments in the spotlight and then fades away back into the scenery. At the surface level it is great, but it just doesn't satisfy in the broad sweep. It is too easy to put down and not quite interesting enough to pick up again.

Overall, the novel feels better to have read than it felt when being read. I suspect it will leave at least some impression, but there is a frustration that the interesting concept didn't quite make the transition into an excellent novel.

Hallmark 21st Birthday Granddaughter Traditional Gem Card - Medium
Hallmark 21st Birthday Granddaughter Traditional Gem Card - Medium
Price: £3.69

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars For granddaughters you don't know and don't like very much, 4 Jun. 2015
This is a card aimed at people who have a 20 year old grand-daughter that they don't know and don't like very much.

The card is covered in twee floral patterns in pastel pink and blue because grandparents are supposed to like things like that. Twenty-one year old women don't. Nor are they likely to identify much with the picture of ballet shoes - stiletto heels are more likely to be in their wardrobes. And there's a cheap bit of ribbon, too, for that 3D look.

So the card is bad.

But it's not a patch on the inside. This has a lovely "personalised" message pre-printed to help a grandparent who doesn't know what to say to a grand daughter they presumably barely know. Addressed, of course, to "Granddaughter", which would be handy for grandparents who can't remember their grand-daughter's name (old people can be so forgetful, can't they?).

Is there an up-side to this product?

Indeed there is. It comes with an envelope to put it in so you don't have to look at it. Simples.

All Involved
All Involved
Price: £6.47

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars California Dreaming, 28 May 2015
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This review is from: All Involved (Kindle Edition)
All Involved is a searing, fizzing timebomb of a novel.

Set in the aftermath of the acquittal of some Los Angeles police officers for the brutal beating of Rodney King, a young black man, we chart the course of the subsequent riots from the first sparks to the last smouldering.

Told in a series of connected first person narratives, we see what happens when gangs harbour grudges and all controls and restraints are removed. The result is breathtakingly bloody. It is cruel. It is unfair.

Ryan Gattis creates a credible world populated by credible people. By allowing us to see inside the heads of those involved, we see the thought processes, the hopes, the ambitions, the fears of those we might be tempted to dismiss as "not people like us". What we see is staggering. A political, economic and social web that rivals the world of business for complexity. We see issues of people management; strategy; risk assessment. We meet people who are loyal; people who are smart; people who are dumb; people who are innovative. And it is all directed in a completely mindless direction. It is a tragedy on epic scale.

The story, such as it is, is about two gangs who have cause for grievance with each other. Like an Albanian blood feud, the grievance escalates and sucks in all those around. The story is murky; the gang lines are not as clear as people think; some people connect the two sides; some people have divided loyalties; and some are only interested in themselves. From the shocking opening section, it is clear that this will not end well.

But there is something subtle at play. By letting us know the characters, we start to grade the atrocities. We attach different degrees of worth t some characters; we believe that some of them got what they deserved whilst others were never really involved at all and should have been left alone. This is heightened in the Anonymous section, one of the most disturbing pieces of narrative I have ever read. This one short section is so blunt; so unfair; so ruthless that it brings tears; it makes the reader want to stop reading and take some form of redress.

Ultimately, the story is a bit confusing. We lose track of just who is who; who owes who; and what anyone is trying to achieve. I think that's the point. It blurs into an overview of violence and short lives and opportunity denied. Many of the events would probably have happened anyway, perhaps spaced out over a longer time frame. Where the riots appear to give an opportunity to act without fear of the law, the reality is that the law is really imposed by gangs on each other and on themselves. The police are, for the most part, merely bystanders. And that makes one ask whether the beating of Rodney King, for all the shockwaves it generated at the time, was any more reprehensible than the gangland violence that went before and that has continued ever since.

All Involved is not an easy read; it's relatively long; complex and thought provoking. But it is written so well that each narrative, each in a distinctive voice, will hook the reader and hold them long after the voice dies.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 26, 2015 12:12 AM BST

Merciless Gods
Merciless Gods
Price: £6.47

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.

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