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MisterHobgoblin (Melbourne)

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The Vanishing Futurist
The Vanishing Futurist
by Charlotte Hobson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.88

3.0 out of 5 stars Does not deliver on the promise of the premise, 19 July 2016
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This review is from: The Vanishing Futurist (Hardcover)
The Vanishing Futurist follows the story of Gerty Freely, a British governess who happened to be working in Russia in 1917, as the Russian Revolution unfolded. In broad terms, her employers flee to the Ukraine and she becomes part of a commune living in the family's Moscow house. One of the members of the commune, Nikita Slavkin, is a futurist who is developing a time travel machine...

On the positive side, there is some good exploration of the psyche of a new Russia when it was not clear that the revolution had delivered power to a totalitarian regime. There was still idealism and attempt at dialogue with the new powers. There was a sense of common purpose based on ideology rather than expedience.

But on the debit side, the novel drags on way too long, with too many characters, most of whom are indistinguishable. They do not do anything or say anything terribly interesting and when Slavkin finally disappears, the reader is probably beyond caring.

Overall, The Vanishing Futurist does not deliver on the promise of the premise and the wonderful cover.

Gun Street Girl (Detective Sean Duffy)
Gun Street Girl (Detective Sean Duffy)
by Adrian McKinty
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Sean Duffy comes of age, 19 July 2016
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This is the fourth Sean Duffy police procedural and it's the point where something really clicked for me.

The series weaves real life, historic events into a parochial, Carrickfergus based crime spree. There is invention and, as Adrian McKinley notes in the epilogue, he has compressed events so they unfold quickly when in real life they were slow burning. But the effortless placing of these newsworthy events into a fictitious plot is really unusual. What felt uncomfortable in the first three novels now just feels right.

So in this one, we find Inspector Sean Duffy investigating what appears to be a double killing and suicide in deepest East Antrim and quickly getting enmeshed in international sleaze and corruption. Duffy, as is his wont, is torn between personal corruption, doing the right thing and doing what the greater powers suggest. As he flip flops between these paths, he makes enemies and fails to take any path to its conclusion.

Gun Street Girl has a great sense not only of time, but also of place. The locations are perfectly described and create a sense of history as so much has changed since the 1985 setting. There are also forays to Oxford and Ayr which capture the places perfectly.

One thing that I had not fully appreciated from previous Sean Duffy novels is that the titles all come from Tom Waits songs. Gun Street Girl is too obvious to miss, especially when you know the fifth is called Rain Dogs. Knowing this makes you appreciate Duffy's musical taste all the more. A man who shares my tastes in music, whisky and literature can't be all that bad, even if he is a Peeler.

I am glad to have read Gun Street Girl and look forward to reading Rain Dogs very much.

The Glorious Heresies: Winner of the Baileys' Women's Prize for Fiction 2016
The Glorious Heresies: Winner of the Baileys' Women's Prize for Fiction 2016
Price: £4.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Never once misses the mark, 15 July 2016
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Glorious Heresies is a treasure of a book. It is essentially a straightforward story about criminal families in Cork, all sparked off by the night a young man is bludgeoned to death with a religious statue in a warehouse that has been used as a brothel. It’s one of those stories where the work to cover up the mess creates a bigger mess, and the work to clear that up creates a bigger mess still. There is a French Farce element to it all.

What makes the book special, though, is the narrative voice. Mostly it is told in third person with a roving viewpoint that is able to hear and report interior monologue whilst adding a heavy editorial commentary over it all. This is interspersed with occasional chapters narrated by Ryan Cusack, an aspiring young drug dealer who has been thwarted in his ambition to become a musician. The narrative is generally quietly scathing of Ireland, the Catholic Church, property prices in County Cork, and the talent – or lack thereof – of the local criminal mafia.

The characters are real and complex. For example, we find Jimmy Phelan, the local crime baron, dividing his time between murdering his business rivals, shepherding his senile mother, trying to buy pianos and choosing interior decoration schemes to refit his former brothel. He has a business brain and the reader is left to wonder just what he could have done with it if he had gone legit. Then there’s Tony, the hapless and alcoholic handyman (and father of Ryan) who gets caught up way over his head in Jimmy’s schemes and then ends up chasing his own rabbits to try to extricate himself. Tony tries so hard to be a player but he’s only ever the hired help. And how about Georgie, the former working girl who staves off homelessness by joining the local Christian cult? Or Tara Duane, the butter-wouldn’t melt woman next door with a racy past…

This is a very stylized novel that, despite the simple plot, is ambitious in its scope. It never once misses the mark.

The Natural Way of Things
The Natural Way of Things
Price: £6.17

3.0 out of 5 stars Heavy handed metaphor, 14 July 2016
Sometimes you get a novel that feels like one very big, very heavy handed metaphor. The Natural Way of Things starts out just this way. We meet Yolanda Kovacs, a young woman, being admitted to some kind of prison camp. Next we meet Verla, similarly being incarcerated. Then ten more young women. They all seem to have been promiscuous or adulterous. Their jailers, young men with names like Boncer and Teddy, are violent and hateful. But all are stranded within the same electrified fence, somewhere far away in outback Australia.

The metaphor appears to be one of life; men and women sharing what is objectively the same space but with the men in charge and the women being obliged to comply. Meanwhile, there is an unseen outside, imposing societal values and expectations.

This falls down, though, when we meet Nancy, a woman who seems to be on the side of the guards. Is she supposed to represent the token woman who has broken through the glass ceiling? Has she had to sell her integrity or individuality to do so? In an extended metaphor that is not subtle, this seems a bit too opaque.

Then, the prison society starts to disintegrate as supplies run low. This brings initially a greater degree of autonomy as the jailers lose interest in upholding the rules, and later allows the women to take control through their superior survival skills. The metaphor is smashed to smithereens.

The ideas are worthwhile and some of the scene setting is evocative – juxtaposing the enforced regression to the 1950s (as one of the women puts it) alongside references to a modern life – all overseen by Australian birds and animals, creating a sense of eternity in which the women’s lives are incidental.

But on the debit side, the characterisation is not there; most of the women are interchangeable and, if truth be told, so too are the jailers. Sure, Boncer is supposed to be a bit more violent, but basically they all represent a homogenous class. The plot never quite reaches credibility, leaving the reader going along with it on the strength of a metaphor – the strength of which starts to evaporate.

I wouldn’t say The Natural Way of Things is a bad novel – it is short and readable – but I’m not sure it is quite as good as some of the critics would have us believe.

The Dry
The Dry
Price: £6.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Opening a can of worms..., 1 July 2016
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This review is from: The Dry (Kindle Edition)
The Dry is set somewhere in South East Australia during a long, hot summer. The exact location is never specified, but I took it to be somewhere in the South Australia/Victoria borderlands.

The basic plot is that Aaron Falk, a detective with the Australian Federal Police, has shown up in his home town of Kiewarra to attend the funeral of his childhood friend Luke Hadler. Luke, it seems shot his wife and son before fleeing the scene and turning the gun on himself. Aaron had expected to go back home to Melbourne the next day but he receives a note from Luke’s father that holds his attention. Then when Sergeant Raco, the local policeman, shares his concerns about the murder suicide theory it looks as though Aaron is not going to be leaving any time soon.

Over subsequent pages, we gradually discover more about Luke and Aaron’s past; about the circumstances surrounding Aaron’s departure for the big smoke, and the open secrets that fuel grudges and mistrust in an isolated farming community.

There is much to like. The plotting is careful and the way Jane Harper drip-feeds information is well done. The use of flashbacks takes some getting used to, but is put to good effect. The setting felt real; the hostility and introversion of remote Australia.

But on the debit side, the pace is slow and the characters never fully come to life. Perhaps it doesn’t help that so many key characters in the backstory are now dead; it is impossible to invest in their fates and those who are left are not always easily distinguishable. This being a bit of a whodunit, there is obviously a need for padding characters to absorb some of the suspicion, but it doesn’t feel as though we know enough about them to ever suspect them of very much.

Overall, the novel felt too long. There was a fair amount of flab between about half way and the reveal – and the reveal seemed very sudden and a little premature, leaving more flab afterwards. The reader never really got a sense of ideas building in Aaron’s mind; pennies just dropped; aided by chance discoveries and convenient comments in conversations.

With time and experience, I hope Jane Harper will get the pacing right and build more hooks to get the reader interested in the characters – because there is plenty here in the ideas and writing department to build upon.

I Am No One
I Am No One
Price: £5.69

3.0 out of 5 stars Bait and switch, 17 Jun. 2016
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This review is from: I Am No One (Kindle Edition)
Jeremy O’Keefe is an American academic, specialising in 20th century German history. Very specifically, he is an expert in state surveillance in East Germany. He has recently taken up a chair at New York University after a decade in exile in what he perceived to be the rural backwater of Oxford.

One morning, he goes to a coffee shop expecting to meet one of his doctoral students. Instead, he finds himself stood up, much to the amusement of a young man who has stopped by for a coffee. But on getting home, it turns out that Professor O’Keefe has rescheduled the appointment and received an e-mail confirmation from the student – none of which he remembers. Oh, and Professor O’Keefe receives a courier delivery of a print out of every web address he has ever visited. Did Professor O’Keefe print this out and send it to himself? Has Professor O’Keefe started to blank out parts of his memory? His well connected daughter is worried enough to direct him to a neurologist…

What unfolds is a tense story of intrigue in the present, interspersed with a gradual unpacking of what, precisely, happened in Oxford. It is a dense text; deeply introspective and with a tendency towards academic logorrhoea. Basically, Professor O’Keefe never really gets to the point.

For the most part, it is well done. The reader is kept guessing; the characters feel real; the settings feel authentic. In particular, Flanery captures the backbiting world of academia, seldom producing real insight and mostly just cranking the handle of a machine that processes many students and occasionally produces new academics. Flanery captures the strange world of Oxford colleges perfectly, a world of ridiculous tradition and disdain for anything remotely worldly.

But, having set up the intrigue, Flanery doesn’t seem to know how to bring it to a denouement. The ending is sudden and disappointing. There is also a sense that Professor O’Keefe would not have been remotely puzzled by what was going on. As he drip feeds information to the reader, there is no sense that he is unearthing his own memories. The truth may slowly dawn on the reader, but it would have been immediately apparent to Professor O’Keefe… wouldn’t it? At the risk of spoilering, his neurologist says to him near the end of the novel that he is an intelligent man and should therefore trust his perception of the world. Yes, exactly – so it beggar’s belief that he has not been doing so. Particularly when his academic subject is precisely related to the situation in which he finds himself.

Thus, what might appear to be a tense thriller turns out to have been little more than a rehearsal of concerns at the level of surveillance and amount of privacy that we have surrendered in this modern society. There might also be questions about whether we have created a new era of McCarthyism where tangential associations with foreign people or controversial ideologies can be sufficient to prove guilt even where no crime has been committed. However, even these bubbles burst when the reader is reminded of East Germany and that such levels of surveillance are not a new phenomenon made possible by technology. Or maybe the reader is supposed to spot the similarity between the society we have created for ourselves and the Eastern Bloc states we used to fear.

The overall effect is a novel that is very readable if you are able to cope with the rather ponderous pace – one that feels as though it is a sure fire five star read. But the novel just evaporates – and I guess the point at which it evaporates will vary from reader to reader – and leave a feeling of being victim to a bait and switch for a three star read.

Back to Moscow
Back to Moscow
by Guillermo Erades
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £6.64

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mysterious Russian Soul, 14 Jun. 2016
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This review is from: Back to Moscow (Hardcover)
For a brief while, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia was a playground for Westerners. Regardless of whether they were rich or poor, those Westerners could go anywhere, afford to buy anything, and to live in city centre apartments that had once been the preserve of the party elite. Women would throw themselves at these Westerners, hoping for a life of wealth and privilege. Over the space of a couple of years, that window started to narrow; Russia developed its own class of super-rich, designer labels came to the department stores and the streets started to fill with luxury cars. But whilst that window was open, some Westerners enjoyed behaving very, very badly…

Martin is a doctoral student at the Moscow State University. He has decided to study the role of women in Russian literature despite not speaking the language and not having much experience of Russian women. But when he meets up with a couple of fellow Western postgrads, he heads to the nightclubs and never looks back. He finds a steady queue of dyevs (his word – from dyevuchka = little girl) wanting to hop into bed and into marriage. There’s a real feel of Martin being a child let loose in the candy factory as he discovers just how far he can push the limits of what could be permissible

This debauchery is set against a backdrop of academia. Martin clearly has a passion for literature and each of the six sections of the novel opens with a synopsis of a relationship featured in a Russian novel or play. These give a sense of erudition, a sense that Martin should know better. They also serve as a metaphor for the particular inter-personal problems Martin is about to experience in the forthcoming section. It is well done – it doesn’t feel intrusive or patronising, but it also ensures that readers get the literary referencing even if they are unfamiliar with Russian literature.

One of the things that raises Back To Moscow above the ordinary is the complexity of Martin as a person. We know from the outset that things will not end well – Martin tells us – but we don’t guess exactly how things will go wrong. And the ending, when it comes, is very sad. Nor do we fully understand Martin’s motivations at the start of the novel. As they gradually unfold, Martin starts to become a sympathetic character rather than the ignorant brute he might initially seem.

Back To Moscow conveys a wonderful sense of place. Moscow is described flawlessly with just the right balance of Russian terminology. The reader might not need the word perekhod to describe a pedestrian subway, or elektrichka to describe a local train, but these words do keep re-establishing the sense of place. There was a sense, too, of the winds of change. Those of the older generation – Martin’s professor and his Russian teacher – seem to adhere to values that seem almost pre-historic, unable to adapt to a new and exciting society. Similarly, we are offered insight into the ordinary young people of the city who don’t manage to get past the face control at the latest nightclubs and, even if they did, would not be able to afford the cover charge let alone the price of the cocktails.

This is a special book that captures a special and fleeting moment in time. Yet as the literary references show us, despite the peculiarity of the times, the human dramas are timeless. The Mysterious Russian Soul will continue for many centuries to seek opportunities for melancholia just as it has done for centuries past.

The Devil Is a Black Dog: stories from the Middle East and beyond
The Devil Is a Black Dog: stories from the Middle East and beyond
by Sandor Jaszberenyi
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars BYO Humanity, 13 Jun. 2016
I loved The Devil Is A Black Dog.

This is a short collection of stories, mostly told by or told about photo-journalists who spend time on assignments in Darfur, Egypt, Gaza, Afghanistan and other, unspecified parts of Africa and the Middle East. There are also a couple of (weaker) stories set in Eastern Europe - presumably Hungary.

The writer, Sandor Jaszberenyi, is himself a Hungarian photo-journalist and there is a sense that the stories are auto-biographical. Many of the stories are linked, narrated by or featuring the same Hungarian character in continuations of previous settings. Perhaps the whole adds up to a life story or perhaps it is fiction. Perhaps it is both.

The stories are unremittingly bleak. Although most are set in war, strife or unrest, the action is almost incidental. What comes across is large amounts of down-time, drinking beer and playing cards in concrete hotels, waiting indefinitely for something to kick off. The cover is a masterpiece, showing a man swimming in a rooftop pool, surrounded by razor wire and with smoke and air raids in the background. The stillness and silence of the stories is similarly incongruous with how we imagine war to be. The stories have no sentimentality and little room for compassion; the reader is expected to bring his or her own humanity to the party.

The collection has had a mixed response from critics; some have suggested that the stories become repetitive. I didn't find this to be the case, but I did drip feed the stories over several days to avoid "short story fatigue" where they all merge into one. Instead, I found each one to be a gem, giving a perfect sense of place, time and a window onto the complex characters who are drawn to countries in crisis - a mixture of local people, well meaning NGO volunteers, journalists and mercenaries. I found this short book to be rich and very satisfying.

Price: £6.02

4.0 out of 5 stars Puzzle Box, 9 Jun. 2016
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This review is from: Hystopia (Kindle Edition)
Hystopia is a little puzzle box of a book.

The bulk of the text is a conspiracy theory story in an alternative history of the United States (clearly grounded in alternative reality by the survival of President Kennedy and his election to a third term in office) where Vietnam veterans are given medication to forget the horrors they have seen. This process – enfolding – does not always work and rogue veterans who resist the drug or start to unfold end up in Michigan, dodging the authorities and re-enacting the atrocities of war. Very specifically, we follow the pursuit of Rake, an unfolded vet who has hooked up with Meg Allen, Hank and Haze, by Singleton and Wendy, two officers in the Psych Corps. Singleton and Rake share a common history in Vietnam, but represent the different paths that veterans can follow, depending on whether they enfold or remain unfolded.

The whole thing is quite trippy, quite violent and quite pointless. Neither side seems to have any strategic objective. Both seem to be driven by powers they don’t control. And it’s certainly not a good versus evil thing – whilst the Psych Corps clearly represent “The Man” and Rake clearly represents The Individual, Rake is a violent and abusive man who is a danger to everyone he meets. Overall, I suppose it just represents an unhappy state of affairs – how do you resolve the dilemma of society and the self – answer: don’t start here.

It is very well told, switching narrative perspectives between both sides – albeit both sides told by the same strong unseen narrative voice. This allows a balance to be struck between action and editorial comment; there is a dose of philosophy coming through the narrator without having to put inauthentic expository dialogue into the mouths of the characters.

But here’s the rub. The narrator, Eugene Allen, is a character himself in the bookending opening and closing sections. These portray the core as a fiction written by Eugene to reconcile himself to the fate of his sister Meg and the grief she experienced at the death of her lover, Billy, in Vietnam. We have snippets of letters, interviews with friends and neighbours, authorial notes and editorial notes. The alternative history is set clearly as fiction, with the bookended sections presented as reality. This turns the gigantic conspiracy of the novel with its titanic characters into nothing more than a personal fantasy created to spite Eugene’s sister’s unsuitable friends.

Then again, the wise reader will realise that just as Rake is a character created by Eugene, so Eugene is a character created by David Means. In which case, perhaps Eugene was created just to tell the core story that might carry some greater truth…

And it would be great if we could have a little blue pill that would make us forget all our troubles. Wouldn’t it?

Locust Girl: A Love Song 2015
Locust Girl: A Love Song 2015
by Merlinda Bobis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £17.04

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Too damned confused, 5 Jun. 2016
Locust Girl is a difficult book. It will get some attention having won the 2016 NSW Premier's Literary Award - no mean achievement for a book published by a micro-press - and I imagine it will leave many of those chance readers somewhat bemused.

Amedea is a young woman who wakes from sleep after ten years. She finds herself in a dark world where the stars have gone out; everything is brown. It's a wasteland. Amedea seems not to be able to speak and has only a vague notion of who she is. She has even less idea of what she is supposed to be doing. She meets Beenabe, a girl who is younger than her, but seems older because she has not spent years asleep. Together they set off to explore beyond the horizon, which is forbidden.

Amedea has a locust in her forehead that sings songs. Songs seem to matter in this world; they seem to impart laws and knowledge.

Along the way, Amadea and Beenabe meet various waifs and strays before meeting the Kingdom Builders. The Kingdom Builders seem to allocate resources and determine who may and may not enter the Five Kingdoms. It is all a bit confusing.

At its heart, the novel seems to be about borders, exclusion and hoarding of the good things in life. The Kingdom Builders have a monopoly on colour, music, food, drink, destiny. They are determined to keep others away from those resources, preserving them from those who might waste them. This is made all the more vivid by the fact that the controlled resources are so often not finite - e.g. the colour green - and cannot be wasted. The border is ruthlessly patrolled and guarded with buried barbed wire - coupled with songs to warn against approaching the border.

Locust Girl is a short novel, but it is told in so much dreamlike allegory that it is not a quick read. Whilst some of the allegory does become clearer, especially towards the end, much of it does not become clear. Some things are seemingly designed to irritate - such as the unpronounceable names of characters who (to my dismay I did not spot this until the end) appear in strict alphabetical order. The locust device was lost on me completely, as were some of the set pieces.

I am sure there is much that is very clever in the book, but it feels as though it is trying very hard to be clever. I imagine it got the nod for the NSW Award because of the obvious parallel to the current Australian migration policy of Stop The Boats. There are suggestions too that there might be a reference also to the social exclusion of Aboriginal communities, perhaps borne out by the reference to a rock/mountain that must not be climbed. And there are references to the use of young women purely as concubines. Maybe the problem is that there are too many metaphors, and that they slide in and out of each other. But mostly the problem is that for much of the book, he reader is just too damned confused.

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