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MisterHobgoblin (Melbourne)

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The Stillman
The Stillman
Price: £5.39

4.0 out of 5 stars Snow Phoenix, 2 Mar. 2015
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This review is from: The Stillman (Kindle Edition)
Jim Drever is a stillman at an unnamed distillery in the Scottish Highlands. It is a solitary job, allowing much time for introspection between recording measurements of alcoholic strength in the logbook. Jim’s job is important; he is respected in the workplace by his colleagues and the management. He has a perfect family; a wife, a daughter who is about to get married; and a younger son. Jim has a placid nature; he has no great wish to travel or see the world; he simply accepts the cards that life has dealt him.

But beneath the calm exterior, Jim has a lot going on. He is haunted by a visit he had made overseas some years ago to clear up his estranged mother’s affairs. He has a mysterious e-mail he dares not open. He is bored by his family. He has an expensive wedding to plan, and the distillery is working on short time. Jim is a smart man, but for the most part he wastes his wisdom on quiet observation, letting events take their own course. The reader is left wondering just how sustainable this strategy is going to be as things go from bad to worse.

The novel has three distinctive strands: (a) the here and now, heavily focused on the distilling process, snow and the selection of kilts (b) the trip to Cuba some years before; and (c) the sometimes opaque diary of Jim’s dead mother. The three strands work together well; in particular, the sunshine and vitality of Cuba offer a contrast to the cold and cheerless Scotland. The diary is the crucial bit storywise, but it is also the least engaging part of the piece. Jim’s dead mother never quite comes alive, never really feels real. Perhaps even worse, it feels a bit contrived.

Overall, The Stillman is a good novel. Like its protagonist, it is unspectacular, solid, and with hidden depths. It is a short read, well paced and quite charming.

The First Bad Man
The First Bad Man
Price: £7.79

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Days Of Open Hand, 26 Feb. 2015
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This review is from: The First Bad Man (Kindle Edition)
The First Bad Man is an unusual book. The reader knows this because (a) it doesn’t have a proper cover and (b) the reviews say so.

We meet Cheryl Glickman, a 40 something woman working for a Los Angeles organisation selling instruction in female self defence as a keep fit regime. Cheryl gets on well with the owners and has observer status at Board meetings. She lives alone and has a set of obsessive-compulsive routines that get her through. Then, one fateful day, the company owners seek a volunteer to accommodate their wayward daughter who is apparently a Hollywood star in the making…

This is where things get weird. I think it is safe to say that some of what follows is fantasy rather than reality. What is not clear is how much, if anything, is actually real. There are breaks in the narrative thread; there are non-sequiturs; there are impossibilities and wild improbabilities. Oh, and much of it is very explicit.

Of course, one might say – it is all fiction, so none of it is real. But at least in fiction, there is usually a suspension of disbelief that allows the reader to take what is being said at face value. Miranda July starts out on that path, but her deviations get wilder and wilder. By the end – an epilogue that makes no sense at all – one wonders if even the early parts of the narrative can have any truth. Given the benefit of hindsight, even the normal seems surreal.

So Miranda July has succeeded in her aim of being unusual, but does it make for an experience that rewards the reader? I suspect that, despite some wonderful, fizzy ideas (colour therapy, the self-cleaning apartment, the Open Hand business model), the answer is no. The reader has to work hard to keep any track of what is supposed to be going on, and to find it was all nonsense anyway feels like a slap. At times, the imagery is strong and the dialogue amusing; Cheryl’s gaucheness is endearing; but it is not enough to stop the whole thing feeling a bit stodgy. None of the characters has enough consistency to be engaging, and unreliable narrators tend to work better when the reader comes to have a better idea of what is going on than the deluded character – in this case I suspect the reader will end up just as confused as Cheryl.

One feels that Miranda July has gone to no small effort to make her work unusual. One wishes, perhaps, that she had not tried quite so hard. Two stars for attainment, three stars for effort.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 3, 2015 5:07 PM GMT

Nora Webster
Nora Webster
Price: £1.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Doing the things that we want to, 24 Feb. 2015
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This review is from: Nora Webster (Kindle Edition)
Nora Webster, mother of four, Enniscorthy, late 1960s. Recently widowed.

This is a story of a phoenix rising from the ashes. Initially caught up in grief and devastation as her husband Maurice dies, leaving her in a financial mess and social isolation, Nora gradually begins to assert her own identity.

There are many little sub-plots. The plight of the boys, sent to stay with their aunt during Maurice’s illness, returning with stammers and nightmares. The girls leaving home to set up careers or engage in politics. Nora’s position with Gibney’s, a large firm run by the husband of a school friend. Most of these stories just spiral off into nothing, but chapter by chapter, we see the emergence of a confident and independent Nora. As a widow, she no longer had to ask permission to do anything. She is not subject to the restrictions of the young and single; she is not bound by marital duty. In 1960s Ireland, Nora gradually begins to see that she has a rare and favoured status.

The novel begins slowly and it is hard to feel involved with a large and somewhat dreary cast. The hooks and intrigues that are used to draw the reader in are left frustratingly unanswered. But piece by piece, the novel builds a momentum that is as much societal as it is personal. As Nora changes, so too do those around her. Each of her four children is able to make choices that would have been unimaginable a generation earlier. We start to see the introduction of consumer goods, quiz nights, fancy clothes. There’s even a brief flirtation with the concept of homosexuality as a lifestyle rather than a sin.

Colm Toibin writes in a plain style; he doesn’t hide important detail in ornate and obscure language. Yet despite the plain speak, the scenes are constructed immaculately. They are vivid, real and fully immerse the reader.

Toibin’s previous novels have often ended almost in mid sentence. It’s as though he gets to a point and just decides he has said enough and stops writing. This novel is of that type; there is no ending as such, just a feeling that Toibin is done.

Some readers may find Nora Webster a bit drab and dull; actually it isn’t. For this reader, at least, it is a novel of transition and hope. Going hand in hand, there is the emergence of the individual, and the emergence of a nation state.

In Real Life
In Real Life
Price: £7.12

4.0 out of 5 stars If only..., 24 Feb. 2015
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This review is from: In Real Life (Kindle Edition)
You know those Gen Y kids with their sense of entitlement? Ever wondered what would happen to them when they grew up?

Well, In Real Life visits three university friends. We meet Lauren in 2004 as she walks out of a relationship and decides to head to Canada for a working holiday and a journey of self discovery. We meet Ian in 2014; he has just spent the past decade working in a record store, quietly pursuing his dream of rock stardom, but now broke and living in his sister’s spare room. And then there’s Paul, also in 2014, filling a guest lecture spot on a creative writing course, courtesy of having had his one and only novel published some years earlier.

All three are drifting aimlessly, their decisions to seek self-actualisation coming back to haunt them. Others may have settled for less, but ten years later they have rather more. Our three protagonists are just left with broken dreams – sometimes involving each other – and hermit lives. The world has moved on; they haven’t. In one memorable scene, Ian and his coworkers are being laid off at the giant music and DVD megastore; they turn up for the last day of work with bags and backpacks; stuff them with unsold merchandise by way of severance payment; and then get home to find it is all worthless anyway. The world no longer wants CDs and DVDs.

The three main characters are all well drawn, but perhaps Ian is the most complete. His misery is exquisite, living in his sister’s guest bedroom, a monastic cell with no internet, working at the call centre managed by his sister’s unctuous boyfriend. Whereas Lauren and Paul might appear to have some hope left in life, Ian has nothing at all. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the gap between the happy, celebratory lives Gen Ys portray in their social media profiles and the grim reality of emptiness – with Ian choosing not to relieve his plight with escape into on-line fantasy.

In Real Life feels very current; very state of the nation. It is perhaps too short and too focused on the three individuals to become a true classic. But it is humorous – if sometimes sobering – read.

Price: £4.31

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Sharks on Acid, 13 Feb. 2015
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This review is from: Shark (Kindle Edition)
Readers of Will Self’s previous (Booker shortlisted) novel Umbrella will find Shark more than a little familiar. We revisit psychiatrist Zack Busner, running an experimental Concept House, offering psychiatric patients a communal living arrangement without wards, locks and restraints. The style is similar to Umbrella, with long slabs of text, eschewing conventional paragraphing, punctuation or linear style. It’s like stream of consciousness on acid. In fact, very specifically, it *is* stream of consciousness on acid.

One of the particularly impressive feats of this style of narration is that it never draws breath. Whilst there are full stops, there’s no point where you can see a change of scene or a natural pause. Yet the reader does zip from scene to scene, time to time in the middle of sentences, in the middle of words. And it's all chock full of references. There are references within the references. Even when you know what is going on, it is hard to see how it is done. It is smooth and seamless, perhaps like the sharkskin fabric of which all the suits in the novel seem to be made.

However, whereas Umbrella had a very focused narrative beneath all the fog and choppy timelines, Shark does not. If anything, it seems to be a loose collection of short stories, each centring around one person who is, in some way, associated with Concept House on a particular day in 1970. The stories themselves might be from before 1970 (some wartime stories); during or after that date. Dates are seldom given; they must be inferred from events taking place in the wider world. Taken together, they might be supposed to create some sort of “state of the nation” narrative of the second half of the 20th century. Of course, they are not presented in discrete stories – they cut back and forth, buried in swathes of pretty abstract meandering. By meandering, I mean the kind of stuff you occasionally hear from a mad alcoholic, often in sentences with subjects and verbs, sometimes with obscure vocabulary, but seldom actually making any sense.

If you haven’t read Umbrella, Shark may well intrigue, fascinate, impress, surprise, delight. It is fizzy, it is slippy, it is very, very distinctive. It may repel, it may frustrate, it may infuriate. It’s a long, hard book.

But if you know Umbrella, there is a fair chance that, despite its clear merits, Shark may disappoint and, even worse, bore you.

Sand: Omnibus Edition
Sand: Omnibus Edition
Price: £5.53

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Driven into the sand, 3 Feb. 2015
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So this is where Hugh Howey and I will part company.

I bought Sand when it was released, buoyed by the first two novels in the Wool series (Wool and Shift). I had not yet been disappointed by the final Wool novel (Dust).

So, I have had this sitting on my Kindle for a while, not being quite sure what to expect. And it started off well. The creation of a dystopian world, a future Colorado, swamped by sand. People diving through the sand in suits that can channel the sand around the diver, creating solid sand or liquefying it as needed. Treasure hunters, diving for lost cities, bringing up artefacts from the 21st century – that the reader will view as mundane but to the characters represent a priceless link with a lost civilisation.

But the characterisation is cardboard, the situation strains credulity and the plot slows to almost stationary at times. Seriously, where did the sand come from? Why did people not just move away when the sand came? Why do people insist on trying to live in cities built on sand rather than live in tents like present day desert dwellers?

There are multiple strands of story but mostly they just seem to involve people chasing after each other through the desert. There’s no rhyme or reason to the endless chasing. Ultimately, that means you lose any incentive to barrack for the good guys; you don’t care whether they get caught by the bad guys; you just wish it would happen slightly more quickly. Running through sand is very, very s l o w. Until we get to the end, and that is quite quick. Suddenly there are many people, all coming together at once, seismic change and general chaos. The dust never quite settles and it’s not clear what the ending actually means.

Had this been Wool, I would now have expected a sequel setting out the background to the sand, and a third book charting the escape from the sand. However, Hugh Howey tells us that this is a standalone novel with no plans for sequels. Given how dull this one is, that’s probably a good thing.

4 a.m.
4 a.m.
Price: £5.39

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You're in the army now, 29 Jan. 2015
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This review is from: 4 a.m. (Kindle Edition)
This novel blew me away. It is a story, narrated in first person, by Cal and Manny, two young squaddies in Germany in the early 1990s. Cal is a Glaswegian; Manny is from Essex. They are in the Catering Corps, have no great military ambitions, and live for the dirty rugs (drugs) they score in Hamburg’s seamy nightclubs. Cal and Manny are best buddies.

As one of the characters explains, 4am is a transitional time. It is no longer still night, but not quite day. It is a time when things change; it is a time when many people who die in their sleep pass away. In the nightclubs, it is the time to decide whether to return home to bed or to stay and party into the new day. In this novel, we meet Cal and Manny at their own, personal 4am – as they transition from boys to men. They discover relationships; make significant life choices; choose sides.

Cal and Manny have very distinctive voices, and address the reader directly. Cal speaks in a Glasgow dialect; Manny is pure Estuary English. They are an odd pair, but are united in their love of the rave culture. The communal living arrangements in the army barracks allow friendships to be formed quickly and with intensity; they also let small matters of resentment build quickly into deeply held enmity.

Cal and Manny both make choices that most readers would not make. They have brash exteriors and seem superficially worthless. But underneath, both are complex characters with deeply held insecurities. Neither has a happy family background and the army represented an escape – the escape now sought in the drugs and clubs. It is interesting to see the fierce loyalty and love that Cal and Manny have for each other and for their closer comrades; loyalty and love that seems to out-muscle their love for their girlfriends. Both form a close bond with the reader.

Nina de la Mer gives a wonderful, compelling portrayal of the army’s need to break young soldiers and rebuild them in the desired form. This comes at a human cost, and the reader sees it and feels it. In a sense, the army here represents a metaphor for life as a whole; even on civvy street, young people are shaped and formed into acceptable members of society. Rebellion can only be tolerated up to a certain point.

The contrasts between the regimented life in barracks and the freedom of Hamburg is done especially well. The swagger of the squaddies in the town, living it large, blowing their paycheques, riding the trains and driving off to Amsterdam all comes crashing down each night in barracks, and the next morning’s diet of inspections, parade ground drill, and boiling potatoes in the kitchen. It’s not Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman: it’s a fraction of the glamour but so much more meaningful.

This is a novel that, at first, is warm and humorous. But with time and growing realisation, it becomes pretty bleak. The ending (I won’t spoil it) is deeply moving and handled with great sensitivity.

Right now, it is January. Have I already read my book of the year?
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 6, 2015 2:48 PM GMT

The Girl on the Train
The Girl on the Train
Price: £6.02

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Production line, 28 Jan. 2015
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The Girl On The Train is, perhaps, an odd choice of title for a novel about a woman, Rachel, in her (presumably) late 30s, divorced from her husband and commuting on a daily basis from the Home Counties into central London.

In fact, the novel is not really much more about Rachel than about Megan, a woman whose garden backs onto the train line, and Anna, the woman for whom Rachel’s husband Tom left her.

On her journeys to and from London, Rachel often sees Megan in her garden, sometimes joined by her husband Scott. Of course, Rachel doesn’t actually know the couple – thinking of them as Jason and Jess – and imagining the wonderful and happy life they must be leading. Rachel, lodging with an old university friend and submitting her soul to the demon drink. So when Rachel hears that Megan is missing, she can’t help getting involved.

The plot is a twisty, turny thing brought to us in first person narration by each of the three women – Megan’s narrative taking place over an earlier time period. Rachel’s memory plays tricks with her, meaning we have to fill in gaps and infer the real picture from those around her. Rachel, in particular, is an impetuous woman who jumps to early conclusions. Hence, she finds a succession of grand theories behind Megan’s disappearance, and champions each one with vigour until it is replaced with the next. This leaves the reader constantly guessing, sometimes one step ahead of Rachel, and sometimes on step behind. It is complex and well done.

On the other hand, the three voices are way too similar and it can be too easy to forget who is narrating, given that the same cast of characters pops up in all three threads. I understand that the voices sound quite different in the audiobook so the similarity between the narrators is not a problem. But for readers of the written text, it is a shortcoming.

There is quite a female feel to the book. It is about relationships and emotions; insecurities and disempowerment. However, it stays the right side of the chick-lit barrier; it is a good psychological thriller that both men and women would enjoy.

The Unknown Terrorist
The Unknown Terrorist
by Richard Flanagan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Sign of the times, 22 Jan. 2015
This review is from: The Unknown Terrorist (Paperback)
The Unknown Terrorist is a timely novel. It pokes at the underbelly of Sydney society featuring variously a pole dancer called The Doll; a TV producer; a possibly corrupt policeman; a dodgy intelligence officer; a man who might be a terrorist; and a woman called Wilder.

The story is about being in the wrong place at the wrong time; about media hysteria; about the senselessness of Australia’s anti-terrorist legislation; about the dangers within the sex industry; and ultimately about prejudice. Without giving too much of the game away, The Doll is mistaken for a terrorist – the Unknown Terrorist of the title. But unlike many of the novels where the innocent suspect is an angel as pure as the driven snow, The Doll is at least a co-contributor to her own misfortune. Pretty much everything she does compounds the suspicion levelled against her; she takes terrible decisions. She feels real, fallible, complex.

The novel as a whole is complex, operating on a number of different levels; part thriller; part political comment; part personal/emotional. Richard Flanagan tells a compelling story; the detail is lurid and exaggerated, but the novel is still compelling. In the future, when people ask what was Australia like in 2006, they could do worse than read The Unknown Terrorist. It defines the time.

Kindle readers should be aware that the text is not broken up by chapters; does not allow changes of font or font size; and appears to be much shorter than it really is.

Their Lips Talk of Mischief
Their Lips Talk of Mischief
Price: £5.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Withnail & Wife, 22 Jan. 2015
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Alan Warner is an accomplished comic writer, specialising in unlovely characters on the margins of society.

In Their Lips Talk Of Mischief, we find Douglas, a homeless young Scot who has just dropped out of an English Literature degree in London and is hiding in hospital Accident and Emergency departments all night, trying to keep warm. There he finds Llewellyn (aka Lou), a Welshman who claims to be a writer whose chest has fallen apart (literally). Anyway, they end up talking and Douglas ends up back at Lou's flat, sleeping on a camp bed and thinking impure thoughts about Lou's girlfriend Aoife (Eeef - with a triple E).

What emerges is pretty much a carbon copy of Withnail and I, but with the added comic interest of Eeef and her baby daughter Lily. Much alcohol is consumed, grand plans are made for the future - mainly in the pub - and there is a procession of drunken escapades. The general tone of Lou and Douglas's conversation is pompous, in the way that some students try to display their smidgeon of learning at every opportunity. Eeef is not cut from the same cloth and provides a backdrop of domesticity and ordinariness.

Predictably, the novel becomes a comic love triangle. It is grotesque; it is farcical. But underneath the pomposity and predictability, there is an honest portrayal of the false bravado of young men, desperate to succeed in life but paralysed by their terror of failure. There is tenderness buried beneath it all.

The setting, in the early 1980s in West London all rings true. It is probably not a coincidence that Warner himself was a student in London at the time. There is a brilliant satire running through it of the exploitation of young writers by unscrupulous publishers, and a good insight into the pub/club/curry lifestyle of the time. It is surprising just how dated Warner makes it feel; the time itself is not ancient history but we feel the regression to the world before the internet, before mobile telephony; we relive the days of cheap, smoke-filled boozers; the strikes and the housing benefit inspectors.

So with such a good atmosphere and such cracking dialogue, what doesn't work? The answer is that it all feels a bit aimless. Just as Lew and Douglas are drifting, so too does the novel - and sadly, so too does the reader's interest. By halfway, the reader has pretty much got the idea; knows where it is heading and the second half is a bit of a slog. But the first half is well worth a read.

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