Milkman – Anna Burns

Its Man Booker season and I again have my hands on the shortlist.

First out of the pile was Milkman, a novel about an unnamed character in an unnamed city. However I read it as Belfast, as I felt it was meant to be read. Our heroine, middle sister, is navigating a complex social structure where failure doesn’t just impact friendships, but is a matter of life and death.

But as she wanders through her life, trying to remain detached, the milkman takes an interest in her. From that moment onwards she discovers that the safety of her detached life is a facade, and begins to learn who within the community can and can’t be relied upon. The threat of violence is ever-present, and divisions between areas are strongly felt.

But just as the tension ramps up, the mother becomes a figure of light relief, as she courts the real milkman whom she has loved for years.

Not one I would have picked up, but definitely worth reading, especially against the current political backdrop with changes to the Irish border being considered.

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The Silk Roads – Peter Frankopan (Audiobook)

With a long roadtrip planned, we borrowed an eaudiobook from the library to listen to on the journey. Going through the non-fiction options, this history looked likely to teach us something new.

The Silk Roads promises to provide a new history of civilisation with a focus away from the West and instead focus on the “centre of the world”, stretching from the Mediterranean across Asia. Given that, I was expecting little mention of Europe. However there was constant framing against European history, and Persia’s history was nearly all described as a struggle with Rome.

At least the Age of European Empires gives agency to non-European actors, and acknowledges mistakes and atrocities committed by the powers. The realisation of the confidence trick of empire along with the view of World War One as the conflict between empires and the trigger for the unraveling of the same empires.

The shifting power balances and growth of anti-Americanism throughout the second half of the twentith centenary is also examined through the prism of short-term decision making: nearly every decision being made for the correct immediate reasons, but without consideration for long-term impacts.

The conclusions were bizarre. After China had been mostly ignored for the body of the book, it was suddenly vital in  setting the new agenda. If so important, why had it been left out for so much of the previous 24 hours?

Overall, an interesting history, but much more West-focused than the blurb suggests.

The Fever Tree – Jennifer McVeigh

The Fever Tree was recomended to me by my Mum, after she read it as a book club book. I can certainly see why it is popular with book clubs, lots of quotable passages, historical setting, topical themes. But although it has lots of discussion points, this is not a book I enjoyed.

Frances is the most hopelessly self-obsessed heroine I have ever had the misfortune to read about, and only redeems herself a little in the last few chapters, when she learns the value of hard work and loyalty. Until then she is beyond frustrating, never talking to her husband or working to improve their lot.

Not a book I’d recommend to anyone wanting a pleasant read (I advised my aunt not to borrow it), but definitely one that could start discussions.

Twisting the Rope – R. A. MacAvoy

Despite being a good story, Twisting the Rope was a bit of a disappointment as it played less with the idea of Mayland Long as mythical beast. It did feel like MacAvoy wanted to play further with a different type of story but had been expected to produce another Mayland Long book so wrote this story with him and Martha in place. Not to mention the very eighties cover this had with a bikini-clad woman on the cover.

The main mystery was brilliant though, with so many possible motives and a very peculiar setting. I enjoyed how all the pieces fell together for the ending, and intend to reread.

Have you read any jarring sequels recently?

Invisible Planets – Ken Liu

I had been warned by a friend that this collection wasn’t as good as the cover suggested, and that he had had difficulty getting into it. Therefore I started towards the end, on the grounds that those stories were the ones he hadn’t got to. With it framed as such, I found the stories I picked out to be very satisfying.

Having read Taking Care of God, I requested The Three-Body Problem from the library.

Folding Beijing‘s win of the Hugo-award was well-earned. It was simultaneously social commentary on the division of wealth, opportunities and urban space, and a science-fiction adventure with Lao Dao risking his life for a task.

Well-worth flicking through.

5 Days in May – Andrew Adonis

When the general election in 2010 returned no overall control, Adonis had a pivotal role in trying to negotiate Labour into coalition. This looks at how the pieces fell, and what influence the Lib Dems had in the coalition was shaped.

Adonis writes well, giving a fast-paced book that contains depth and interest in what could otherwise be a very dry and dull set of negotiations. Then as he felt unable to publish at the time due to his political position, he takes the opportunity to include an epilogue as to how the coalition worked in reality.

An interesting read for anyone who wants an insight into contemporary politics.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – John le Carré

Although spy novels are not usually my thing, after reading The Witch Who Came In From The Cold, I felt that I should read the straightforward novel which the title was taken from. One library reservation later, and I picked up a book that didn’t look anything like my usual taste.

I was pleasantly surprised by this, a layered, complex plot, Alec’s motivation  at least conflicted between personal pride, nationalism and romantic desires. Control, the guiding mind behind this mission, is also opaque in his objectives, and much of Alec’s focus in the later half of the book is on unpicking why he is on this mission.

Of course his downfall is a woman, one who he doesn’t entrust with his position and therefore is made vulnerable to the maneuverings of the agencies. However this book is in a way a period piece, first published in 1964, so the lack of capable female characters is in a way understandable, even if it is one of the things my expectation was that the book would lack.

However this is a genre-defining book, and I am glad to have read it.

Blue Dog – Louis de Bernières

More of a novelette than a full novel (and therefore far less intimidating than Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which I have had unread for years), the afterword informed me that Blue Dog had been aimed at the young adult market. However I enjoyed it from an adult perpective.

Mick has been sent to live with his Granpa in the outback, and Blue Dog is about how, with the aid of the puppy, Blue, who he rescues, he adapts to this life. How he makes friends, and develops into a promising young man, despite the shadow of the tragedy that saw him sent from his family.

It includes the typical stage of self-discovery, as he discovers attraction to the only woman who comes into their lives, and the thrill of motorbike riding, along with the gaining of responsibility.

One nice touch is the flip-chart on the corner of the page, with the dog setting off to run away.

Damiano – R. A. MacAvoy

I didn’t enjoy Damiano as much as Tea with the Black Dragon, with the characters being less compelling and the setup being odder.

I think the hero already being on first name terms with the Archangel Raphael actually made him less appealing to me, as from there he could only fall. It would have been better in my view if the first book had been Damiano’s father’s death, and he had come into his powers and artistic ability within the story.

Of course it is not all fall, and ultimately he does choose the course of action of maximum growth towards the end. But that the start of the book is just a long drift downwards without much sympathy-building does not help the plot.

Its a shame, because this is well-written and an interesting idea for a plot.

Tea with the Black Dragon – R.A. MacAvoy

Tea with the Black Dragon opens in California, with Martha Macnamara having travelled to town to try to assist her estranged daughter. But we swiftly move into crime novel territory, as the daughter fails to appear.

She doesn’t have to struggle through this alone however, as Mayland Long appears as a mystery man, hinting at having an ancient nature. As they work together to find Martha’s daughter, love quietly blooms between them.

The crime itself is revealed to be one of the modern era, with cruel and cunning players on the criminal side. Things quickly get dark and violent, even if Mayland’s level of control and power projects confidence that all will end well.

This is another Humble Bundle ebook, and I was shocked to learn that this is book is from the 1980s, it seems more contemporary. Although on reflection, the absence of the internet or mobile phones when they would have helped with the plot should have been a clue to its age. Although the writing was good, the poor quality of the typesetting did detract from the reading. The solution to this: I have ordered a paperback copy of Twisting the Rope.