The Stars Now Unclaimed – Drew Williams

Our narrator is travelling the galaxy, trying to atone for her responsibility for the Pulse, a devastating galaxy-wide event. Her view however is very narrowly focused, as a strong believer in the Justified sect. This is a much more battle-based book than I expected, with our narrator pinging from one battle to another leaving a trail of devastation.

Although this book is a powerful page-turner, I found myself finding the key message, that Esa should help the Justified, who essentially kidnapped or conscripted her, more and more problematic. Although one character was inserted to question the Justified’s approaches, she is brought into the fold by the end of the book. This contrasts with an enemy who are presented as irredeemably evil, with gradual depths being added, but never any positive elements.

But the battles are fun, won with cunning and nimbleness in the face of being outgunned. However a bit more damage taken would have been more realistic: far too few characters died to win significant battles.

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Everything Under – Daisy Johnson

Everything Under is slightly surreal, set mainly in the world of canal boaters. Gretel is trying to understand her childhood, and how her mother became who she is as she fades into dementia.

Exploring family ties and the impact of poverty, Gretel works writing dictionary entries into she finally find her mother and brings her to her own home. The narrative swirls as her mother moves through time, and pieces gradually fall together to create a whole story. It took me a long time to place Gretel correctly in this web.

I look forward to rereading this and seeing how the hints build up now I know what the correct perspective is

Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

Washington Black is definitely an imagination-capturing book, with George Washington Black, or Wash, finding his path away from slavery. Starting as a field-slave in a plantation on Barbados, he catches the eye of the owner’s brother, Titch. From there he develops as an artist and scientist.

“I myself will will always go by carriage, even when it ceases to be fashionable and other men accept strangr means of conveyance – steam engines and such. Unholy aerial contraptions.”

The Cloud-cutter, which Wash and Titch use to escape Barbados, is very steam-punk, We’re in 1830 and trialling a hydrogen barrage-balloon. Wash’s role is to sketch the balloon and landscapes through which they will travel. But ultimately Titch’s tendency to walk away from everything results in him leaving Wash without a support network in the Arctic.

“Oh, child, it like nothing in this world. When you free, you can do anything.”

An inspiring story about choosing your own consequences and dreams. About chasing stability, family and memories across the world and through the years.

Of the four I’ve read so far, my favourite of the Man Booker shortlist.

The Long Take – Robin Robertson

One of two books in this year’s Man Booker list that touch on Novia Scotia, but in here is is a pristine place that Walker does not feel able to return to, rather than a place of healing.

As someone who wants to read literary fiction, I approached The Long Take with a degree of trepidation. But although this is classed as a poetic narrative, it generally reads more as a slightly choppy novel: reminisent of short scenes in films.

This is not an easy read, with Walker acknowledging his suffering from PTSD whilst he works his way through life, and poor communities are built with painstaking sacrifice, and destroyed at the whim of a bureaucrat’s pen.

Robertson brings emotions and relationships to life as Walker tumbles through his life, trying to find a way past World War Two, but ultimately turning to embrace friendships with fellow veterans rather than seeking to escape.

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.

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.

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.