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 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.

The Witch Who Came in From the Cold – Various

I supported this year’s Super Nebula Author Showcase Humble Bundle, so my ereader is now full of sci fi. Quite a few are from Serial Box, presumably for business reasons (get the audience hooked on season one…), and this was my first exploration of this style of storytelling. Although I’m not sure I’ll get an episode subscription (partly because they only seem to have an Apple app, not Android), I can see how the model works.

The Witch Who Came in From the Cold is set in 1970 in Cold War Prague. Two superpowers are grappling to gain the upper hand in an international war. And then there is the secondary plot where the USA and USSR are playing power games.

The play for power for the occultorganisations thrives in the spy world, where the small key cast all have at least two loyalties to play with, and are torn between these. And of course, as in straight forward spy fiction, all the players are somewhat scarred from earlier missions, but continue playing their games.

I was surprised by how well the large writer team pulled together a coherent narrative, which flowed well and both reached resolution and set up a good cliffhanger for season two.

 

The Library of Unrequited Love – Sophie Divry

The librarian is a lonely, frustrated woman, who one day finds a reader who has been locked in her library overnight. She gradually reveals her thoughts on the library system, people and her crush.

Unfortunately, although her insights are sharp, the device that she has an imprisoned audience who she forces to listen to her innermost thoughts without any indication that he finds this anything other than uncomfortable. Divry also delivers the whole book as a single paragraph, which does reflect will the stream of consciousness, but remains deeply irritating to read.

Her ending is also very much unfinished, but this is acceptable on a book of novella weight.

Men Without Women – Haruki Murakami

Men Without Women is a set of short stories by Murakami, about central male characters for which a large part of their identities is the absence of specific women. From this central theme we have an actor in declining health, a bar owner and various degrees of criminal.

Murakami convincingly enters all of these minds, and draws us into the mystery of their current existence. He is a skilled writer, and builds each story elegantly to draw the reader in. However none of the stories end on a satisfying high note. Instead each conclusion is bitter, or in some cases, downright frightening.

Slightly disappointed, as I mostly read for escapism and like there to be some joy in my reading, along with the writing quality.

The Lost Art of Letter Writing – Menna van Praag

This is a very improbable book, made less so by some of the characters having stated Powers. However it runs into the uncanny level of Powers, I find it easier to read full-blown fantasy than “real world” with people just having supernatural levels of perception. The former is escapism, the latter is a bit weird.

However once that has been set aside this is a lovely comfort read. Nothing very challenging, and about the power of writing to transform lives. The historical story set within letters is more emotionally challenging, but is set at one step removed.

I would recommend Menna van Praag’s writing for lazy Sunday morning reading.