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.

Advertisements

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.

Tempests and Slaughter – Tamora Pierce

With the Numair Cronicals, Pierce is doing what she does best, and is taking us back to school. But this time we are not learning to hit things with sticks, but Numair is learning how to practise magic. Not only Numair though, we are back with his closest friends, Osborne and Varice.

We don’t start with the fiercely competent Numair from the Daine books, but an awkward Arram Draper, who is sick when watching the gladiator games when his father comes to visit. But we follow him being escalated through the normal classes as an obviously extremely talented student.

“And magic depends on perfection,” Cosmos interputed.

I love that instead of making the teachers difficult people, for the most part Pierce makes them motivated good mentors, who share their research and work with a gifted boy, as long as he works. And work hard is what he does, what all three of them do to work out how to find their own places in the world.

How Ozorne is shaped through this period, instead of being a cruel tyrant this now becomes a tragic story arc to those of us who know its conclusion. His starting place is just to be a boy who wants his own home and a place to practice magic, and he is renowned as the boy who will never get to be emperor. He does not get the same safe supportive mentors as Draper, but instead is manipulated through his grief-stricken state.

I look forward to seeing where Pierce next takes this arc, and the Numair we know is being shaped from the boy Arram.

La Belle Sauvage – Philip Pullman

Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy is one of my favourite rereads. Lyra’s journey is many things: a commentary on faith, a fantasy multiverse and a coming of age story.

La Belle Sauvage is a prequel, and opens in the setting of an unfamiliar pub. But we are swiftly moved into a world of Alethiometers, scholars and the Magesterium. The nostelgia trip is complete with dæmons, witches and gyptians too.

I loved this. Pullman’s fantasy world is as rich as ever, and he continues to explore the dynamics behind abuse of power and how that affects real people.

Reaper Man – Terry Pratchett

I’m starting to get a feel for title puns here: Reaper Man is not only mostly about Death, but about Death becoming a man. And of course, if Death takes a sabbatical, all manner of chaos is set loose across Discworld. No-one can die, and energies are building up.

‘But I don’t think Death ever came for a potato,’ said the Dean doubtfully.
‘Death comes for everything,’ said the Archchancellor, firmly.

This is fast-paced, chapterless, and flits between viewpoints. Ultimately though, there are three-four main threads to the story, which all pull together for a very tidy ending. Death learns humanity and the value of a temporary existence, and the internal politics of Ankh-Morpork nearly prevent the world from being saved.

The supermarket trolleys made me laugh, and the wider theme of compassion made me think, as it was supposed to. The next book as arrived on my ereader via the library app, so I’ll be diving into that soon.

Exit West – Mohsin Hamid

Exit West is for the first half a realistic love story about a couple trapped in a city dissolving into civil war. A tale of passion, family life and secretive liaisons. But as the world collapses around Nadia and Saeed, reality begins to seep away. Instead we move into a world where doors begin to exist that will take you to other places.

There is also vital commentary on war and anti-immigration feeling from the viewpoint of two people who could be seen as victims of both, including a very perspective look at how easy it is for someone who is marginalised and isolated to be pulled into violence. Of course our heroes avoid the temptation, and benefit from the most gracious sides of some communities, but they spend a lot of time being pulled with the tidal wave of changes to society.

The “doors” were the most unexpected part of the story, but they are a handy literary device, saving the need for explanations as to how people got to places, just that it was accepted that they did.

Saeed and Nadia’s relationship is what shines through the book though. Something that inspires both of them to try for better, and offering two views on changes, along with the dynamic within the relationship itself. It is clear that each other is what is most important throughout much of the book, and that is what inspires each of them.

I even enjoyed the ending, bittersweet though it was, with the epilogue helping to end on a bit more of an upbeat note.

Having read this, I think it much more deserved the 2017 Booker prize than Lincoln in the Bardo (the winner) did.

The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick

This is becoming a historical novel, describing an alternative present in the 1960s, Dick uses the device of a book offering the perspective of the route history did take, which is widely held as both dangerously radical and impossible. Strangely though, little pivots around that device except the author of the book (who only appears in the last couple of chapters) and one of its readers. Far more pivotal is the I Ching, which slowly develops from a quiet source into a key active component, and the one detail that ties all plots together.

As this was written in the era when the world was coming to terms with the horrors of Nazi Germany and the development of nuclear powers, the obvious question as to how horrifying a future in which these two elements were combined is explored. It also deals with complete authoritarian superpowers who run the whole world. Interestingly it becomes clear that over time Hitler loses the respect he commanded, but that the power base he had built up had too many vested interests to allow for his systems to be disbanded. Instead horrors perpetuate without checks and balances.

Even though there isquite brutal violence, I now need to read more of his work.

Mort – Terry Pratchett

I have spent about 20 years telling people I don’t like Pratchett’s writing. Periodically I’d pick one up and give it a try, but it never quite chimed with me. Then a few people convinced me to give it another go, and I ran out of books with only my ereader on me, and spotted Mort (start of the death series) was immediately available.

For everyone who over the years has shook their heads at me not liking Pratchett, I apologise. Mort was unputdownably brilliant.

I now have Reaper Man on order at the library, only because I am too short on shelf space to buy every Discworld book right now (the long-planned library remodelling will be the subject of a later post).

I liked Mort as a character, but Death himself really was what dragged me in. His attitude to life, and kittens, along with the attempt to find an apprentice were all very compelling. The plot is perfectly paced, and the humour light.

Sadly the library auto-returned my copy before I wrote this post though, so I have lost my bookmarked quotes. I shall do better next time…

Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman

Gaiman leads us on an adventure through Norse mythology, as we discover the complex network of relationships and characters that make up this mythology. As he states, it is a shame that many of the supposed tales have been lost through time, and Gaiman only works with those that remain.

The Norse myths to me do speak of a cold mountainous land. One where powers struggle against each other to gain an upper hand, and giants roam the lands beyond. But it is a fully-realised world, with details filled in to make compelling tales.

Gaiman celebrates Loki’s cunning, whilst slightly mocking Thor’s excessive use of strength. And they are all very fallible. In fact the fallibility of the gods is most of what the stories are about, combined with their willingness to sacrifice each other for personal gain, and inhuman speed, strength and stamina.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre is a wonderful heroine – determined to win through in a situation and social system that doesn’t give her much of a chance. She finds her own way to escape her impoverished background, and shows real strength of character throughout.

However Rochester is so deeply flawed as a love interest that I find the ending hard to swallow. Is it not enough that Jane has achieved independent wealth and a family that love her? Why does she need to return to a man who would have made a good stepping-stone in learning who she is? An off-page incident in which he becomes dependent on her does not make compelling storytelling to me.

Of course this is probably a very modern perspective, in which moving on to a new man in your twenties is eminently possible, and Jane does very well at managing herself and not settling for an inferior option, or for a man who is in a strong position to exploit her. And she chooses for love rather than duty when it comes down to the final decision, a woman who knows what will fulfil her in the end. I just wish Rochester was a better human being.