The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yōko Ogawa (Books 2020, 1)

This is a sweet little story, exactly described by its title. The professor in question is an elderly mathematician who has had a brain injury that has left him with only 80 minutes of short-term memory. The housekeeper, therefore, has to introduce herself to him every morning when she arrives at his house.

She has a son who comes along sometimes, and there are maths puzzles and baseball.

It doesn’t sound like much from that description, and it’s very short. But it’s thoroughly compelling and enjoyable.

Transition by Iain Banks (Books 2019, 25)

This post was written in the new year, but read in the old, and accordingly backdated.

This is a strong as it was ten years ago when I first read it, but still has the same narrative flaw. That’s not surprising, but the flaw in the universe-hopping detail is so jarring that I read it half-hoping to pick up on something that I had missed the last time.

It was not to be. Our heroes and villains still hop to uninhabited Earths, and yet find a body there to receive them.

And of course, the ethical question of possessing another human being remains barely addressed.

All that said, though, it’s still a great read.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Tempest by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill (Books 2019, 24)

The final volume of Moore’s League stories, and, he says, his final work in the comics medium. If so, it’s not a bad closer.

It occurs to me that a significant portion of his comics output has been built on the work of others. Nothing wrong with that. Indeed, it could be said to be true of all literature, maybe all art. Moore’s use is more frequent than most, though: The Watchmen characters based on those from old Charlton Comics; Marvelman/Miracleman a revival of Mick Anglo’s creation; Promothea digging into mythology and fiction, as I wrote very positively about last year; and so on.

In the League it’s at its most explicit. The main characters are Mina Murray from Dracula, Virginia Woolfe’s Orlando, and Alan Quatermain from H Rider Haggard’s novels (although he isn’t in this volume). Even the subtitle of this one is from Shakespeare.

There is, as I say, nothing wrong with any of that. It’s like sampling in music: it doesn’t matter that you’re using part of an earlier creation; what matters is what you do with it.

And what Moore and O’Neil do with everything here is pretty spectacular. I won’t go into any detail, but suffice it to say that pretty much all the threads from the earlier volumes are tied up, and everything is over at the end. Everything. Well, not everything everything. Not quite.

I wouldn’t start here, though: go back to the beginning if you want to read any of these. Read them all.

The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks (Books 2019, 23)

One interesting thing about this book that I don’t recall noticing when I read it twelve years ago is that the story itself is the titular approach. We don’t get to Garbadale House until about two-thirds of the way through, and then the rest of it is set there. With a few flashbacks and -forwards thrown in to both sections.

Banksie always plays with form and structure, and this is no exception. Not just the aforementioned directional flashes, but use of different viewpoint characters and tenses. Mostly it’s from the viewpoint of Alban McGill, one of the many members of the Wopuld family. Some scenes are from that of a cousin of his. There are even a couple of instances of promiscuous PoV, or “head-hopping,” where we get the thoughts of another character within the same scene.

Also some parts switch to present-tense, while most if it is past. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious function to those switches: it’s not like the tense reflects the timeline within the story. It seems arbitrary, almost random — though maybe I’m missing something there.

None of this harms the story, it’s just worth noting. The strangest of these devices is that there are three or four sections in first-person, from the PoV of a minor character. All the rest is third-person. That gives the impression that this character is more significant than he is. The text in those sections is also rendered with spelling mistakes and grocer’s apostrophes, as if it was the direct transcript of what this relatively poorly-educated character has scribbled down.

What’s the point of all that? I’m not sure. Just writerly games, maybe. I wonder if it suggests that Banks didn’t think the story itself was interesting enough to sustain the narrative, which might be a valid criticism. A well-off family with a secret at its heart has to decide whether to sell its business. The secret comes out, but it doesn’t make much difference. It would be significant to the characters affected, but we hardly see them after the reveal.

Endearing characters, though, and even on a second read (I didn’t recall the secret), it keeps the pages turning.

As I said twelve years ago, “In a book like this, the pleasure is in the journey more than the destination.”

The Book of Dust vol 2: The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman (Books 2019, 22)

You shouldn’t read this book.

Yet.

I broke a personal rule, that goes back to 1982: Never start reading a fantasy series if the final volume hasn’t been published.1 1982 was the year I was reading Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. The fifth volume (or second volume of the second series) was out, but the sixth and final wasn’t.2 I waited on tenterhooks.3 Eventually the hardback came out, but it was much too expensive for a poor student like me. Luckily, not for another poor student on my corridor, who lent it to me.

I learnt my lesson, back then. More or less: I was reading Harry Potter while it was still being written. But this is one of the main reasons why I never started A Game of Thrones, for example.

But here we are. Two-thirds of the way in to a compelling, thrilling story… actually that’s not quite right, what with the first volume being prequel. More like halfway through a very long story, and all I can say is… not very much without going into massive spoilers.

I like that Lyra is using Silvertongue as her surname: a name she was given, that she earned. There are aspects of the world, of Lyra’s relationship to it, that are surprising, given what she went through in His Dark Materials. But then, it is eight years later, and she has grown up a lot.

Politics and events in the world of the Magisterium sometimes parallel those in our world.

It’s a lot darker and more adult-themed than the original trilogy. I don’t know if whole will end up being as legendary or as moving as the original, of course, but at this point, balanced on the fulcrum of change, I like it almost as much.

I lied at the the start: you should read this book. But be prepared for the fact that we might have to wait two years for the conclusion.


  1. At a pinch, if the author hasn’t finished writing it. 
  2. White Gold Weilder was released in 1983, I see. And I gather that he’s since written a third trilogy, but… nah. 
  3. Well, maybe about five or sixterhooks. 

Kieron’s Comic, Brontë’s Book

One of the comics I read is Kieron Gillen’s1 Die, which is about a group of people who get sucked into a fantasy world. The world is based on a role-playing game — or at least, it seems to be at first. The other night I started the latest issue, 9. Unexpectedly — but not surprisingly — Charlotte Brontë turned up as a character (or maybe not, but let’s run with it). The story was about how she and her siblings had created complex fantasy worlds in part as stories for their toy soldiers. And maybe the world of Die is based in part on those.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I woke the next day to hear on the radio news that a tiny book — “no bigger than a matchbox” — written by Charlotte, was being auctioned in France. It is filled with stories of the fantasy worlds created by her and her siblings.

The book has been bought by the Brontë Society. It will be kept in the Brontë Parsonage Museum, where it was created.

Two completely unrelated events, of course, but interesting how things collide.


  1. He seems not to have website of his own, bizarrely, but he has a Tumblr, and a newsletter

Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (Books 2019, 21)

I like to reread this from time to time, and right now I’m considering watching the TV version that’s currently on. It’s HBO, which means Sky over here, which would traditionally have ruled it out on ethical grounds. But times and corporate ownerships have changed. The Murdochs no longer own Sky TV, so I can let myself watch it.

But then we have the other ethical question, about Watchmen in particular. Which is to say, since Alan Moore feels that he was cheated by DC over the ownership of the creative work, and repudiates all derivative works, shouldn’t we avoid them too? I saw the movie version, but I didn’t get the Before Watchmen spin-offs.

Well, it’s been a long time; Moore and Gibbons must have known what they were signing up for, even if things didn’t go quite as they expected. I recall seeing Moore at a convention in Glasgow in 1985 or 86, where he said, “DC are utter vermin.” Yet he went on to work with them often after that.

Plus, I’m already reading Doomsday Clock, which brings the Watchmen universe into the DC multiverse, so personally, that ship has sailed.

How does the story stand up today? It’s still excellent, I would say. With the obvious weakness of the ending. Though thinking about that, what’s weak is how preposterous Veidt’s plan is. Accepting that, that part of the story is well executed.

It’s still one of my favourite comics.

Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (Books 2019, 18, 19 & 20)

His Dark Materials, as I said.

Holy hell, this trilogy is good! I think I’d forgotten just how good it is.

In the first book we meet Lyra, a wild orphan who lives in fabled Jordan College in a parallel Oxford. Plots and adventures quickly ensue.

The second volume starts with Will, a boy who lives in our world, and who has to run from his home because he has killed someone. How will his story connect to Lyra’s?

And the third builds on everything that has gone before, and a whole lot more.

There are armoured bears, angels, daemons, airships, witches, harpies, the dead, and much else. The fate of worlds hangs in the balance.

If you haven’t read it, you should. You could start watching the TV series instead, but I expect there’ll be a long wait between the seasons, and the books are right there.

Of course, I’m going to find myself in a similar position with the sequels. It was eighteen months ago that I read part 1, so presumably we won’t get the conclusion till some time in 2021.

I like what they’re doing with the TV series so far. Enough changes to keep it interesting, not enough to spoil it.

On Pausing Stories

Almost exactly a year ago I started reading a novel, then put it on hold. This year I’ve done the same, for different reasons.

I started The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers in October of last year. I quickly put it aside as November approached. I realised that it — or at least its start — was much too similar to the novel that I planned to start for NaNoWriMo.

I haven’t got back to it yet.

This year it was the new Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust vol 2: The Secret Commonwealth

Now, you’ll recall that I said I might do this after I read the first of the new trilogy. Other things got in the way of that, though.

So I read a chapter or two of the new one, and realised I needed to refresh my memories. There’s a whole thing that we learn about at once that I don’t remember. Or at least don’t remember how it happened.

There’s also a TV series coming. I was aware it was in development, but not of how soon it was going to be. Turns out it’ll be on in a week or two.

So now I’m worried that watching it is going to be a bit like the recent Good Omens series was for me; really well done, I appreciated it… but I had re-read the book too soon before watching it, meaning it was all just a bit too recent in my memory for maximum enjoyment. But we’ll cross that ice bridge to another world when we come it it. The trailers look great, anyway.

The difference with this year’s pause will be that, while I will get back to the Chambers eventually, I’m obviously not in any hurry to do so. Whereas I fully expect to restart The Secret Commonwealth as soon as I’ve recovered from the ending of The Amber Spyglass. Which I’ll probably be starting quite soon.

Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence by Michael Marshall Smith (Books 2019, 17)

No, it’s me, not London Below: this has also faded quickly from my mind, despite the fact that I love MMS, and I really enjoyed this as I read it.

Still, it’s very good. Hannah is an ordinary girl living in present-day California with her dad and (maybe) mum (sorry, mom).

Until the devil turns up, and her grandfather turns out to be his engineer. And he knew Bach.

Inevitably, the world needs to be saved.