books 2022

    The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman (Books 2022, 33) πŸ“š

    Not just another murder mystery, but an undeniably cosy one. OK, the deaths aren’t cosy, obviously, but the mood and vibe of the book certainly is.

    The club in question is made up of four residents at a retirement village. They start out by speculatively investigating cold cases that a former member, who had been a police officer, had records of. But soon a hot case lands right in front of them, and things get interesting.

    It’s hilarious in places, moving, well-plotted, and, let’s face it, a tad unconvincing. But you don’t let that bother you while you’re reading it.

    Which you should do.

    The Perfume Burned His Eyes by Michael Imperioli (Books 2022, 32) πŸ“š

    As any fan will realise instantly, the title of this comes from Lou Reed’s ‘Romeo Had Juliet’. So that’s going to draw my interest right away. Then from the blurb we learn that Lou himself is a character in the story.

    Turns out it’s a kind of coming-of-age novel about a seventeen-year-old boy from Queens in 1976 or so, who moves with his mother to Manhattan, and into the block where Lou Reed is also living. The boy, Matt, becomes something of a friend/assistant to Lou for a while.

    In a parallel narrative, Matt falls for a girl at his new school, who might be involved in some withcrafty kind of stuff. It’s not obvious exactly how the timelines of the two strands relate, but things come to a head β€” or a couple of heads, you could say.

    The book closes with a chapter entitled ‘Afterwords’ (note the plural) in which the narrator β€” or the author β€” writes after Lou’s death. This section makes it seem as if the early section was based on real events. The author is a successful actor, so who knows?

    I want to quote this from that last section, about Lou’s music, because I love it:

    And more than anything else, it was punk. Which should come as no surprise since you were its creator. I don’t care what Detroit says, you were doing it when Iggy was a mere Osterberg and Kramer was trying to figure out who the other four would be. As for the lads from my neck of the woods (famous for their “One, two, three, four” count-off and three power chords) who are considered by some as the progenitors of the movement… well, that just makes no sense chronologically or otherwise. Not to mention (but I will) that they basically wrote the same song over and over again. And however great a song it may be, it renders deep catalog cuts redundant. Sorry, kids, I guess you had to be thereβ€”on the Bowery when it happened. But I wasn’t.

    And the same goes for the little London boy. Just the first few sentences you speak to the audience on Take No Prisoners relegates John-John to a corner with some crayons and a finger up his nose. The revolution you started was one of art and intellect. It inspired the defeat of tyranny in Czechoslovakia, for Christ’s sake. God save the queen, indeed.

    ‘The little London boy.’ πŸ˜€

    Something about the length, the writing style, and the age of the narrator, suggests that this book should or would be considered young-adult (YA). But the Lou Reed connection makes it much more likely that people in my age group will be drawn to it. I don’t know what that means.

    I enjoyed it, anyway. And it was a Christmas present from my daughter.

    Rocannon's World by Ursula Le Guin (Books 2022, 31) πŸ“š

    I’m quite pleased to have read as many as 31 books this year. Not sure quite how I’ve managed it, what with writing my own, and starting a new job, and all. Partly a lot of rereading of page-turners, of course.

    Le Guin’s Rocannon’s World was not a reread for me, though I’ve had it on my shelf for years. Bought second-hand, I’m sure, I don’t recall where or when, but it’s an edition from 1978. And it’s a super-slim volume. It probably wouldn’t be classified as a novel at all, in today’s publishing world. It’s kind of a slight story, about a person from an advanced species β€” an Earth-human, essentially β€” getting stranded on a planet at bronze-age levels of technology, with various species of native humanoid.

    The titular Rocannon has to make his way across the world to find the other high-level aliens who have caused him to be stranded, avenge himself, warn his people about their aggression, and maybe try to get rescued.

    It’s not bad, but it’s maybe most notable for being, I believe, the place where Le Guin first used the term Ansible for s faster-than-light communication device. She went on to use it in many other novels, and other SF authors adopted it.

    And now it’s also the name for something in IT automation. Infrastructure as code. Of which concept, though not Ansible, more later, probably.

    Illuminations by Alan Moore (Books 2022, 30) πŸ“š

    It’s amusing, this one coming straight after this year’s behemoth, since the last book I read by Moore was a similar year-spanning (and reading-year-consuming) monster.

    This one, however, is much more straightforward and shorter read than Jerusalem. It’s a book of short stories. Or more accurately, a book containing some short stories and one that is more or less long enough to be a novel on its own.

    That one β€” ‘What We Can Know About Thunderman’ β€” is a fractured history of the US comics market. It tells of the two big companies β€” American and Goliath β€” and a few smaller ones that mostly got gobbled up over the years. American famously has the eponymous Man of Storms as its most famous character, along with King Bee, Moon Queen, and many more.

    We get the stories of how various young fans attend conventions and end up as professionals, and what happens to some of them afterwards. But why are some odd things happening to people who work for American?

    That one’s the centrepiece, but I think my favourite might be ‘American Light β€” An Appreciation’. Subtitled as ‘by C. F. Bird’, it presents an annotated version of a poem, the ‘American Light’ of the title, by a beat poet called Harmon Belner. In 26 pages and 86 footnotes, Moore manages to give us a pretty good beat poem, and tell parts of at least two life stories. You’ve got to read all the footnotes, though.1

    The other stories are good, too. ‘The Improbably Complex High-Energy State’ takes place in the first femtoseconds of the universe.2 ‘Location, Location, Location’ is the story of an estate agent and her client after the world has ended.

    Highly recommended.

    1. They are the point. ↩︎

    2. Well, a universe. ↩︎

    The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, Translated by Jennifer Croft (Books 2022, 29)

    I am unreasonably happy about having finished this before the end of the year. I started reading it at the start of the year. In fact, possibly before the start of the year, since it was a Christmas present.

    Of course, I’ve read 28 other books while intermittently dipping into this behemoth, something I alluded to once or twice.

    It’s a historical novel set in the middle and end of the 18th century, telling the story of Jacob Frank, a Polish Jew who led a cult, or alternative religious community if you prefer. He converted to Islam, then to Catholicism, taking his followers with him on the second of those changes. But they remained ‘true believers’, treating Frank as the true Messiah.

    It took me so long to read partly because it’s so long, and certainly not because it was uninteresting. In fact it’s surprisingly compelling, considering the subject matter. But it is complex. Not least because of all the Polish place names and names of people. The latter is compounded when they get baptised into the Catholic church. They take on new names, so now most characters have two sets of names.

    I got a surprise when I first picked up the book to find that it’s numbered backwards. Chapter 1 of Book 1 starts on page 892. The story ends on page 27. (There are some notes and blank pages after that.) At first I thought I might have to read it ‘backwards’, but no: the story proceeds in the direction I’m used to. It’s just the numbering.

    I wondered if this was a reference to the direction of Hebrew writing, and Tokarczuk’s note at the end confirms that it is,

    as well as a reminder that every order, every system, is simply a matter of what you’ve got used to.

    Which is fair enough. I quite liked knowing how many pages I still had to go, with having to subtract. Especially as I got near the end.

    Coincidentally, in the last couple of weeks I read this in ‘Shift Happens’, a newsletter about a book about keyboards:

    (in Poland and parts of Europe, books have their tables of contents at the end, and so will mine).

    Which isn’t the case here, but I thought it was an interesting slightly-connected idea.

    It’s a huge work, in more ways than one, and also an incredible example of the translator’s art.

    The Ink Black Heart by Robert Galbraith (Books 2022, 28)

    And so I circle back and reread the book I read just over a month ago.

    This has been a most enjoyable experience, reading through the whole series. Rereading this one so soon was an excellent opportunity to see if I could spot any clues that I missed the first time (certainly one or two).

    The apparent logical jumps the characters make at the climax made more sense this time, so that was good.

    Excellent stuff. I look forward to the next one.

    Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith (Books 2022, 27)

    For some reason this is the one whose title never sticks in my mind. When I try to think of the books in the series I always seem to have a hard time bringing this one to mind.

    Which is by no means because of the story, which is excellent. Strike and Robin take on a cold case, 40 years old. When I wrote about this before I said I thought there was too much time spent on the other cases. That didn’t seem so this time.

    Also back then, I was recovering from being sick. This time I was just starting to be. And indeed, I was reading a section where Strike gets flu and tries desperately to convince himself that he can’t be getting it; to no avail, of course. I was reading that and thinking, ‘Yes, I’m definitely getting it.’ And not flu.

    Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (Books 2022, 26)

    The rereading continues. It’s actually now a couple of weeks since I read this, this time. what with forgetting, and then coming down with Covid, and what have you.

    Politics is the background for this one, with Robin going undercover at the House of Commons to try to find out who’s blackmailing a government minister β€” or rather, why? The blackmailers are known, but nobody outside of the minister’s family knows what it is they have on him.

    All good stuff, as ever. I had totally forgotten who was behind it all (where ‘it’ is the murder that follows the blackmail), which just goes to show you can easily enjoy a whodunit a second time.

    Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (Books 2022, 25)

    This is, by far, the most gruesome book in the Strike series. The crimes, the killings are, that is to say.

    It also gives Robin the most action she’s had, as well as the most danger.

    And I still, since reading it seven years ago, haven’t investigated Blue Γ–yster Cult. Oh well.

    The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (Books 2022, 24)

    A satire of literary London wrapped in a murder mystery. Robin gets more to do than in the first one.

    Which comment makes it mildly amusing to me that I wrote seven years ago that there isn’t enough of her.

    The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (Books 2022, 23)

    So we move into a(nother) period of rereading. Reading the new Strike novel immediately made me want to go back to the start. Mainly, I think, because I wanted to stay with these characters. As I type I’ve just finished the second in the series.

    The characters, though, are very different back here. Well, Strike not so much. Robin is new-minted, still unformed, and doesn’t get nearly as much pagetime as she deservedly does in later books.

    Good stuff, this tale of a famous model who dies in a fall from a balcony. The police have written it off as suicide, but Strike, when asked to investigate, has other ideas.

    Keeping the whodunit alive, I had completely forgotten who actually was the guilty party. Or rather, I remembered it as being someone other than it was. So I was surprised by it, which you don’t really expect on a rereading.

    The Ink Black Heart by Robert Galbraith (Books 2022, 22)

    This may be the best so far of the Strike books. My favourite so far, anyway.

    Despite being set in 2015 (time flows differently in Galbraith world) it’s very much of now. People being bullied online, right-wing terrorist organisations. Crossrail still being built. Oh wait, they finished that. If the novels ever catch up with reality, Cormoran and Robin won’t have to pick their way past roadworks around Denmark Street.

    And The Tottenham pub won’t be there any more. What will Strike do then? Well, OK, he’ll just complain about it being renamed The Flying Horse, I imagine. I think I was in The Tottenham once, years and years ago, and didn’t think too much of it. But who knows.

    Anyway, the book! Yes, it is excellent. I loved it. The only thing I didn’t like was the sheer physical size. It’s over 1000 pages, and when it’s not breaking your wrists, it feels like it’s breaking its own spine.

    The titular Ink-Black Heart (it should, of course, be hyphenated, as an adjectival phrase) is a cartoon series, initially on YouTube, moved to Netflix. Having read the description, I really want to see it.

    It spawns a fan-created game, and therein lies the problem. Fans, you know? They can be troublesome types. Even dangerous.

    Parts of the book are presented as in-game chat threads, with up to three streams running in parallel down the pages. It could get very confusing. It doesn’t, it’s fine.


    Excession by Iain M Banks (Books 2022, 21)

    Yes, I’m only reading Iain Banks at the moment. What of it? Or I was for a brief period up until the book after this.

    Probably my favourite Culture novel, and possibly the best. Mainly because the ships are most prominent and coolest and it’s all just huge fun!

    I talked about it back in 2013 god how can this have been going on for so long? Where by ‘this’ I mean The Great Banksie Reread. On the other hand, I suppose as long as I reread his books, it’ll be going on, no matter how many ’re-' prefixes we might want to apply.

    There are a couple, though none of the SF, that I’ve still only read once. I think maybe literally a couple: Stonemouth and The Quarry. And one, the poetry collection (with Ken McLeod), that I’ve only partly read.

    But anyway, Excession: pure dead brilliant. If by some odd means you’ve read his SF and haven’t got to this yet, you have a treat in store for you. Or if you’re just starting out. Or if you’re re-re-rereading, like me.

    The Culture meet an object? Entity? Being? That they don’t understand and can’t cope with. An Outside Context Problem, as they call it. It’s excessive, so it’s an excession. Things are set in motion. (Some of them very very fast things.)

    Dead Air by Iain Banks (Books 2022, 20)

    Banksie’s most political book, I think it’s fair to say. In the sense that the real-world politics and opinions of the author and the first-person narrator most closely align, and that it was written at about the time it is set and is often about the time it was written, as well.

    It starts on 9/11, though that tragic event is only background. A London-based Scottish radio DJ and commentator gets up to mischief and into trouble.

    It stands up well twenty years on.

    The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks (Books 2022, 19)

    The last of the Culture books and Banksie’s SF books, both at all, and that I had only read once.

    The odd one about this, as a Culture book, I realised only very late on, is that neither Special Circumstances nor even Contact are involved, directly. Just a random grouping of ships who take an interest in the matter.

    The matter in question being the decision of a species called the Gzilt to sublime, or leave the material realm for higher dimensions. This a common endpoint (or new beginning) for civilisations in the Culture universe, and I wonder whether, had Iain lived, he would have taken us to the point where The Culture itself was making that decision.

    Anyway, the sonata in question is one that is barely playable because it was written for ‘an instrument not yet invented’, which turns out to be be the Antagonistic Undecagonstring, or Elevenstring. An instrument with some 24 strings (some not counted in the name, because they are not played, they just resonate) designed to be played with two bows simultaneously.

    Our hero β€” or at least, the main humanoid viewpoint character β€” Vyr Cossont, has been surgically adapted to have an extra pair of arms to allow her to play it. It is still next to impossible, but she has made it her ‘life task’: something to do while waiting for the day when your civilisation sublimes. The decision for them to go was made long before she was born.

    But her playing the sonata is only a side issue. The real problem is that maybe someone is trying to sabotage the sublimation. Or maybe not, but odd things are afoot, and various people and ships get involved, and it’s all a whole shitload of fun.

    The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick (Books 2022, 18)

    On my MA course, in the Creative Nonfiction module, we were assigned the first chapter of this as one of our readings. It intrigued me enough that I ordered a copy.

    Pages of Hackney had to order it from the US, and it took a long time to arrive. The module (and possibly the course, though I don’t actually think so) had finished by the time it arrived.

    It took me even longer to finish reading it, despite it being a very slim volume.

    It’s subtitled ‘The Art of Personal Memoir’. She starts one section by saying:

    Thirty years ago people who thought they had a story to tell sat down to write a novel. Today they sit down to write a memoir.

    And it was published in 2001, so she was seeing a change since the seventies. That may be even more true now, as creative nonfiction, memoir, the confessional story: that’s a huge publishing category.

    But I’m not sure to what extent this book will help people who want to sit down and write one.

    Gornick likes to teach by example. I would estimate that between 40 and 50% of the words in this book are other people’s. All properly cited and credited, of course, and the relevant permissions listed at the back. But she uses huge long quotes.

    Nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. How else do we first learn to write at all, other than by the examples of things we read? But I felt she spent too much time quoting the examples, and not enough explaining why she chose those. I don’t know, maybe use smaller examples, or break the big quotes up with interjections on technique.

    Early in the book she talks about the nonfiction writer:

    Here the the writer must identify openly with those very same defenses [sic] and embarrassments that the novelist or the poet is once removed from. It’s like lying down on the couch in public … Think about how many years on the couch it takes to speak about oneself

    The casual synecdoche of ‘couch’ to mean ‘therapy’ or ‘analysis’ amused me. So commonplace must analysis be in her circles, that she assumes everyone knows what ‘lying down on the couch’ is like. Whereas most of us, I would guess, only know about it from seeing it in films.

    Interzone Issue 292/293 Edited by Andy Cox (Books 2022, 17)

    Not strictly a book, but a double issue of a short-story magazine seems substantial enough to treat as one.

    I don’t know when the last issue came out, but I had actually forgotten that I still had a subscription. It was good to get this, not least because it’s going to be the last to be edited by Andy Cox and published by TTA Press β€” Interzone 2.0, we might call it, after the David Pringle years.

    From the next issue the editor will be Gareth Jelley, and the publisher MYY Press. The surprising thing about that is that the press is based in WrocΕ‚aw, in Poland. Which is odd because then, is it a British SF magazine anymore?

    That probably doesn’t matter, because of course it’s an international genre, and it’s not like they ever only published British writers. But still, quite a dramatic shift. It’ll be intersting to see how the magazine changes.

    I enjoyed this a lot. There was perhaps too much Alexander Glass1 β€” three stories and an interview β€” but I guess sometimes you have a special focus for an issue (or two). And they’re all good.

    Several of the stories suffer from something I’ve complained about before, which is to say, they don’t have endings. Or, put another way, the authors chose to end them at a point that I find unsatisfying; or I don’t understand why they chose to end there.

    But in this case, I don’t think any of the ending-choices let the stories down too. much.

    1. Who weirdly doesn’t seem to have a website. Or at least, I can’t find it, and it’s not linked from his Twitter, which is what I’ve linked to here. ↩︎

    The Computer Connection by Alfred Bester (Books 2022, 16)

    This starts out with the main character escaping from some obscure threat and reaching a friend’s place. The friend sends him into the past β€” so you think it’s going to be a time-travel story. In the past he tries to save a struggling artist by giving him gold.

    And that’s the last we hear of time travel. It’s actually a story of humans who have attained bodily immortality through various traumatic incidents, and things going on with them. There’s some space travel, and, not surprisingly given the tite, a computer connection.

    It’s pretty strange in the way that Bester can be. Not one of his best, but interesting enough. Harlan Ellison praises it β€” and Bester β€” highly in the introduction.

    I had one of those, ‘Have I read this before?’ experiences through the first few chapters, but it soon stopped. So I wonder if I started it once before. If so, I don’t know why I’d have stopped, as it kept me going this time.

    The Islanders by Christopher Priest (Books 2022, 15)

    I’m not sure that I’ve read any of Priest’s ‘Dream Archipelago’ stories before now. Certainly the ones that I’ve tagged with his name are all outside of that loosely-connected set. But you can’t have been interested in SF as long as I have and not be aware of it.

    This one, though, well.

    Its conceit is that it is a gazeteer of the Dream Archipelago (which is, I’m slightly surprised to discover, what its residents call it: I had thought it was more… dreamy than that).

    The archipelago is essentially impossible to map, because of some kind of time-distorting vortices that occur over the world it is on. No one is sure how many islands there are or the names or locations of even the main ones. The writers of the gazeteer try their best in any case.

    By way of the would-be-factual entries, plus a number of fairly straightforward short stories (which don’t fit the gazeteer format, but then nothing really ‘fits’ here) we get something of the backstory of the archipelago, and fragments of the lives of a few of its prominent citizens.

    It’s all highly readable and makes me want to know more about this odd world and its people (who seem to be essentially human).

    Still Life by Val McDermid (Books 2022, 14)

    A Karen Pirie thriller,’ the description on the cover says of this. I’m not sure ‘thriller’ is quite the right term. It’s exciting enough, but there isn’t the tension that would take it up to ‘thriller’ level. Not least because Karen Pirie is never in any danger, other than possibly pissing off her boss, the deputy chief constable of Police Scotland.

    I’ve never read Val McDermid before, so picking up one of her later ones β€” possibly her latest: published in 2020, set just before the pandemic, and ending as lockdown starts β€” would be a strange choice. But sometimes you’re in a holiday house and there are some books and it’s not so much a choice as an offering. I’ve fancied checking out some tartan noir for a while, anyway.

    It’s good. I enjoy a crime novel from time to time, and this one certainly kept the pages turning. Backstory was filled in very efficiently, without it feeling like infodumping. And reading about the chill autumn in Scotland (with slight detours into France, the north of England, and Ireland) took the edge off some of the Greek heat.

    The title is a little confusing. There is some art involved in the story, but none of it is a still life. There’s at least a double meaning to the phrase, of course, and that makes sense in context. But maybe the French term, nature mort, is even more applicable. Not least since Karen Pirie works cold cases for the Scottish police force.

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