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 — or rather, why? The blackmailers are know, 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 Öyster 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.

Read.


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 — or at least, the main humanoid viewpoint character — 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 — 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 Wrocław, 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 — three stories and an interview — 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 — 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 — and Bester — 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 — possibly her latest: published in 2020, set just before the pandemic, and ending as lockdown starts — 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.


A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson (Books 2022, 13)

Greece is probably the best place to read this novel, which is good, because that was where I was when I read it. It’s a work of fiction mostly set on the real island of Hydra during 1960-61. There was a famous community of anglophone expats there at the time, one of whom was Marianne Ihlen. They were notably joined by Leonard Cohen.

The first-person narrator is fictional, but nearly every other character is real. It’s an unusual approach for a contemporary novel, though perhaps not for historical fiction. Which, at sixty years distance, you could consider this. Some of the people are still alive, though, which is probably what makes it feel a bit odd.

Not Leonard or Marianne, though. The books starts with the narrator visiting Cohen’s old house on the morning after his death was announced. Which — and I had forgotten this — was just after Trump got elected. Everything else is flashback.

It’s very good. Captures the feeling of a Greek island summer, the listlessness of the young drifters, and the bitterness of the older writers who still struggle for success.


Software and Wetware by Rudy Rucker (Books 2022, 11 and 12)

Or the first two books in the Ware tetralogy, as they now are. I read Software many years ago, and enjoyed it, though not as much as some of Rucker’s others, notably White Light.

This time round it was fine, and so was the second one, but not really anything to write home about. I’ll read the other two, since I’ve got the combined edition on my Kindle, and they’re not very long. But there’s a spark that Rucker has when he writes about things like infinities, that just isn’t there when he writes about the themes here.

Which are artificial intelligence, machine sentience, and the possibility of transferring human consciousnesses into robot bodies and vice versa. Those are fascinating concepts, but the stories don’t quite jump off the page enough for me.


Ubik by Philip K Dick (Books 2022, 10)

I had associated this in my head with Dick’s VALIS, which is one of his latest works (written 1978, published 1981, according to Wikipedia). I think just because of the similarity of names.

Ubik is in fact more of a mid-period novel (written 1966, published 1969), and it shows. Though according to the Wikipedia entry, ‘it was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 greatest novels since 1923.’ I find that a tad surprising, as it’s far from one of his better ones to my mind.

Certainly some of his tropes are there: strange warps to reality, confusion over who is and isn’t dead, that sort of thing. But it’s just not as compelling as, say, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, or A Scanner Darkly; nor as weird and fascinating as VALIS.

The characterisation is weak — which is probably true for most of Dick’s work, to be fair. But the story just doesn’t really get off the ground.


Bloody Ebooks!

I read Inverted World on the Kindle. It always annoys me that you’re put at the start of the text on opening. I like to go back to the cover and work forward. Sometimes I use the contents links for that, and I think I might have done so here, skipping the introduction, because they nearly always contain spoilers.

So I started with the famous opening sentence I wrote about. But because I linked to the book’s Wikipedia page, I skimmed the article. Which mentioned a prologue, that I had somehow missed.

As it happens, missing the prologue didn’t really matter, didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book. But first, I don’t know how people can refer to the first sentence of Chapter 1 as the opening sentence, when there’s a prologue full of sentences before it.

And second, be careful how you read your ebooks. You might miss something.


Inverted World by Christopher Priest (Books 2022, 9)

With its fairly famous opening line — ‘I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.’ — I kind of thought I had read this before, long ago, maybe as a teenager. But no. It turned out definitely not.

A young man learns his place in a city — Earth City, as they call it — which is moving. Rails are placed before it and lifted up behind it so they can be laid in front again. The city is winched along on the rails by fits and starts. Why? Why is it in motion, and why do the inhabitants work desperately to keep it so? And why is the fact kept hidden from city dwellers who are not ‘guildsmen’?

The answers, or some of them, are within. Though there is no answer to why ‘guildsmen’ is the correct word. Women are second-class citizens in the city. And worse outside it, on the whole.

The people of the city are human, they speak English mostly. They know their ancestors were from Earth planet, as they refer to it. The people in the villages they pass also seem to be human, and they mostly speak Spanish. The sun appears not as a sphere, but as a kind of disk with spikes top and bottom. What can be going on? The title suggests some kind of inversion, but what is it?

Ultimately the mystery isn’t solved in a very interesting way, and the ending is sad, but maybe happy, but maybe sad.

Priest has written much better books, but it bears reading.


The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (Books 2022, 8)

This was prompted by a Guardian article — listicle, you might say, since it’s basically a big list — of books for the summer (last summer): Summer reading: the 50 hottest new books everyone should read. I borrowed it from my local library. Kind of great that you can borrow ebooks from the library. Especially during lockdowns, when the buildings themselves were closed.

It is a magic realist novel set mostly in Britain and faerie; or the sidhe, as it’s called here. It starts with the story of the tragic death of the main character’s sister, when they were both in their late teens or early twenties. Was it murder? certainly the driver of the car that killed her was imprisoned.

The loss of her sister haunts Taryn’s life, predictably. But if there are hints that the death is somehow linked to the other mysteries that run through the book, then it is never satisfactorily resolved that there is or isn’t any connection.

That aside, we soon find ourselves — unexpectedly, for me at least — in another world. It seems that all the otherworlds exist: Munin and Huggin, Odin’s ravens, turn up. We hear that ‘The Great God of the Deserts’ went mad because his believers had too many different ideas of what he was like, so heaven is closed. A visit to purgatory is made.

Taryn finds out she is damned, because of an action she took — or didn’t take, a sin of omission — regarding her sister’s killer. And seems to accept this, and another evil at the heart of the Sidhe, without trying to understand it, without raging against it.

It’s good, but there are definite weaknesses. I found the action scenes very confusing. Some of the geographical descriptions, too. And it feels a bit… maybe unfocused is the word? Hard to say what exactly I mean by that, but I guess it’s that some things are hinted at when they should be explained. At least eventually.

There are a few oddities. It’s set mostly in Britain, but some Americanisms creep in where they wouldn’t. Can’t think of any specific examples, but it’s on the level of saying ‘highway’ instead of ‘motorway’. That kind of thing.

Well worth a look, though.


The Schrödinger's Cat Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson (Books 2022, 4–6)

Yes, all I do is reread. Sometimes it seems that way, anyway. Well, it was the end of 2014 when I read this last. Seven and a quarter years seems fair. It’s a lot of fun, which is why I keep returning to it, I guess.

The missing scientists, that I mentioned last time? True, it’s never explicitly explained where they went, but I think it’s clear that they found out how to move into other worlds, and went off to visit next-door universes.

The three volumes are entitled The Universe Next Door, The Trick Top Hat, and The Homing Pigeons, by the way.

I’m still making my way through the mammoth book that I mentioned before, but slowly. It’s The Books of Jacob, by Olga Tokarczuk, and you’ll read about it here eventually.


The Kids by Hannah Lowe (Books 2022, 3)

I don’t think I’ve ever written about a book of poetry here before. That’s because I don’t read that much of it. Whenever I do, I think, ‘I should read more poetry.’

This won the Costa, but that’s not the main reason I picked it up. The author, Hannah Lowe, was a tutor on my MA course. She taught my Creative Nonfiction (CNF) module. Which sounds a long way from poetry, but a person can have skills in more than one type of writing. She was very good as a tutor, and in fact I got my highest single mark in CNF.

It’s a very short and easy read, but some of the poems go to some dark places. Others — most, I’d say — are highly positive and life-affirming. They were inspired by her time teaching sixth formers in English schools. Which made me wonder on my CNF class chat, should we be worried about what her next collection’s going to be about?

Hopefully she won’t repeat herself. These are all sonnets, or in one cases a series of sonnets under one title, and very good, as the awards people clearly think.


Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram by Iain Banks (Books 2022, 2)

Posting about books is slow because I’m reading something gigantic. More of that later (possibly much later). But in the interstices, a return to [The Great Banksie Reread]devilgate.org/categorie…). My friend John mentioned recently that he had just read this for the first time, which prompted me to revisit it (that, and perhaps some great whisky I got for Christmas).

Mildly surprised to realise that when I wrote about it before in The Whisky Post it was not one of my typical book posts. I guess in 2003 I wasn’t doing that. It was just over 18 years ago. Wow.

I concur with my earlier opinion, but note this quote:

Banks gives us a brief overview of the steps in the distilling process, fairly early on, and then makes appropriate use of the various technical terms during later distillery visits. All fair enough. But there is one term for part of distillery’s apparatus — the lyne arm — that he starts referring to without ever explaining what it is (I’m fairly sure: it is possible that I just missed that explanation, but I don’t think so).

Well, I offer an eighteen-year-late correction: he does define the lyne arm on first use. I must have missed it the first time. And I note with mild but resigned annoyance that the link in the quote above is dead, even though the site, Whisky Magazine, is not.

Anyway, well worth a look if you haven’t read it. You may not learn that much about malts, and the scene has changed a lot over the time, but it’s still a joy to spend time with him.

And it seems like Glenfiddich no longer make the Havana Reserve expression. If you search for it online there are prices quoted of around £400 pounds a bottle(!), though no actual bottles for sale. Which is a shame, because it was good, and I’m sure it would still sell if they made it. Maybe they stopped being able to get the rum barrels.