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.

Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan (Books 2022, 7)

This came to me by way of The Guardian’s summer reading recommendations last year. I ended up reading it in the tail end of winter, or spring, but that doesn’t matter. In his review, M John Harrison describes it as ‘brilliantly strange’, and that’s about right.

It’s a tale told across times, and tied to place. That place is number 10 Luckenbooth Close, in Edinburgh. Just off The Royal Mile, in fact, which is a place I lived as a student. I was in an alley called James Court, though, not the fictional Luckenbooth Close.

The close may be fictional, but the idea is not: luckenbooths were a kind of market stall in the High Street (part of The Royal Mile). Presumably that’s where Fagan got the street name from.

Though I discover today that a luckenbooth is also a piece of jewellery: a kind of heart-shaped brooch , named after the market stalls in turn.

The book, though, is about none of those things. Instead it’s about a series of people who live in the titular tenement block across the centuries. We start with the Devil’s daughter, who — well, I won’t go into spoilery details. William Burroughs is one of the characters, strangely. Apparently he did visit Edinburgh.

It is an astonishing work, involving the saving of ghosts, murders, the Millennium celebrations, homelessness, and much more. Highly recommended.

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). 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 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.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (Books 2022, 1)

This extremely short book is only a novella, but it took me some time to get through it because of the density and obscurity of the prose. James is, I think, notorious for writing long sentences, but that’s only part of it. It’s the textural density, the complexity, and, I think, the wilfully archaic (even for the time) formulations, that make it hard work.

It’s a ghost story, though the status of the ghostly presences is disputed, or at least discussed: are they all in the governess’s mind? The bulk of the tale is the first-person narrative of the governess, but it starts with an odd framing sequence of tales being told round a Christmas-eve fireplace. One of the company is reminded of a manuscript he has, and sends for it. The rest is him ‘reading’ from it. And I’m not sure that ‘framing’ is the right term here, because we never return to the reading party. It seems like a device to let James write from the point of view of a woman.

Once you attune yourself to the style, it’s pretty compelling. Chilling in places.