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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (nihil nullus nusquam)

The Importance of Being Alan

Nothing happened this month, so I sat down and read a lot of books; some of them quite hefty tomes.

When we left Arabella Ashby at the end of Arabella of Mars, the insurrection on Mars had been successfully put down, Arabella's brother, though severely wounded, had returned to his estates and Arabella herself was engaged to Captain Singh of the Honourable Mars Trading Company. The future seemed rosy.

However, as Arabella and the Battle of Venus (the sequel) opens, the year is 1815. Napoleon has escaped from captivity on the moon and is in the process of rebuilding his forces so as to challenge the European armies that oppose him. Captain Singh has been captured by French forces and is a prisoner of war on Venus. Despite much advice to the contrary, Arabella determines to travel to Venus in order to help him escape.

She travels with Captain Fox of the privateer Touchstone. After many adventures they arrive on Venus only to be captured themselves. Arabella joins Captain Singh in his captivity. They soon learn that Napoleon has plans for a secret weapon which he is building there on Venus. It becomes clear that they must escape so as to warn the allies about Napoleon's dastardly plans before it is too late...

The basis of the Arabella stories is the delightful conceit that there exists an interplanetary atmosphere containing currents that ships can sail upon so as to travel between the planets. But in order to do this, they must first breach the planetary atmosphere that constrains them to the surface of their own world. The interface between the planetary and interplanetary atmospheres (known as the horn) is a dangerous, storm-ridden place. But a skilful navigator in a sailing ship well equipped with hot air balloons can round the horn and thus sail between the worlds. And so, in the alternate nineteenth century in which the events of these novels take place, the Napoleonic wars are fought across planets rather than across continents.

The Arabella books have all the romance and humour of a Jane Austen novel of manners. However Levine does what Austen never did – he takes much of the story's action out of the drawing room and onto the battlefield. He never puts a foot wrong. The dialogue is impeccable (apart from the occasional unconscious Americanism that Levine puts in the mouths of his English characters, but I'm sure we can forgive him that). The social observation is delightfully barbed, and the military set-pieces are thrilling. The Arabella series goes from strength to strength. If possible, I enjoyed this second instalment even more than I enjoyed the first, and I am now eagerly awaiting the third. I cannot recommend the Arabella novels highly enough. They are simply superb!

Sleeping Beauties is a novel written by Stephen King in collaboration with his son Owen. As the title implies, it's essentially the sleeping beauty fairy tale brought up to date, writ large and served with an enormous dollop of King's trademark nastiness.

A sleeping sickness invades the world. Only women are affected by it. As they fall asleep, their bodies excrete a gauze-like substance that wraps around them like a cocoon. Any attempt to stop the spread of the gauze or to wake the women up causes the women to react violently before they return to their comas. A lot of well meaning men are attacked and killed this way.

The book is also a political and social fable for our times, criticising the excesses of Trump-type politics, the evils of sexism and racism, the penchant that the police have for shooting unarmed black people, and the paranoid belief in sensationalist news stories spread by internet trolls. And it's also a religious allegory. What else could it be, given that it's got a supernatural tree, a snake, and a woman called Eve in it? All of which explains why the book is so enormously long – that's a lot of ground to cover!

The book has had a lot of good reviews, but I'm afraid I didn't think much of it. In many ways it's a Stephen King "writing by the numbers" book that pushes all the usual buttons without really doing much to progress the story. There are so many scenes that serve no useful purpose other than to increase the page count in order to make a (sometimes rather naïve) social or political statement. For example, there are several scenes set in a women's prison. Therefore, of course, one of the characters is a male prison guard who uses his position of authority to sexually assault the inmates. The guard himself comes straight off the shelf of the stock cupboard and he is really only there to act as a symbol that allows the writers to condemn the environment that lets him get away with doing the things that he does.

There are far too many characters in the book and most of them are only there for the same reason that the prison guard is there. They never really come alive. They are just pieces on an authorial chessboard and they are made to move around the game according to arbitrary rules whenever the authors feel the need to pontificate about something obvious (the authors only pick the low hanging fruit; their targets are all far too obvious and far too easy to hit, if I may mix my metaphors).

I think I'd have enjoyed this novel a lot more if it had been half the size and twice as subtle. But as it stands, the damn thing is far too long, and reading it is the literary equivalent of being hit in the face with a brick.

Adrian Walker's novel The End of the World Running Club is a rather odd, but nevertheless excellent, "after the apocalypse" story. The UK has been struck by an asteroid. Most people are dead, but some few, those who managed to find shelter underground, have survived. An interesting irony is that many of the survivors are teenagers who were night-clubbing in sweaty cellars when the tragedy struck...

Edgar Hill, his wife and their two children manage to survive the catastrophe. Once they get themselves organised, they head for Cornwall, where rumour has it that ships are departing for less devastated areas of the world. Along the way, Edgar is separated from his family. Alone in mostly hostile territory with minimal supplies of food and water and no transport at all, Edgar has no choice. He has to run to Cornwall.

Edgar is not a nice man. It is clear at the start that he is a pretty worthless husband and father. He's a a bit of a selfish whiner. However the catastrophe is the making of him and one of the joys of the books is to watch how adversity re-shapes his character. And make no mistake about it, this is very much a character driven novel – the action scenes are largely similar to those of most other post-apocalyptic stories. There are no new insights there. The strength of the book comes from the way Edgar, and to a lesser extent the other survivors, respond to the disintegration that surrounds them. I suppose that makes the book literature rather than genre, but in my opinion the very best books are those that successfully combine both those elements.

50 in 50 is a collection of fifty stories by Harry Harrison. He has chosen one story from every year of his fifty year writing career. Not only is it an excellent collection in and of itself, it also brings back into print a lot stories that have been unobtainable for ever. One such story is "Captain Honario Harpplayer, RN", a very funny pastiche of C. S. Forester's Hornblower stories. Harrison records that he sent a copy of the story to Forester. Forester never replied – and in fact he died shortly after Harrison sent him the story. Harrison always felt a little bit guilty about perhaps having had a hand in Forester's death...

Oddjobs by Heide Goody and Iain Grant is one of the funniest books I have read in years, though the humour is so dry and so understated that if you blink, you'll miss it. So pay attention!

The Venislarn, godlike monsters straight out of H. P. Lovecraft's worst nightmares, are here to take over the world. Naturally this requires a human bureaucracy to oversee things and to ensure that everything goes according to plan. It also needs a PR department staffed by masters of marketing speak who are charged with putting a positive spin on the coming apocalypse. The Venislarn themselves are mostly manifesting in Birmingham. If you've ever visited Birmingham you will know that this makes perfect sense. Where else in the world could tentacled inter-dimensional monsters from beyond the void possibly feel more at home?

The human agency tasked with overseeing the Venislarn incursion is based in the Birmingham Library which has a vault full of fiendish objects, several of which have a vital role to play in the telling of the tale. Much is also made of the Cube, Cadbury's World and the Balti Triangle, iconic Brummy settings sure to appeal to the Venislarn in all of us.

The basic premise of Oddjobs is very similar to that of Charles Stross' Laundry novels. However, in my opinion, Oddjobs is much funnier, much cleverer and much more subtle.

The new anthology from Gardner Dozois is The Book of Swords. As the title implies, it is a celebration of swords and sorcery fantasy. I suspect that a lot of people will buy the book for the sake of a new Westeros story from George R. R. Martin. If so, they are likely to be disappointed – it's an extraordinarily dull story that reads like a history text. It's also not a new story; Martin has presented it at conventions in the past so doubtless his more rabid fans will already be familiar with it.

Most of the other stories in this anthology are mildly entertaining but ultimately forgettable. However there are two stories that really stand out as utterly brilliant. It is well worth buying the anthology for the sake of these two stories alone. "The Best Man Wins" by K. J. Parker and "The Sword of Destiny" by Matthew Hughes are both extremely witty tales with nicely twisted plots and a leavening of humour involving less than admirable characters.

Munich is the new novel from Robert Harris. It tells the inside story of the meetings between Hitler and Chamberlain in 1938 which postponed the start of WWII for a year or so. "Peace in our time", proclaimed Chamberlain when he returned home, and ever since then people have wondered whether Chamberlain was so naïve as to believe what Hitler told him or whether he was a clever politician whose Machiavellian schemes bought Britain enough time to prepare more thoroughly for war. In 1938, the country would probably have been swiftly overwhelmed. By 1939 it was in a much stronger position to defend itself. And history records the rest...

The general outline of the events of 1938 are well known. Harris uses the freedom given to him by the act of writing fiction to bring the history sharply into focus. He concentrates on the actual personalities of both Hitler and Chamberlain, to great dramatic and psychological effect. All too often historical novels are unable to break themselves free of the popular (mis)conceptions of contemporary mythology. Chamberlain has come to appear to us to be weak and ineffectual (because that's how his successor Churchill painted him in order to score political points and consolidate his own position) while Hitler, in his early career at least, was perceived as a strong leader whose ambitious schemes did not admit of the possibility of failure. Harris looks behind these commonly accepted facades and makes us see the real people hiding behind the masks.

Woven in between the historical details is a somewhat contrived story about a plot to overthrow Hitler and restore the German monarchy. I have no idea whether or not anti-Hitler conspiracies actually existed at such an early date – given Hitler's success in restoring the fortunes of post-WWI Germany, I doubt it. I suppose that Harris included this little digression in order to introduce some uncertainty and dramatic tension into his story (after all, everybody knows how the historical meeting ended). I felt that the conspiracy fitted uneasily into the framework of the story. Personally I would have preferred a lot more history and a lot less artificial drama. But that's just me.

The book is full of telling details that really bring the story alive. One of the characters muses on the swastikas engraved on the taps in the toilets of a train, and much is made of Hitler's body odour (it is well known that Hitler's strictly vegetarian diet made him fart a lot, to the dismay of his entourage).

This is a flawed, though fascinating book which made me more aware than I had previously been of just how well Chamberlain played the hopeless hand of political cards that he'd been dealt. I had a lot more respect for him at the end of the book than I had at the start.

The Secrets on Chicory Lane is the first novel I have read by Raymond Benson. But if his other books are as good as this one, it will definitely not be the last. The story is told in the first person by Shelby Truman, a best selling romance novelist. As the book opens, Shelby is in her sixties, at the peak of her career. Her childhood friend, Eddie Newcott, is on death row and is shortly to be executed for committing a particularly horrific murder. There could not be a greater contrast between the present situations of two such close friends.

Shelby is well aware that Eddie is guilty of the crimes of which he stands accused (and she has first hand knowledge of other crimes he has committed; crimes of which the world remains unaware) but nevertheless the fact that she and Eddie were once so very close to each other continues to prey on her. She had offered to help in any way that she could during Eddie's trial, but he refused all her offers. Now, with his execution only days away, he has asked her to visit him in prison.

And so Shelby takes a physical (and psychological) journey back to Texas, her childhood home, and at the same time she travels back in time reliving her childhood and her relationship with Eddie, analysing all over again the events that made Eddie commit a murder and the influences that turned her into a novelist. It's a bittersweet journey told in flashback as the moment of Eddie's execution draws inexorably closer. It has a sometimes ghastly fascination.

This elegantly written book has no surprises in the sense that there are no plot twists, no artificial dramas, no last minute appeals, no protestations of innocence, no proof that guilt lies elsewhere. There is never any doubt that Eddie will be executed. Though having said that, it is very clear from Shelby's story that there is a collective guilt in the way that society treated both of them by largely ignoring the abuses that were visited on them. There are turning points where future tragedies could have been averted (aren't there always? It's far too easy so say "If only..."). People who were influential on Shelby and Eddie's lives must take some degree of responsibility for what happened, though clearly they won't. In a very real sense, the novel is an examination of the meaning of guilt. Either way, it's a deeply thoughtful, deeply moving and deeply engrossing book.

Since I enjoyed this Raymond Benson novel so much, I got intrigued and did some research to try and find out a bit more about Raymond Benson the person. Apparently he's written some James Bond novels, which I confess don't interest me very much. But he's also written a series of five novels about a masked vigilante called the Black Stiletto which sound as though they might be rather shallow, but quite a lot of fun. However, most bizarrely, he has also written a non-fiction "pocket essentials" guide to the rock group Jethro Tull. Guess what? It's called Jethro Tull. Since I am a huge Jethro Tull fan, I simply couldn't resist this, and so I immediately went and bought myself a copy.

It's a slim little book which includes a potted history of the band followed by a chronological review of each of their albums. Benson lists the tracks on each album together with the names of the Tull musicians who made each record. Over the years the band has had a bewildering array of members and some of them have left the band for a time and then come back again later! Benson analyses the constantly varying musical styles of each album and he rates them according to his own personal taste. I'm not sure I always agree with his ratings, but our tastes overlap sufficiently that I can't really argue with his judgements.

Slim though it is, it's a very interesting book. It told me a few things about the history of Jethro Tull that I had previously found rather puzzling. For example, I knew that bass player Glen Cornick left the band under somewhat of a cloud in late 1970, but I never knew why. The mystery deepened when I watched a DVD of Jethro Tull's 25th anniversary reunion. Both Cornick and band leader Ian Anderson were asked directly why Cornick had left and both went all coy and refused to discuss it. But Benson's book informed me that Ian Anderson fired Glen Cornick because he was not prepared to put up with Cornick's drinking, drug taking and partying lifestyle. Anderson himself is notoriously strait-laced about that kind of thing (a most unusual attitude for a rock star of that era). In later years he also fired keyboard player John Evans for similar reasons. Both Cornick and Evans were founder members of the band, but Anderson refused to let sentiment get in the way of his business judgement. Ian Anderson is a brilliant musician and songwriter and I admire him hugely, but I can't help thinking that he must be a rather difficult man to work with.

Any Jethro Tull fan will certainly get a lot out of this little book.

Jim Thompson was one of the pioneers of hardboiled noir fiction. More than any other writer, he turned the often derided crime genre into literature and art. His novels are very dark. Almost everybody in them is a thoroughgoing bastard, including the viewpoint characters (I hate to call them heroes – there's nothing heroic about any of them) and most of them come to very bad ends. In clear, spare prose Thompson's short novels – novellas by today's bloated standards – paint a bleak picture of an amoral world where everybody takes advantage of everyone else's weaknesses. I'd call it a cynical world view, except that cynical is far too weak an adjective. But I can't think of a stronger one

Roy Dillon is a con-man. His story is told in Thompson's novel The Grifters. The book opens with Roy being hit in the stomach with a baseball bat wielded by a very aggrieved mark who has taken exception to the con trick that Roy has just played on him.  And the story goes down hill from there. It soon becomes clear that Roy has been seriously injured and he has to go to hospital where he falls for his nurse Carol – the only character in the book who has any shred of decency whatsoever, though even she has a dark secret in her past. Her affair with Roy doesn't last. Roy soon tires of her and anyway he has other things to worry about. Both his mother Lily and his girl friend Moira have their eyes on the money he has saved from years of running con tricks. Since all three characters are clearly shown to be sociopaths it is obvious that this story is not going to end well for any of them. And it doesn't.

Doc Holliday is one of those archetypal Western characters. We can all describe him – the tubercular dentist who can't be beaten in a gunfight and who helps his friend Wyatt Earp at the battle of the OK Corral. How many times have we read that story? In the eponymous novel Doc Holliday, Matt Braun puts some flesh on its skeletal bones and gives us what I suspect is much more of a lightly fictionalised biography than it is a pure novel.

The story opens with Holliday receiving his diagnosis of terminal tuberculosis. He travels west, partly in the hope that the cleaner, drier air of the western deserts will prolong his life and partly to avoid making his family, friends and fiancée bear the burden of having to cope with his long drawn out death. Initially he makes quite a good living from dentistry. There aren't many qualified dentists in the wild west, but there are a lot of rotting teeth. However the progression of his disease soon precludes him from practising his profession.

But dentistry is not Holliday's only skill. He is a well practised gambler and he soon finds himself making a comfortable living on the turn of a card. However that is a dangerous way to earn a crust. The wild west west is also full of men with hair trigger tempers and loaded guns. Many of these men cheat at cards. Holliday is forced to hone his skills with a gun, and it isn't long before his reputation grows into something that's always just a little bit larger than life...

If the novel is about anything other than the biography of a man and the history of the times that moulded him, it's about being a rock-star and having to live up to a reputation that puts you high on a pedestal and forces you to cope, sometimes uneasily, with the price of fame. It's very easy to read this book as a meditation on the destructive influence of an image, as well as an insight into exactly what made Doc Holliday tick.

By the time I finished reading the novel I felt that for the first time I had gained some small understanding of just why and how the gunfight at the OK Corral happened the way it did. I felt privileged to have seen beyond the cliché into the character of the man who was Doc Holliday. It's a very clever and ultimately quite fascinating novel.

The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler is a collection of 99 potted biographies and 12 in depth essays about authors who were once wildly popular but who, for one reason or another, have now fallen into obscurity. The essays are based in large part on Fowler's newspaper column "Invisible Ink" which is published in The Independent.  An earlier collection of these essays was published under the title Invisible Ink in 2012. I was rather disappointed to find that the content of 2017's The Book of Forgotten Authors overlaps quite a lot with that of the earlier book. Nevertheless the essays remain fascinating, full of obscure and fascinating facts. Did you know that Felix Salten, the author of Bambi, sold the rights to Disney for just $1000? I bet he never stopped kicking himself...

The book includes a particularly biting essay about several Booker prize winners who are now completely unread, unknown and unmourned. Perhaps present and future nominees should carefully consider their acceptance of this dubious honour.

Fowler has a delicious wit and his insights cry out to be quoted at sophisticated dinner parties. Of  The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss, he says:

"This chronicle of survival against pirates, wild animals and the elements went on to become a beloved classic and the most memorable thing about Switzerland except Toblerones and euthanasia…"

One deservedly forgotten writer that Fowler castigates is Thomas Love Peacock (of whom the world has said "Who?"). Peacock was born in 1785. He wrote a series of seven satirical novels which Fowler assures us are very challenging to read, being rambling, vague and highly peculiar. Of Peacock's novel Nightmare Abbey, Fowler says:

"The novel is so abstruse, and witty, and disconnected from everything, that it seems best to stumble from one page to the next and merely enjoy the juxtaposition of words. At one point a conversation about Dante turns into a complaint about readers, then writing and mermaids, and ends with a terrible song. There are discussions on ghosts and sea creatures, and the book doesn’t so much end as stop. My paperback version is so old that some of the pages fell out, and it didn’t feel entirely necessary to put them back in the right order."

I suppose that the definition of obscurity will vary from person to person. I was mildly surprised to find that Fowler regards R. M. Ballantyne as a forgotten author. As far as I know, Ballantyne's novel The Coral Island has never been out of print since it was first published in 1858. I recently re-read it and I enjoyed it hugely all over again. It remains a jolly exciting and timeless ripping yarn and while Ballantyne may no longer be the household name that once he was, I don't think he has fallen completely into obscurity. However, to be fair, Fowler does point out that Ballantyne actually wrote a hundred or so novels, none of which, apart from The Coral Island, have survived the test of time, so perhaps a good case can be made for including him in this collection after all. (I have actually read Ballantyne's novel The Gorilla Hunters, and trust me, it is truly dire and well deserves to be forgotten).

I found The Book of Forgotten Authors to be endlessly fascinating. Fowler's essays made me want to make huge lists in a notebook, and then start browsing through second hand bookshops in search of dusty tomes that the world no longer remembers, but which I now desperately want to read.

And that brings me neatly to the subject of second hand bookshops. Shaun Bythell owns the largest second hand bookshop in Scotland and he has written The Diary of a Bookseller in which he describes a year in his life behind the counter. In the trade, Bythell has the reputation of being a grumpy old man, who hates his customers and gives them service with a scowl. I suspect that Dylan Moran modelled himself on Shaun Bythell when he played a bookseller in the TV series Black Books, a portrayal that Bythell himself mentions with a degree of pride.

Superficially this is a very entertaining book – Bythell's pen portraits of his customers are often laugh out loud funny:

"...it appears as though someone has loaded his clothes into a cannon and fired them at him"

However there is a serious message behind the humour. Bookshops are disappearing left, right and centre, gobbled up by the behemoth that is Amazon. So the message is support your local bookshop. They need your help. The world will be a poorer place if we lose them. So read Bythell's diary, have a good laugh and then go out and buy a book.

In the decade from 1972 to 1982 Clive James turned television criticism into an art form. It was my habit in those days to spend Sunday lunchtime in the pub, drinking my beer and reading the quality Sunday newspapers. And always, the very first thing that I read was Clive James' TV column in The Observer. All too often his descriptions of what he'd been watching on the haunted fish tank in the corner of his room would make me squirt beer from my nostrils as I laughed out loud with glee at the trenchant, witty observations that somehow managed to give me a whole new perspective on the programmes we'd both been watching during the week. He examined shows that were mostly trash with a wry intellectual rigour that found unexpected virtues in the stories that played out on our screens.

Our watching habits have changed completely since those long ago days, and so have the shows that we watch. These days highly complex dramas play themselves out over many dozens of episodes. Smaller stories lurk inside the large ones and even the large stories can be subsumed within over-riding themes that explore subjects of deep significance. Or sometimes not – sometimes they are just stories. But always they are presented with a depth and sophistication that can be breathtaking. These shows can easily be watched in the comfort of our own homes by sitting down with a DVD box set of scarily heroic proportions. The boxes are often so large and contain so many discs that the heart sinks at the thought of sitting still through all those many hours of playacting. Nevertheless there is a huge satisfaction to be gained by putting a DVD into the machine and settling back with coffee and snacks as you click on the option that says: Play All. The phenomenon has even got a name – we call it binge watching.

And that's what Clive James' new collection of essays Play All is all about. In it he talks about the joy of binge watching series such as The Sopranos and The Wire and Breaking Bad and Band of Brothers and...

James is just as witty and insightful today as he was forty years ago. He makes you think as well as laugh, and he makes you do both of those things at one and the same time.

Goodness me! What a lot of books I read this month. I suppose that's what happens when nothing happens.


David D. Levine Arabella and the Battle of Venus Tor
Stephen and Owen King Sleeping Beauties Scribner
Adrian J. Walker The End of the World Running Club Sourcebooks
Harry Harrison 50 in 50 Tor
Heide Goody and Iain Grant Oddjobs Pigeon Park Press
Gardner Dozois The Book of Swords Bantam
Robert Harris Munich Hutchinson
Raymond Benson The Secrets on Chicory Lane Skyhorse
Raymond Benson Jethro Tull Oldcastle Books
Jim Thompson The Grifters Mulholland
Matt Braun Doc Holliday St. Martins
Christopher Fowler The Book of Forgotten Authors Riverrun
Shaun Bythell The Diary of a Bookseller Profile Books
Clive James Play All Yale University Press
     
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