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wot I red on my hols by alan robson and ian priestnall (murex)

A Purple Box for Robin and Alan

For several months now, whenever anybody has asked me what I want for a wedding present, I've answered: "Toasters, please."

I feel that you can never have too many toasters, and a wedding seems to me to be an ideal opportunity to stock up for a rainy (and toastless) day. However Robin has firmly forbidden me from saying the word anymore on the grounds that somebody with an impaired sense of humour might take me seriously and fill our house with toasters.

Personally I feel it is far more likely that our more sadistically inclined friends will fully realise that I am not in the least bit serious in my expressed desire for toasters. Nevertheless they will take me at my supposed word and gleefully immerse me in toasters, chuckling furiously the while.

Either way, I suspect that Robin is correct in her feeling that this is not an outcome to be desired (though a toaster each might be nice in case we ever split up).

However, long before Robin laid her edict down, I sent an email to my friend Ian in Holland. A toaster, I implied, would be nice. And Robin likes boxes, I said. And her favourite colour is purple. The rest I left to his imagination.

I was late home from work on the day that the present from Holland arrived and when I got home, Robin was positively hopping up and down with frustration.

"Where've you been? " she demanded. "Ian's present has arrived. Open it NOW!"

I took off my hat and hung it on the hook.

"Hurry up!" said Robin, stamping her foot.

I took off my jacket and hung it on the hook.

"The present is just over there," said Robin, pointing at a large brown parcel. "I really think it should be opened IMMEDIATELY, don't you?"

I took off my trousers and folded them carefully and hung them in the wardrobe and then I put on a pair of casual trousers.

"AAAAAGGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!" explained Robin.

I took out my swiss army knife and opened the sharpest blade.

"At last!" Robin heaved a deep sigh of relief and picked up the camera to record the moment for posterity and for Ian.

I cut carefully at the tape on the large brown parcel and slowly removed the top layer. Somewhat to my surprise, another layer of cardboard was revealed. I cut carefully through this as well and pulled it away from the parcel. I peered inside the box.

"Hmmm," I said. "Robin - I think you ought to carry on with the unwrapping now. I'll take the rest of the photographs."

We swapped places and Robin looked inside the box. A smile spread across the whole of her face.

"Purple!" she said.

She reached carefully into the cardboard and pulled out a large purple box. It had an angular lid with a twirly handle on top and there were wooden studs set around the lid. There was a drawer at the bottom.

"Purple!" said Robin in tones of deep satisfaction.

The lid opened easily, though close examination revealed that it shouldn't have. Inside, a rod extended out from the back of the box across to the front and hooked in to a catch that should have been attached to the box lid, but wasn't. One of the studs around the outside of the box was attached to the rod and could be used to pull the rod out, thereby releasing the lid. However the catch had come unglued, thus invalidating the mechanism. (I later reattached the catch with a dab of wood glue and then everything worked properly again).

The box turned out to be a jewellery box with two cushioned trays and a cushioned drawer. Robin was ecstatic.

"What a beautiful box," she enthused. "And it's purple! Isn' t that just perfect?"

"Indeed it is," I said, and I took a photograph.

"Purple," said Robin and started to take out the trays.

"Ooooh look!" she exclaimed. She was holding a small parcel. On it was written:

THIS IS THE **REAL** PRESENT

She unwrapped it carefully and her eyes lit up.

"It's a TOASTER," she shouted gleefully. "Just what you always wanted."

The toy toaster was about an inch long and half an inch wide. It gleamed and sparkled, dazzling us both with reflected sunlight.

Robin played with the toaster for a while. "And it's got real toast!" she enthused as she hit a hidden spring and two tiny pieces of white plastic bread shot across the room, to the great bewilderment of the eagerly watching cats who weren't sure whether or not to chase and kill them as they flew through the air.

Robin put the toaster reverently into the new purple box, and carried the box into the bedroom. She went over to where I strongly suspected the dressing table was (I hadn't seen it for several years because of the clutter surrounding it, and I was no longer sure we still possessed it) and she cleared a space by throwing a whole pile of stuff off onto where the floor would have been if it too hadn't been covered in clutter. I wasn't completely certain that we still had a bedroom floor either - memory of these things tends to fade with the passing years when you don't get the constant reinforcement of seeing them every day.

Having cleared a space, she put the box down carefully and adjusted its position so that she would have a good view of it while she was lying in bed. That night she lay there with her back to me so that the box would be the last thing that she saw as she drifted off to sleep.

"Purple," I heard her murmur.

Shortly after that she began to snore.

There's a new fantasy trilogy in the shops. I've read it, and what's more I even mildly enjoyed it. Of course I didn't read it as a trilogy (heaven forbid). I found it published in a single omnibus volume, so I could pretend it was just one book, albeit a rather fat one.

The omnibus is called Tales of the Otori and the three individual books that make it up are: Across the Nightingale Floor, and Grass for His Pillow, and finally Brilliance of the Moon. All are by the pseudonymous Lian Hearne. As Gillian Rubinstein, she has written quite a lot of well received children's books. The Otori books are her first adult novels (actually they read more like young adult novels, but no matter).

The books are a vaguely cod-Japanese fantasy epic. Young Tomasu is the only survivor of a massacre of his village. He is rescued by Lord Otori Shigeru who gives him the name Takeo and adopts him into the Otori family. Takeo's village has been destroyed by the evil warlord Iida because the villagers are members of a secret sect known as the Hidden which Iida perceives as a threat. Takeo proves to have magical abilities - he can make himself invisible for brief periods, he can project a second self to confuse onlookers and he has preternaturally sharp hearing. Lord Otori encourages these talents and his training is taken over by a member of the Tribe, a secret group of assassins.

Meanwhile, in a second story thread, the beautiful Shirakawa Kaede is held hostage by another warlord who is allied to Iida. She is betrothed to Otori Shigeru as a pretence for Iida to lure Shigeru into his castle. Not surprisingly, Kaede and Takeo meet and fall in love.

You can write the rest of the story yourself. It's a bog standard classic tale of heroes and heroines, love and death with a lot of graphic sex, violence, and tea drinking. There aren't any surprises anywhere in it. It's sort of Mills and Boon crossed with Shogun and a P. G. Tips advert.

The writing is fluid and well paced, and despite my sarcastic comments, it hooks you into the story and keeps you reading. The story is utter fluff; completely trivial and shallow. But where's the harm in that?

C.J. Sansom's first novel is called Dissolution. As you might expect, it is a historical novel set at the time of the reformation. It is 1537 and Henry VIII and his close advisor Thomas Cromwell are starting to close down the monasteries (and claim the lands and title for the crown – Henry needs money; wives are expensive).

Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer and a fierce proponent of reform. He has been a colleague of Cromwell's for many years and has performed many valuable services for him. Cromwell trusts his devious mind and sharp intellect and he turns to Shardlake for help when one of his commissioners is murdered while attempting to enforce the voluntary surrender (sic) of a Benedictine monastery at Scarnsea on the Kent-Sussex border.

Shardlake and his assistant Mark Poer travel to Scarnsea to investigate the murder. Could there be black magic involved? Not only was the commissioner beheaded, a cockerel has also been beheaded - and its blood has been used to desecrate the alter in the chapel.

It isn't long before more deaths occur. And Shardlake even picks up hints that there may have been deaths in the past as well. As Shardlake closes in on the central nature of the mystery, as he becomes more familiar with the motives behind the killings and as the cynical interlinking of politics and religion become clearer to him, he even starts to question his own belief in the process of reform. Cromwell's ethics, and some of the methods he has used start to trouble Shardlake's conscience. The monasteries are being dissolved and soon they will be no more. Shardlake's personal dissolution starts to seem just as real, just as traumatic. The final solution, when it comes, is pleasingly complex and pleasingly ambiguous.

Intellectually this book is a tour de force. The motives behind the reformation are clearly shown. But even more importantly the book brings the whole period stunningly alive. The very sights, sounds and smells of the Tudor age leap off the page and reading the book is an extraordinarily sensuous experience.

It was such a stunningly good book that I immediately went out and bought the sequel, a novel called Dark Fire.

It is 1540, three years after the investigation at Scarnsea, and Matthew Shardlake is once again in the service of Thomas Cromwell. The intervening years have not been kind to Cromwell and his influence is fading. He is suffering from the aftermath of the fiasco of the marriage he arranged between Henry and Anne of Cleves (Henry hated her on sight). Cromwell needs a triumph to rescue his position with the King. Perhaps the secret of Greek Fire will bring him back into favour.

Greek Fire is a lethal liquid used in warfare by the Byzantine emperors. It creates a rushing, inextinguishable fire that burns on water and can set enemy ships ablaze in seconds. The formula for its creation was kept a close secret and was eventually lost. But evidence suggests that a barrel of Greek Fire and details of the secret formula for making it were brought back from the Byzantine court by a soldier of fortune who later became a monk. The barrel and the manuscript giving details of the formula were kept hidden in the catacombs of the monastery of St. Bartholomew. And now Cromwell wants the secret.

Shardlake is given the task of finding the lethal weapon. At the same time, on a separate case, he is trying to save the life of Elizabeth, a young woman accused of murder. She refuses to plead in court and she is sentenced to be tortured in order to try and force her to speak out. She seems to have killed her young cousin, but Shardlake is convinced there is more to this mystery than meets the eye. The tangled threads of both these cases keep Shardlake more than sufficiently busy!

It isn't long before Shardlake finds himself surrounded by corpses – including those of the brothers who set all the wheels in motion by discovering the overlooked barrel of Greek Fire at St. Bartholomew's in the first place. Someone seems desperate to bury the secret of Greek Fire again. And in the raw, stinking heat of one of the hottest summers on record, Shardlake grimly tracks the secret through the dark underbelly of Tudor London, and up into the very court of the King itself. There are wheels within wheels, and the politics simply won't go away.

The book is a superb blend of historical fact and fiction. It is delightfully complex, both in the detail of its plotting and in the motivations of its characters. It is utterly enthralling.

There are only two novels about Matthew Shardlake at the moment. With luck it won't be long before there are many more.

Ed McBain’s police procedural novels involving the 87th Precinct are famous and well received. Fat Ollie’s Book is the first of them that I’ve read. I’ve consciously avoided them in the past on the grounds that if they really are as good as people say they are, I’d have a mammoth, expensive and nearly impossible task ahead of me as I tried to track them all down. There are fifty novels in the series listed in the front of Fat Ollie’s Book (including Fat Ollie’s Book itself), which is very depressing because, as it turned out, I thoroughly enjoyed Fat Ollie’s Book.

Fat Ollie himself is a policeman from a neighbouring precinct who, for political reasons, finds himself involved in a murder investigation with some of the 87th Precinct people. They don’t like him very much – and who can blame them? He’s a loud mouthed, bigoted boor.

Fat Ollie is only half-hearted in his investigation into the murder. As far as he is concerned a much more heinous crime has taken place. Somebody broke into his car and stole the only copy of the manuscript of the novel that Fat Ollie has just finished writing. All 32 pages of it. He desperately wants it back. It took him ages to polish his novel to perfection.

This is a very funny book (and as a bonus, we get to read Fat Ollie’s novel as well!!). It’s as much a novel about being a novelist as it is a novel about solving a murder. I guess it’s little tricks like that which keep this series fresh and strong. One day I really must read the other forty nine books…

Bangkok 8 is an odd book. It opens with the hideous death of a US Marine sergeant and a Bangkok policeman. The policeman’s partner, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, remains alive but shocked. Although he is a devout Buddhist and is therefore not allowed to take a life, he vows to kill whoever has perpetrated this outrage. His hands are a little tied because he is the only honest cop in Bangkok – for religious and philosophical reasons he is not allowed to take a bribe. His fellow cops understand this and honour his principles, though they find it more than a little peculiar.

The plot thickens when an FBI agent joins the investigation. She isn’t what she seems to be and suddenly the murky waters in which they are swimming get very deep and turbulent. This is one very weird book with a kitchen sink plot – almost every crime you can think of is involved in the investigation. Read it and feel grubby. You’ll enjoy it; really you will.

I bought Reflex by Stephen Gould because it proclaimed itself to be the sequel to Jumper which was Gould’s brilliant debut novel. In my opinion nothing he has written since then has been any good and Reflex has given me no cause to alter that opinion.

Jumper was a coming of age novel about a boy who had the ability to teleport himself. He made use of the ability in ingenious ways both to make himself rich and to take revenge on those who had wronged him. Now, in Reflex, he is a grown man married to a lady he met in the earlier novel. He is kidnapped by a mysterious group of people who have discovered a very sadistic way of controlling his teleporting ability. They want to make use of him for their own nefarious ends.

Meanwhile his wife discovers that all those years of living with him have given her the ability to teleport as well. Somehow the mysterious gift has rubbed off on her (the phrase "Yeah, right" popped in to my head around that point). Naturally she sets off to rescue him.

The novel is an extremely pedestrian and predictable mish-mash of clichťs. It never really comes alive at all. In fact it was quite an effort to plough all the way through the whole turgid mess. And I’m not sure why I bothered, to be honest. There were no great revelations to be had.

If you ever find a copy of Jumper, do read it, for it was a wonderful book. But all the evidence suggests that Stephen Gould is a one shot wonder, completely unable to reach the standard of his earlier success.

Dan Fesperman’s first novel is a murder mystery set in war-torn Sarajevo. His second novel ranges through much of modern Germany and Bosnia in pursuit of one of the men responsible for the massacre at Srebrenica. The third novel is set in the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan. You can’t say that Dan Fesperman isn’t up to date.

A pervasive cynicism is the common thread that binds these books together. The racial hatreds of the Serbs and Croats contrast bleakly with the similar hatreds that have kept the Afghan tribes at each other’s throats for centuries. The distant geographies don’t matter – human nature is the same wherever you are. While the prominent politicians and religious leaders of all the factions pay public lip service to high philosophical ideals, behind the scenes they are as corrupt and as venal as the lowliest of their servants and they have a very sharp eye for the main chance. Taliban and Northern Alliance, Serb and Bosnian, all have shifting loyalties motivated by money and power. Coats turn so frequently it is hard to keep track. But failure to keep track often proves to be fatal.

I was reminded of nothing so much as Graham Greene’s seedy thrillers. And that puts Fesperman in very distinguished company indeed.

Oh – I almost forgot. The books are wonderful ripping yarns as well. Proper nail biting edge of your seat stuff. I can’t recommend them highly enough.

I hastened to inform Ian of the safe arrival of the box and toaster and I sent him the photographs of the ceremonial opening. He sent me a letter describing its provenance:

Dear Robin and Alan,

So glad the box arrived safely. It was made by my partner-in-crime and apprentice bowyer DaniŽl Kamp. You can see that he is a talented cabinet maker, too.

The timber for the panels comes from the beams of a concealed Catholic church that was discovered when a farmhouse in Brabant was demolished. The timber, we guess, is more than 300 years old. It was most probably imported from the Baltic into Zaandam, where it lay in the Zaan river to season before going on to its temporary destination. On returning to the Zaan, it was stored waiting for a good purpose, sawn into panels and made up into your box.

The twirly bits are yew wood, made from one of my own English longbows. The yew grew on the Veluwe National Park, on a royal estate. It was more than 500 years old when the tree was felled, laid for 5 years to season, and made up into a longbow.

There is only one box of its kind, naturally, as DaniŽl made it on commission for you-all. It’s unique.

The purple colouring is a mineral-based wax made to DaniŽl’s own special formula, using materials obtained from the dye and colour mill The Cat, run by my brother-in-law Piet. The solvent used in the wax, by the way, is citrus turpentine, which will account for any smell of citrus fruit that may waft around the box.

The satin lining and beading are of course all hand stitched.

The toaster is of course fully functional, but runs only on Gnome Stroom, available from the windmills in Holland.

A toaster packed in a purple box is what I promised. So that’s what you get.

DaniŽl suggests that you re-wax the outside about once a year. I shall send you a small tub of magic purple wax later on. Given Holland’s reputation in your part of the world, maybe I should mark the tub "Lebanese Purple" or something, just to amuse the Customs officers.

The timber will colour up over the years. The acquired patina is part of the aesthetic. It should mellow through time. Don’t we all?

Lian Hearn Tales Of The Otori Hodder
C. J. Sansom Dissolution Pan
C. J. Sansom Dark Fire Macmillan
Ed McBain Fat Ollie’s Book Orion
John Burdett Bangkok 8 Corgi
Steven Gould Reflex Tor
Dan Fesperman Lie In The Dark Black Swan
Dan Fesperman The Small Boat of Great Sorrows Black Swan
Dan Fesperman The Warlord’s Son Bantam
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