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Bah Humbug!

Phoenixine Seventy-Seven, February 1996

For once the What I read on my Holidays title is true since this report is about the books I read over Christmas / New Year when I was on holiday and had little else to do except read.

Thirty years ago, in my teens, I fell in love with the books of Sir Henry Rider Haggard (the author of She and King Solomon's Mines etc). I read a trilogy of his -- they had the same publishing phenomena at the turn of the century as they have today -- and I was hooked. The books were just magnificent and I devoured them. Then I had to take them back to the library and I was desolate. I desperately wanted to own them!

In the years that have elapsed since then I have several times spotted two of the books in second hand bookshops, but never all three together. I wanted all three, so I resisted buying. Then just before Christmas a second hand book dealer found them for me. All three at once. He wrote me a letter -- did I still want them?

Y E S ! !

I didn't really have to reply to his letter. I'm sure he heard my shriek of glee.

The first thing I did over Christmas was re-read those most magical books.

They are Marie, Child of Storm and Finished. All concern the adventures of Allan Quartermain (who was also the hero of King Solomon's Mines and several other Haggard books). They feature quite prominently a Zulu witch doctor called Zikali, otherwise known as Opener-of-the-Roads and sometimes the "Thing that should never have been born". Zikali is the master mind behind a devious plot. Because of a great wrong done to him by Chaka, the Zulu king, Zikali plans to overthrow the whole royal house of the Zulu nation and grind it into dust. The novels concern his manoeuvrings against Dingaan and Panda (Chaka's brothers) and Cetewayo the son of Panda. (The fall of Chaka himself is detailed in Nada the Lily -- a book which is not strictly part of the series since it does not involve Allan Quartermain).

They were even more wonderful than I remembered. They are by turns romantic, bloody, magical and mysterious. They have triumphs and tragedies, great loves and great deaths. They are everything a good adventure book should be. Graham Greene said:

Rider Haggard was perhaps the greatest of all the writers who enchanted us when we were young. Enchantment was just what he exercised; he fixed pictures in our minds that thirty years have been unable to wear away.

Greene said that thirty years on from his first reading, and now I am thirty years on from my first reading and he is perfectly correct.

After the sheer nostalgic wallowing of those three books, whatever I read next would have to be a little bit of a come down. And it was -- but I suspect it would have been anyway. The book was Magic by Isaac Asimov. It proclaims itself to be "The Final Fantasy Collection"; putting together all the previously unpublished stories (and some articles) that can be classified as having something to do with fantasy.

It is a weak collection with far too much editorial hyperbole. The introduction states:

And like the great Victorians, Asimov worked at his writing desk until the day he died.

This is a lie. Asimov's final illness weakened him too much and though doubtless he would have liked to have died in harness, as it were, he was simply unable to keep working towards the end. There are reports that this saddened him greatly.

There are several new Azazel stories in the book (they are trite and less Wodehousian than the ones that were published in the Azazel collection). There is a new Black Widowers story and a couple of traditional fairy tales. All are lightweight. Of the twenty articles in the book, eleven have appeared in other collections (four have appeared in two other collections) and the previously uncollected articles are of little interest.

All in all, a disappointing book.

I followed this with the new novel by Maureen F. McHugh -- Half the Day Is Night. I bought this on the strength of her brilliant debut novel China Mountain Zhang. In comparison this one was weaker. Nonetheless it held my attention and I enjoyed reading it. It is set in the ocean-bottom city of Caribe. Jean David Dai (he is of French extraction) has come to work as a bodyguard for Maya Ling a banker and wheeler-dealer. As she negotiates the biggest financial deal of her life she comes to the attention of terrorists and Jean David soon earns his keep.

The cleverness of the book lies in the detailed social, economic and political life that McHugh has realised for her underwater cities. The story itself is as trite as the synopsis suggests, but the visualisation and the writing skill are first class and McHugh makes you feel that you are really living in that (sometimes very scruffy) world at the bottom of the sea.

The next book was a sequel that took nearly a hundred years to write, a sequel to one of the books that defined SF -- H. G. Wells' The Time Machine. The sequel is by Stephen Baxter and is called The Time Ships. It is superb. As I write, the new year is barely ten days old, but I would be willing to bet that this book will stand head and shoulders above anything else I will read in the remaining eleven and three quarter months of 1996. In the blurb on the back Arthur C. Clarke is tempted to remark that the sequel is better than the original! High praise indeed.

Baxter has immersed himself in Wells' style and therein lies the first measure of the book's success. He has included elements from many of Wells' other stories, and this too adds to the air of verisimilitude. However he also has a hundred years of scientific progress to draw on -- knowledge unknown to Wells; and he incorporates that knowledge beautifully into the story which stops it from being a mere period piece.

The plot, of course, takes up where Wells' original leaves off and we follow the Time Traveller on his return to the future to rescue Weena from the clutches of the Morlocks. What happens after that I cannot say, for it would spoil too much. Half the fun is in the detailed working out of the complex plotline. Read and enjoy.

I believe the book has been nominated for a Hugo. It richly deserves to win.

Of course there were other things to do during the holidays besides read books. There are some rather large holes where the front veranda joins the house and I've been meaning to repair them for some time. So I bought some Selleys stuff which proclaims that it is for BIG HOLES. That'll do me, I thought. I've got lots of them. It's great fun to use. Polystyrene foam gushes out of the can into the hole and immediately starts to expand in all directions. You leave it for a few hours to dry and you discover that you used far too much and yellow polystyrene is bulging obscenely out of every orifice. I was lucky I didn't block off the entire veranda.

I trimmed it down, smoothed it out, and covered it with another more cement-like Selley's product. And while waiting for various bits of it to dry I read Love in Vein edited by Poppy Z. Brite which is an anthology of vampire erotica. A word of warning, don't read this book if you are at all squeamish because it contains some very over the top stuff. Needless to say, I loved it.

Also over the holidays I caught up with an old friend I'd not seen for many years and invited her round for dinner. She is a strict vegetarian -- a vegan as near as makes no practical difference and that presented me with a challenge. I could hardly offer to cook her a beef rendang, could I? That is a dish which contains not a single vegetable, and I've just learned how to cook it and it is beautiful. But I digress...

On our shelves is a vegetarian cookbook to which I don't usually pay much attention because it is full of references to stuff I've never heard of. But now was obviously an opportunity to do something about it. At the end of Dominion Road, just before it enters the city of Auckland proper is The Tofu Shop. It sells lots of other things besides tofu, of course, and there I bought some tempeh, some tahini, black sesame oil, chinese turnip, miso and coconut cream. The shop is full of wonderful things, most of them in packages that don't have a word of English on them, so they must be good. I recommend you explore it.

When Juliette arrived for dinner I was reading The Last Human by Doug Naylor, a new Red Dwarf novel. Her arrival gave me a good excuse to put it down which was just what I was looking for because it's dull and derivative. It re-hashes old material interminably and hasn't a single spark of life in it. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two Red Dwarf books whichwere written in collaboration with Rob Grant. On the evidence of this book I would suggest that Grant was probably the more creative of the two.

A few years ago Barbara Hambly was a guest of honour at a local convention. I didn't get to the con and therefore I never met her which is a pity because after reading her new book Bride of the Rat God I think I'd enjoy her company. Let's face it, anything called Bride of the Rat God has to be worth reading.

The book is set in Los Angeles in 1923, the heyday of the silent movie era. Chrysanda Flamande is a sultry star (she out-vamps them all). The necklace that she wears has marked her as a sacrifice to the Rat God, and now He is come to claim her for His own. Fortunately she has good friends and three pekingese (called Chang Ming, Black Jasmine and Buttercreme) to protect her. The book is a gorgeous romp and I enjoyed every sentence of it.

Why do people write sequels to books that plainly don't need them? Piers Anthony is notorious for this and with Shame of Man he has done it again. The book is a sequel to the brilliant Isle of Women and like that earlier book it takes slices out of time ranging from the prehistoric past to the indefinite future and follows the changing fortunes of a similar set of characters in each era. However the earlier book said all that needed to be said and in the sequel he is merely going over the same ground in the same way. What was fresh in the first book is dull and repetitive in the second. His anthropological observations are interesting and so are the conclusions he draws from them but that is insufficient by itself to carry the weight of this book. I found it less gripping than its predecessor.

If you like a good horror novel I strongly recommend December by Phil Rickman. The title made it an appropriate book to read just before Christmas. The book opens in December 1980 when a folk group are recording an album at an old abbey on the Welsh border. It is reputed to be haunted and they are all psychics of one sort and another -- so it seemed like a good idea at the time. That night their recording session goes horribly and tragically wrong, and that same evening, in New York, John Lennon is shot to death.

The body of the book is set many years after these events and tells what happens to the members of the group, how they are inveigled into coming together again to complete the black album that they abandoned that terrible night, and just what the haunted mystery of the abbey is all about.

It is gripping, edge-of-the-seat, nail-biting-down-to-the-elbows material. I haven't been as involved in a book for longer than I can remember, probably not since I read some of the early Stephen King. As the blurb remarks, Rickman has made the same discovery that King made -- the secret of a great book lies in the characterisation. In all honesty the plot details don't matter much; they are standard horror story stuff. But the characters are so beautifully drawn and you feel such sympathy with them because of the skill with which they are written down on the page that you simply cannot help becoming involved.

Many, many years ago I read the scandalous books of Leslie Thomas. Virgin Soldiers, Onward Virgin Soldiers, Tropic of Ruislip, and many others too numerous to mention. Then, as now, I found him a wonderfully funny, but at the same time serious writer. In many ways he is a mainstream Terry Pratchett. He is never averse to a silly joke, and you really have to admire a writer who has the panache to name one of his Chinese characters Fuk Yew. Well, I've bought and read every Leslie Thomas book as they came out and his new one is just out in paperback. It is called Running Away and concerns a man with a mid life crisis who runs away from it. It sounds unpromising material but in Thomas' hands it becomes a work of art. By turns funny and sad, poignant and moving, it is a book that tells a lot of truths as well as several very funny dirty jokes. I loved the one that begins with an old lady coming up to an old man in the pensioners home where they both live. She invites him up to her room where she says she will give him a cup of tea and hold his willie...

If you want to know the punch line, read the book. You won't be disappointed.

I finally got round to reading The Nano Flower, Peter F. Hamilton's sequel to Mindstar Rising and A Quantum Murder. Of the three, I think The Nano Flower is the strongest. I enjoyed the first two books, but this one stands head and shoulders above them. I particularly like the way that the hero, Greg Mandel, changes from book to book as he grows older and absorbs experience. The Greg of The Nano Flower is in his fifties -- it is probably twenty or thirty years after the events of the first novel. And Greg has grown and matured to match his age. Far too many lesser writers never allow their characters to change, to mature -- yes, damnit, to grow up. That Hamilton can do this marks him as a skilfull writer, a man to watch. The Nano Flower is excellent.

In between reading these books and repairing my house and cooking experimental meals, I spent far more time and money than is good for me playing with the world on the Internet. One of the hot things on the Internet is something called the World Wide Web. In somewhat oversimplified terms, the web can be thought of as one humungous document, full of lots and lots and lots of pictures, movies, sound and text. As you look at one of the pages in this document on a computer somewhere in the world you might see a reference to something that tickles your fancy. Click on it with your mouse and suddenly you are on another computer elsewhere in the world looking at something new. You can follow the links like these to your hearts content, jumping from computer to computer, country to country, continent to continent, world without end.

The programs that let you do this are referred to as web browsers and the pages of information they display are written in a special language called HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language). I recently acquired a browser called Mosaic, and I decided to learn a bit about it so I bought myself two books. The first of these, The Mosaic Handbook let me explore the complexities of the program, and the second The HTML Source-book taught me how to write documents that programs such as Mosaic can access (it turns out to be surprisingly easy).

One reason why I feel constrained to mention these books is because they are both very thin. I get depressed over how enormously huge and fat many computer books are. It is a positive disincentive to look through them. They make you think that there is just too much to learn, so why bother? Well I have read a lot of these books, and believe me ninety nine percent of them are absolute junk. But computer books are trendy, so we'll continue to see them on the shelves for a while yet.

My advice is to ignore them. Go for the smaller, thinner books that you will find lurking between the behemoths. They are generally much better value, much less frightening and with a lot more solid information in them than the overwritten and oversold dinosaurs that surround them.

The two that I mentioned above are perfect examples of good computer books. If you feel the need to learn about either Mosaic or HTML, I recommend them highly.

And now my holiday is over and hi ho, hi ho, it's back to work I go.

Sir Henry Rider Haggard Marie    Cassell
Child of Storm Macdonald
Isaac Asimov  Magic Harper Prism
Maureen F. McHugh  Half the Day is Night Tor
Stephen Baxter The Time Ships Harper Collins
Poppy Z. Brite (editor)  Love in Vein Harper Collins
Doug Naylor Last Human Penguin
Barbara Hambly  Bride of the Rat God Raven
Piers Anthony  Shame of Man Tor
Phil Rickman December Pan
Leslie Thomas Running Away Mandarin
Peter F. Hamilton The Nano Flower Pan
Ian S. Graham The HTML Sourcebook Wiley
Dale Dougherty et al The Mosaic Handbook O'Reilly and Associates
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