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Real Hols

Phoenixine Ninety-One, March 1997

I'm back at work now. I took a whole month off over Christmas and that meant, of course, that for all that time I never once wore a tie or even a pair of socks. The first week back was a strain. I felt like I was being strangled.

I put the month to good use, in terms of books read. The Yellow Admiral is the latest of Patrick O'Brian's seafaring stories of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. As the title suggests, Aubrey is much worried that his promotion chances may be compromised (particularly as the war with the French is obviously drawing to a conclusion) and it seems likely that his future will place him in the humiliating position of being "yellowed". A yellow admiral has no fleet responsibilities and is generally considered to be a failure in his chosen career. This is not something that Aubrey is looking forward to (of course) and Stephen, ever anxious to help his friend, pulls some political strings and a complex plot is brewed which should see Aubrey on secondment, serving as an Admiral in the Chilean navy.

And then something quite extraordinary happens.

In a sense the book is infuriating. The cliff-hanger ending left me gasping for more. I want to know the details of what happens next and I want to know NOW, damnit. But like everybody else I'm just going to have to wait patiently for the next book. O'Brian is an old man. I hope he lives long enough to write it. Otherwise my blood pressure may suffer.

Of course, the main attraction of an O'Brian book is the sheer elegance of his prose, the sharp social observation, the immaculately presented and very real invocation of the minutiae of eighteenth and nineteenth century life, and the wonderful wit and humour that enlivens almost every line. Not for nothing has he been compared to Jane Austen. I confess, I read the book and wallowed in all of this, and I was sorry when I came to the end.

Fortunately, the day after I finished it, and quite unexpectedly, I came across The Golden Ocean. O'Brian first published this book in 1956. And it has long been out of print. I have never even seen a copy before. I fell on it with glad cries of glee and devoured it far too quickly (because now I have no more O'Brian books to read and I am bereft). The book takes as its subject Commodore Anson's circumnavigation of the world which began in 1740. It was O'Brian's first maritime novel and the first he wrote about eighteenth century life. But you wouldn't know that to read it. The same wit, the same immaculate attention to detail, the same reality that pervades his later books are presented here whole and entire for the first time.

After Anson finally succeeded in rounding the Horn, his ships and his men were in a parlous state. Scurvy was rife and Anson determined to make landfall at the island of Juan Fernandez to reprovision. Eventually he crossed the latitude of the island, but because he was uncertain of his own longitude was faced with a dilemma. He did not know whether to travel east or west along the latitude line. He tossed a mental coin and set off. However after several days without sight of land he conceded that he may have been wrong and put the ship about. During the two weeks it took to retrace his steps many men died. Eventually, continuing along the latitude line, land was sighted. Hopes were dashed however, when it turned out to be the inhospitable coast of Chile and Anson realised that when first he put the ship about he had probably been only hours away from Juan Fernandez. It was a bitter pill. Now he had to put the ship about again, retrace his steps again. So much time wasted, so many lives unnecessarily lost, so many more that would be lost before Juan Fernandez was eventually sighted.

This famous incident was one of many tragedies of that era; all of them caused by the inability of those early navigators to calculate their precise longitude. The British Parliament was so concerned about this problem that in 1714 it passed the Longitude Act which offered a prize equivalent to several million dollars in today's currency for a "practicable and useful" means of determining longitude. Dava Sobel's little book Longitude tells the history of this scientific puzzle and introduces us to the man who eventually solved it, the English clockmaker John Harrison. The book has been a world-wide best-seller, and deservedly so. The dry mathematical details are explained with wit and insight and the human drama of Harrison's struggle with the bureaucratic powers that be (who were most reluctant to part with their money) is sympathetically presented. I found the whole thing quite poignant, particularly after reading the O'Brian novel in which the Juan Fernandez tragedy played such a central role.

A voyage of a different kind dominates Stephen Baxter's new novel. It is a parallel world story in which John Kennedy does not die in Dallas. From this starting point, Baxter examines the politics and technology of NASA in this new era and shows just what might have been accomplished in terms of the space effort if only NASA had been able to draw on the kind of political support which took America to the moon in 1969. The voyage of the title is a manned mission to Mars which takes place in 1985. The novel is immaculately researched and presented. Every incident in it rings true, every character feels real. The book held me enthralled from page one. This surely must be Baxter's magnum opus and if he doesn't get showered with awards for it there is no justice.

The same cannot be said for the collaborative novel Encounter with Tiber in which real live moonwalker Buzz Aldrin explores some rather trivial SF ideas. The book is enormously long and monumentally boring. Every beginner's mistake imaginable is made. Heaven knows why John Barnes didn't clean up Aldrin's prose. Maybe he was the junior partner. The Doppler effect is mentioned. Immediately the story stops for a two page lecture on the physics of the Doppler effect. It is mentioned that there might be ice in the craters of the lunar south pole. Everything halts again for an extended lecture (complete with diagrams) of the moon's orbital mechanics and a discussion of how these account for the prevailing conditions at the lunar poles. A message is received from aliens (surely an exciting event!) but it is mentioned that the message appears to based on octal arithmetic and we are off again on a tedious description of different number bases and how they work. The whole book is nothing but lectures thinly interspersed with plot. And the lectures are unbelievably yawn-inducing, peppered with jaw-cracking acronyms and irrelevant diversions. Dull, dull, dull.

Fortunately there is always Carl Hiaasen whose novels set in the concrete jungle that is Florida never fail to provide humour, thrills and the occasional disgusting image. For example, in Double Whammy, one of the villains is attacked by a pit bull terrier which sinks its fangs into his arm. He manages to kill the dog, but the teeth remain buried in his flesh and he is forced to saw the head off the dog simply in order to get away. He carries the head on his arm for a while and it rots and smells and his infected wounds become gangrenous. In his fever and delirium, he renames the dog's head "Lucas" and he takes it for walks and buys it cans of dog food and gets annoyed when it won't eat, so he forces the food into its mouth with a spoon, where it rots and does his wounds no good at all. The whole thing sounds like something Peter Jackson might have put into Bad Taste or Brain Dead. I cannot praise Carl Hiaasen enough. Enormous fun, though gross.

Speaking of gross, have you ever heard of Shaun Hutson? I recently picked up several of his novels in the Whitcoulls bargain bin, which should have given me a clue in itself. Hutson writes horror novels whose sole purpose appears to be to gross out his readers. The books have no redeeming features at all other than the appalling fascination of wondering how on earth he can possibly be more disgusting than he was in the last book. If you like this sort of thing, you'll love Shaun Hutson.


Start of exceedingly revolting paragraph:

My very favourite Shaun Hutson scene so far is a completely gratuitous episode in "Assassin" which describes in great detail the sight, sound,smell and taste of oral sex with a rotting corpse who ejaculates maggots.

End of exceedingly revolting paragraph.

To get back to normality, I was quite thrilled to come across If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O which was the first of Sharyn McCrumb's Appalachian novels. You may remember that I raved about these a few months ago and complained that I couldn't find two of them. Well now I'm only missing one. It's my birthday in March and if anyone wants to give me The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter I'll love you forever.

I must admit that Peggy lacks some of the magic of the other Appalachian novels. The hint of mysticism that lifted those others out of the ranks of simple mysteries is missing here. Peggy is just an ordinary detective novel; though beautifully written and atmospheric.

Peggy Muryan, a 1960s folk singer moves to a small Tennessee town seeking solitude and a career comeback. Her idyll is shattered when she receives a seemingly threatening message from a man long believed to have died in Vietnam. Then a local girl, who looks very like Peggy looked in the 1960s when she was singing her protest songs, is killed. This is the latest in a line of killings all of which seem to have a Vietnam connection. The whole novel, though it is set in the 1990s, is bound in time and it belongs more to the mood of thirty years ago than it does to today. If like me you are a child of the sixties then the appeal of this novel (if only for the sake of nostalgia) will be enormous. But I suspect those of a later generation will find the book less moving than I did. It's just history and perhaps it has no impact if you weren't there at the time.

The peace movement was international. Countries began to seem less important in the 1960s -- old fashioned institutions. I had (and have) much more in common with my world-wide generation than with my government. Patriotism died with my contemporaries. It may subsequently have revived -- I regard this as sad. We ended a war and deposed two presidents; not a bad record. We were the generation who were so sure of ourselves. "Give us the world," we demanded. "We know how to run it equably, how to solve its problems." Of course that was thirty years ago, and eventually they DID give us the world. We really are in charge today, and we have proved to be no more capable than any other generation. Our answers and our certainties dissolved. That's why this book sings. It understands all that.

Incidentally, I guessed who did the killings and why about half way through the book, but that didn't affect my enjoyment of it one little bit. Despite the surface resemblance, it isn't really a whodunit at all.

Noted humourist Stephen Fry has written a serious novel. Making History is a science fiction novel which examines the alternate time track that eventuates when, with the aid of an ingenious machine, two of our contemporaries prevent the birth of Adolf Hitler. To us old, jaded SF fans there is nothing very revolutionary about this idea (though I bet it will really scroll the knurd of the literati when they fawn over the book. "So ingenious", they will murmur languidly). Actually, clichéd concepts aside, Fry really has done a remarkably good job with the premise. The book is constantly fascinating and innovative with several well planted stings in its tail. I found it convincing, enthralling and beautifully written (and also immaculately researched; the wealth of historical detail was astonishing). What more do you want, for heaven's sake?

I bought a new suit before Christmas and it was slightly too large, as these things sometimes are. But now, after my month long holiday, it fits perfectly. Perhaps it shrank in the heat?

Patrick O’Brian The Yellow Admiral Norton
  The Golden Ocean  Harper Collins
Dava Sobel Longitude Fourth Estate
Stephen Baxter Voyager Harper Prism
Buzz Aldrin & John Barnes Encounter with Tiber NEL
Carl Hiaasen Native Tongue Pan
  Double Whammy  
  Stormy Weather   
Shaun Hutson Relics Warner
  Spawn Sphere
  Assassin Warner
Sharyn McCrumb If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O Ballantine
Stephen Fry Making History Hutchinson
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