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Phoenixine One-Hundred and One, January 1998

Another trip to Wellington. We filed slowly on to the aeroplane. Ahead of me a sports team who appeared to posses only one brain cell which they passed around amongst themselves all tried to get on board simultaneously and blocked the door. "Awwww, mate," exclaimed the current possessor of the brain cell. Eventually the blockage sorted itself out and we seated ourselves. The sports team were all at the back. "Awwww, mate!"

With The Brentford Chainstore Massacre Robert Rankin returns to his old stamping grounds and his old heroes. Pooley and Omally learn that because of a special papal dispensation, the calendar in Brentford differs from that in the rest of the world. It would seem that Brentford can celebrate the millennium two years early (and avoid the rush). All that Pooley and Omally must do is find the papal document which has unaccountably disappeared. They enlist the aid of Professor Slocombe. Meanwhile Dr Stephen Malone, using DNA extracted from bloodstains on the Turin Shroud and from fragments of the true cross has cloned several Jesus Christs (one for every religion). Are these plot threads connected? Yes and no.

Unusually for Rankin, the book contains no Brussels sprouts and no Morris Minors. On the other hand, it has no chainstores and no massacres either which probably makes up for it.

In contrast, Larry McMurtry's new novel Commanche Moon has lots of commanches, most of them trying to kill Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call. This novel is the last of the Lonesome Dove sequence and covers McCrae and Call's years as Texas rangers. They are bold and bloody years, hard years, hilarious years, tragic years. This is an emotional roller coaster of a book, screamingly funny and gruesomely sad.

We didn't take off until nearly 5:15pm; such an enormous delay that it was obvious there were serious problems somewhere down the line. Consequently it came as no surprise when, about half way to Wellington, the captain came on the loudspeaker.

"Conditions in Wellington are marginal," he said. "The wind speed is very high and gusting and we may not be able to land. If necessary, we will divert to Christchurch."

We dropped lower and lower through impenetrable cloud and the plane rocked in the gusts of wind like a fairground ride gone haywire. Eventually after an interminable time the cloud broke up into wisps and then vanished and below us a hungry sea boiled. "Come here," the waves called. "We want you now!"

There was a whine and a thump as the landing gear deployed. Immediately we took on all the aerodynamic characteristics of a brick and the turbulence doubled and redoubled in spades. The plane rocked and rolled and dropped hundreds of feet in an instant. "Awwww, mate!!" came an agonised groan from the back as the current possessor of the brain cell left his tummy on the ceiling.

The Sparrow is Mary Doria Russell's first novel and I am awe-struck by its sheer magnificence. The plot ingredients are common coin -- a radio signal has been detected from Alpha Centauri and a spaceship is despatched to investigate them. Even the sub-text is not original -- the spaceship is funded and crewed by the Jesuits and much of the novel is concerned with the crisis of faith that the discovery of alien life implies (I was reminded irresistibly of James Blish's A Case of Conscience). But none of that matters, because Mary Doria Russell has written a superb and thought-provoking novel around these stock cupboard ingredients.

The human characters are engaging and interesting -- it is impossible not to feel sympathy for them, especially as all but one of them will die before the book ends. (No spoilers here -- this point is clear from the start since much of the story is told in flashback). The religious issues and religious people are honestly and fairly presented, with no hint of caricature or over-simplification. Even the alien societies and characters ring true (Russell is an anthropologist and is therefore on firm ground). This book deserves to win every award going.

By contrast, Stephen King's Wizard and Glass (the fourth volume in the Dark Tower sequence) is dull and boring. I simply could not get interested. The enormous middle section is an episode from early in the life of Roland the gunslinger and it concerns his first great love affair. I think it is meant to be romantic, but I found it tedious. I might have enjoyed it more had it been half the length.

However, King's one time collaborator Peter Straub has just published The Hellfire Club and this was so engrossing that I stayed up until 3:30am to finish it. The publishing company Chancel House has built its reputation on one cult novel Night Journey. Davey Chancel (grandson of the founder of the publishing house) is obsessed with the book. Nora, his wife, is not. Enter Dick Dart, cunning, depraved, a vicious killer. He kidnaps Nora and takes her on a terrifying trip that seems motivated by the events of Night Journey and the mysterious circumstances surrounding the writing of it. Nora soon realises that her only chance of escaping the living nightmare of Dick Dart is to unravel these mysteries. The book has everything; grue and gore, humour, mystery and nerve wracking tension. I could feel it manipulating me and I didn't care.

The sea seemed to stretch into infinity. Was there no end to this grim, grey surf? Then suddenly the runway appeared, racing past like a greyhound. This was going to be a powered landing -- very high powered, and that meant a speed which caused me to worry that we might run out of runway before we ran out of momentum. We banged down, and the engines screamed in an agony of reverse thrust and slowly (ever so slowly) our frightening speed bled away and we dropped to a seeming crawl. The sports team all applauded. Physical co-ordination like that was meat and drink to them. Who needs a brain cell? "Awwww, mate. What a landing, eh mate?"

Nobody knows more about the art and craft of writing than Damon Knight. His book Creating Short Fiction is distilled from decades of writing criticisms, editing anthologies and teaching in the Clarion and Milford workshops. The witty advice in this book cannot be bettered. I have never been certain as to whether or not it is possible to teach someone how to write, but if it is possible, this book will do it.

In Mall Purchase Night Rick Cook tells us about the events that take place in a glossy new shopping mall that happens to have been built over an entrance to fairyland. All that stands between the forces of Faery and thousands of innocent shoppers is one bemused security guard. As always it is Cook's lightness of touch with his absurd plot that keeps the book flowing. In the hands of a less competent writer this would quickly have degenerated into weak jokes, puns and/or thud and blunder. But Cook keeps it warm and witty. The jokes are good ones and the characters are well drawn.

Similarly, Tex and Molly in the Afterlife works only because Richard Grant never once loses control. Tex and Molly are two ageing hippies whose sudden deaths free them to observe (and partly control) the events surrounding an environmental protest. With the help (and hindrance) of forgotten deities and some down and out woodland spirits (I particularly liked Beale, a cynical dryad) they bring together witches, wolves, hackers, survivalists and marketroids into a dance of life and death.

The whole farrago of nonsense hangs together simply because of the enormous wit and cleverness with which Grant plays with his ideas and characters. It would have been so easy to lose this one, but he never does. Instead he dances lightly and wickedly and it held me enthralled and enchanted.

We were so far off our scheduled time now that there were no free gates and so we crawled slowly over to the international terminal. "Please remain seated with your seat belt fastened until the plane has come to a complete halt outside international gate 20." You could hear the note of surprise in the cabin crews' voices.

The plane stopped and the engines were switched off. Now that we were no longer under our own power the full force of the wind could be felt and the plane shuddered and rocked as the wind howled around it. Through the window I could see the airbridge inching towards us. It too shook alarmingly in the wind. Eventually it seemed to mate with the plane and the crew opened the door. A huge gust immediately howled through the rubber seal and bounced off every seat. Several open locker doors slammed shut as the wind screamed past. "We're sorry about that," said a cabin attendant over the intercom, but it will be much less turbulent once you are through the airbridge."

"Awwww, mate," came from the back of the plane. "I trapped my fingers, mate."

Terry Pratchett's last novel (Hogfather) was mostly plotless and pointless, merely an excuse for stringing together a few rather poor jokes. Jingo, on the other hand is mostly plot, and is so pointy that at times it threatens to impale you to the floor as it shouts in your face. And nothing wrong with that I say. Pterry has always been at his best when his books are about something, rather than when he is just noodling around. This one is about war and politics, and that is one of the great themes, one he has worried about at length before (in Johnny and the Dead).

The sunken island of Leshp has arisen from the sea midway between Ankh-Morepork and Klatch and both are claiming the territory. Klatch is a desert kingdom (a good excuse for jokes about Saddam Hussein and Arabs in general) and Ankh-Morepork is not (so we get jokes about politics instead). As always with the best Pratchett, the game of "spot the reference" is enormous fun. For example there is a whole sub-plot all about the Kennedy assassination in general and conspiracy theories in particular. Mind you it is possible to take this too far. One of the Ankh-Moreporkian sea captains is called Jenkins, and this being a time of threatening war I kept looking for jokes about ears, and I didn't see any. Which means either I blinked and missed them, or Pterry decided it was all too obvious and didn't bother in the end. Perhaps the absence of the joke was the joke? Mind you, once you get into recursive meta-humour like this anything goes!

The Byzantine convolutions of the plot are sometimes rather hard to follow (don't blink, you'll miss the clues) but it's worth making the effort. The ending is rather a let down; but then it was building up to that all the way through -- once we learn about Leonard of Quirm's clandestine visits to Leshp the climax becomes relatively obvious, rather like an aunty I suppose (I did that, not Pterry).

But in summary, Jingo has lots of jokes, lots of subtle references, and a theme that is strong enough to support the surface layer. Hogfather represented the low point of the Discworld books; Jingo is one of the highest.

We filed off the plane into a completely deserted international terminal (there being no international flights scheduled). Toilet doors beckoned seductively and many passengers availed themselves of the facility. The rest of us crawled like sheep, following the stewardess who beckoned us onwards.

Suddenly we stopped and milled around in confusion. The exit doors were all locked and bolted. What now? "I'll be back in a moment," shrilled the stewardess encouragingly and raced off in the opposite direction. Obviously she immediately fell into a black hole and spent the rest of eternity in the eighth dimension for we never saw her again...

More toilet doors beckoned (Wellington International Terminal has an inordinate number of toilets and was obviously designed by an incontinent architect). But the safety proved illusory for these too were locked.

At one end of the corridor was an illuminated sign that said "Baggage Claim" with an arrow pointing purposefully at a (locked) door. It seemed an obvious place to gather and so we did.

"Awwww, it's locked, mate. It won't open mate. Awww, mate!"

The delightfully titled Moab is my Washpot is Stephen Fry's autobiography -- or rather it is the story of his first twenty years. Doubtless there will be another volume in due course detailing the next twenty years. Sent to boarding school at the age of seven, he faces beatings, misery, love, carnal violation, expulsion, criminal conviction, probation and university. I laughed out loud at this book -- I even laughed at the tragedies (and much of it is tragic); though I think I was meant to laugh rather than cry. As soon as I finished it, I went and re-read The Liar (his brilliant first novel) and I was amazed at how skilfully he wove his autobiography into that book.

Fry loves language and he manipulates it well. The delicious, sometimes Wildean wit with which he weaves his story is enchanting. I suspect I would strongly dislike Fry if I ever met him; his attitudes annoy me. But his life story is vastly enjoyable and insightful.

Bill Bryson goes for A Walk in the Woods in his latest book. He walks (some of) the Appalachian Trail which runs for more than 2000 miles from Georgia to Maine. It is a spectacular wilderness filled with bears, moose, snakes, poisonous plants, ticks and far too many people who want to talk to Bryson about his terrible choice of camping gear. There is no doubt that Bryson is one of the funniest travel writers of our time and this book is one of his best. But he also has a serious purpose -- one of his reasons for wanting to walk the trail is that it may not be long before much of it disappears (or at least undergoes vast change). The rate of change is accelerating. Trees and animals that were commonplace less than a generation ago no longer exists. Diseases have been introduced, logging has devastated vast acreages. There is a sombre sub-text beneath the humour and that gives the book rather more bite than some of his others have had.

The corridor was lined with windows and through them we could see people coming and going. They ignored us. I began to think that maybe we would be trapped here for days, if not weeks. Perhaps we would have to demolish the chairs and build a fire and roast some of the more succulent-looking passengers on a spit. Doubtless after pounding up and down a playing field the sports team would be particularly nice and tender.

"Awww, mate. It won't open mate! Mate!"

Nobody would ever miss them.

The Siege of Eternity is the sequel to The Other End of Time and if you haven't read that one, don't read this one because it won't mean a thing to you. Several clones of the original crew have returned from the space station along with two Docs and a Dopey. The security forces are on alert, the aliens are less than co-operative and various complex machinations serve mainly to set the scene for the next book. Why is it that the middle novels of trilogies virtually never resolve anything?

Single author short story collections are few and far between these days and so I was pleased to find S. P. Somtow's new collection The Pavilion of Frozen Women. As might be expected, the stories are subtle though the surface trappings of grue and gore might make you think otherwise. They are also enormous fun -- Somtow takes a delight in juxtaposing odd ideas to see what comes out of the mix. Sometimes he returns to the theme again and again, exploring it from different angles. There are three stories in this collection about theology and zombies, for example.

Eventually a lady dressed in a vivid Day-Glo yellow slicker arrived outside the door. In one hand she clutched the walkie-talkie without which every airport employee appears half-naked (though I don't recall ever seeing anybody actually talk into one). In her other hand she had a bunch of keys, none of which seemed to fit the door, though they all caused it to rattle alarmingly. At last something appeared to match and the door opened. "This way, please."

We followed dutifully. Our way wound around and between eerily deserted immigration desks with rubber stamps lying casually where the last official dropped them after the last dramatic thump on a passport. More toilets (locked!) and a maze of little twisty passages, all alike. These lead to a twisty little maze of passages, closely followed by a maze of twisty little passages that turned into a little maze of twisty passages. The internal structure of Wellington International Airport has to be experienced to be believed.

Eventually we arrived at a door. It was locked.

Mulengro has been unavailable for many years. It is good to see it back in print again. It is a story about the Romany people, told (of course) by a gaje (a non-gypsy). As de Lint himself says in an afterword this may weaken the story for doubtless there are subtlties of the Romany way of life that have passed him by. But who among us would ever notice? This is story vein that is seldom mined -- the only other one I recall is Robert Silverberg's Star of Gypsies.

A series of bizarre murders is shaking the gypsy community and baffling the police. The gypsies give the murderer the name Mulengro and though the police are searching for a purely human killer, the gypsies know that he is a supernatural being; their wise women have dukkerin, (the sight).

The strength of the book lies in the contrast between the world views of the gaje and the gypsies and the interpretations they put on the events that they share.

Jack Faust is probably Michael Swanwick's weakest book. It is hard to call it a failure (it is beautifully written) but somehow it just doesn't work. It re-tells the standard Faust story. Faust uses his knowledge to institute a scientific revolution (to that extent you could regard the book as a parallel world story) and Swanwick uses the framework to tell (or re-tell) the history of Western scientific thought. Unfortunately that begins to turn the book into more of a lecture than a story and as a result the characters fail to come alive -- they are simply puppets dancing on the strings of the larger, more overt purpose that Swanwick has for the book. And therein lies the book's great weakness. It is, perhaps, too clever by half.

The lady with the keys and the walkie-talkie thumped the door hard. The walkie-talkie said "shhhhhh -- crrrrrr aaaaaaccccckkkkkklllleeeee -- hhhiiiisssss", but she ignored it and thumped the door again. A surprised looking man opened it and they engaged in a serious discussion that involved much arm waving and staring at computer printouts. Eventually, with bad grace, he gave in and we strode through into the domestic terminal.

"Awwwwww, mate! Here it is mate!"

Kevin J. Anderson's anthology has one of the best thematic ideas I have ever seen. War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches presents the H. G. Well's Martian invasion of Earth as witnessed by Mark Twain, Pablo Picasso, Jack London etc. (Obviously the invasion was world wide and Wells gave us only his view of it in England -- what happened in other countries?). The stories range from a straight forward ERB pastiche by George Alec Effinger to a hilarious scholarly paper by Connie Willis on the effects of the invasion on Emily Dickinson. The anthology has its strengths and weaknesses, but by and large it is an outstanding success.

The new Christopher Fowler novel Disturbia will teach you more about London than you ever wanted to know. Vincent Reynolds has fallen foul of the League of Prometheus, a secret society with a lot of power to manipulate the wheelers and dealers. The League sets him ten challenges, cryptic clues that can only be solved by those with an encyclopaedic knowledge of London. If he fails to solve the challenges he will be killed. At first it seems a game -- crossword puzzle clues to take him across the city. But the League has more at stake than simply tormenting Vincent. It gradually becomes clear that there many ulterior and sinister motives behind the game.

Disturbia is a paranoid's wet dream, but at the same time it is an elegiac paean of praise to London. That vision haunts the book and raises it from a simple chase story to something almost mystical in its outlook. It is a hauntingly beautiful story as a result.

I hastened to the baggage claim area. All the adverts for Ansett claim that the priority baggage arrives on the conveyor simultaneously with the passengers (if not before). After the huge delay in the toileted expanse of the International Terminal I expected to find the bags circulating forlornly, waiting for their owners. I was wrong.

Despite the sense of isolation, the passing of geological aeons and the strident cries of "Awww, mate", we had obviously been under close surveillance all the time.

As I arrived in the baggage claim area, the conveyor whirred into life and three seconds later my suitcase rolled into view. Adverts never lie.

Robert Rankin The Brentford Chainstore Massacre Doubleday
Larry McMurtry Commanche Moon Simon & Schuster
Mary Doria Russell  The Sparrow Black Swan
Stephen King Wizard and Glass Plume
Peter Straub The Hellfire Club Harper Collins
Damon Knight Creating Short Fiction Saint Martins
Rick Cook Mall Purchase Night Baen
Richard Grant Tex and Molly in the Afterlife Avon
Terry Pratchett Jingo Gollancz
Stephen Fry Moab is my Washpot Hutchinson
Bill Bryson A Walk in the Woods Doubleday
Frederik Pohl The Siege of Eternity Tor
S. P. Somtow The Pavilion of Frozen Women Vista
Charles de Lint Mulengro Pan
Michael Swanwick Jack Faust Avon
Kevin J. Anderson (Editor) War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches Bantam
Christopher Fowler Disturbia Warner
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