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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (dentitio tittilatia)

Alan And The Tooth Fairy

Every few months I visit a charming young lady and pay her very large amounts of money. In return for this emolument, she rubs her breasts all over my head. Strangely this gives me no pleasure.

You see, the charming young lady is simply using my head as a convenient support over which she angles her body into the position that gives her the optimum leverage for attacking my wide open mouth with instruments of torture. She is my dental hygienist, and we have an uneasy relationship.

I visited her again this month.

"Hello," she said, "how are you?"

"Fine thanks," I said. "How are you?"

She looked a little puzzled at this response. I think she was expecting me to say, "I' ine, acks. 'ow ah oo?"

Members of the dental profession are only completely comfortable when talking to supine people whose conversation consists simply of vowels and glottal stops; the only sounds that can be made when your mouth is wide open and full of sterile metal. Complete words that are filled with consonants are not something that dentists hear very often. Consequently they seldom know how to react when such words are spoken to them.

"Lie back on the couch," she said.

I did so, and she slipped some safety glasses over my eyes in case a randomly flung tooth should chance to crash into an eye socket and blind me for life – a scenario I find extremely unlikely since I always screw my eyes tight shut in order to avoid examining the various scrapers, wrenches, gougers, drills, saws, chisels and hammers too closely.

"Open wide!"

I opened wide. She thrust her left breast into my right ear and began to scrape and saw and drill and hammer at my teeth with exuberant enthusiasm. I really like seeing people who enjoy their work so much. Within limits, of course.

"Hmm," she said as she lined up a chisel and hit it a couple of times with a large yellow hammer, "that's a particularly resistant lump of plaque." She changed the angle of the chisel slightly and hit it again, but the plaque remained stubbornly in place. "I think it needs extreme measures," she decided.

She attacked my tooth with a pneumatic drill, not dissimilar to those with which council workmen dig up roads. She drilled a deep hole, stuffed it full of dynamite, attached a detonator and led wires back from the detonator to a switch. She went behind a screen and flipped the switch.


Plaque crashed down in a huge avalanche from around my teeth. She came back from behind the screen and said, "Rinse out, please."

I rinsed out my mouth and spat into the bowl. A big, nasty lump the size and shape of a small alp went clang! into the bowl and cracked the porcelain from side to side. I lay back down and opened my mouth. She repositioned her breasts and resumed scraping.

Gurgle, gurgle, gurgle.

Faint abdominal rumblings came from some hidden place deep within the hygienist. The noise made her vibrate pleasantly. She ignored the sounds and carried on scraping and, being a gentleman, I too did my best to pay no attention to the incipient volcano standing beside me.


Some things simply cannot be ignored.

"I'm sorry," she said. "That's my tummy rumbling. It always does that at this time of day."

I couldn't help myself, and I started to laugh. That set her off, and we giggled companionably together for a time.

"I think my tummy needs some food," she admitted. She stared vacantly into space, obviously dreaming about roast turkey and stuffing; caviar and chips. I took the opportunity to rinse and spit. She'd been very heavy handed with her power tools and there was quite a lot of blood. I stared at it with gloomy suspicion.

"I could cook you a black pudding," I suggested.

Dreamsongs is a huge (1185 pages) hardback collection of George R. R. Martin's short fiction. The famous, award-winning stories are here of course but there is also a very large amount of extra material including some surprisingly sophisticated juvenilia. There are also quite a lot of autobiographical essays that relate the fiction to significant events in George's life. Thus the whole work becomes at one and the same time a literary autobiography and an autobiography told through literature. I read it with unalloyed pleasure; George R. R. Martin is a very, very good writer. So good, in fact, that I am almost tempted to go out and buy his magnum opus A Song Of Ice And Fire, a multi-volume fantasy sequence which I have deliberately avoided up to now simply because multi-volume fantasy sequences fall right in the middle of the category called I Don't Like These Kinds Of Books.

It says a lot for George Martin's skill as a story teller that I'm feeling that temptation. But unless and until I succumb to it I'll stick to Dreamsongs; it is quite simply superb.

The Lies Of Locke Lamora is Scott Lynch's first novel. I'm sure it won't be his last. Of course, he's useless at titles (how are things in Glockamorra today?) but I won't hold that against him. The novel is a picaresque fantasy and the eponymous hero is a thoroughly unprincipled con artist, the leader of a group known as The Gentlemen Bastards. He lives and steals in Camorr, an ancient city straight out of Fritz Leiber by way of Charles Dickens – the parallels to Oliver Twist are quite blatant though that in no way detracts from the extremely clever things that Scott Lynch does with his re-imagining of predefined material.

In most novels of this kind we'd have a cheerful romp where the hero triumphs and the villains get their comeuppance. Fortunately Scott Lynch knows enough not to fall into this trap. For one thing it is rather hard to tell who are the heroes and who are the villains, and while Locke Lamora does escape with his life, the same cannot be said of some of his friends.

There's a black heart to the book. An unknown (at least to begin with) person known as the Grey King is killing off high ranking members of the thieves guild, presumably with a view to taking over the whole operation. Since this is exactly how the current head of the guild achieved his own eminent position many years before, he is understandably worried. But Locke Lamora himself pays little heed to the Grey King until the Grey King starts paying a lot of heed to him. Locke Lamora is in the middle of a complicated scam that is taking a lot of money off the aristocracy of the city, and he hasn't got time for irrelevancies like the Grey King (one of the more delightful aspects of the scam is that its victims know it's a scam but they fall for it anyway – the plot details of this book really are extraordinarily ingenious). And while Locke Lamora is fleecing his marks, the secret police, controlled by the mysterious Spider, are also hot on his trail. Suddenly the world is coming apart and it starts to seem like there isn't enough glue to stick it together again.

I loved the book; it's fun and funny and at the same time it is very dark and sad. Characters with whom the reader falls in love die horrible deaths and evil, twisted people often come out on top. There's another instalment of The Gentlemen Bastards due next year and I'll grab it as soon as it appears.

But don't worry – the story in the first volume is complete in itself and all the plot threads are resolved. You won't be left hanging. Mark my words, we are going to hear a lot about Scott Lynch – he's doing everything right and he's got "award winner" written all over him.

Both Twelve Step Fandango and Alligator Strip are extremely funny and extremely twisted novels narrated in the first person by one Martin Brock, a down and out English hippie with too many drugs in his system. When we first meet him he is scratching out a precarious living on the Costa Del Sol by selling outrageously priced low-grade cocaine to English tourists who don't understand exchange rates and who don't know how to score outside the familiar environment of Birmingham (or wherever). But far too much of Martin's stock in trade goes up his own nostrils (and the nostrils of his very scary girl friend Luisa) and so when an old friend turns up on his doorstep and then inconveniently dies, Martin is overjoyed to find a huge stash of high grade coke hidden away in his friend's motor bike. Dazzled by visions of being able to retire on the proceeds of selling it, he takes his first tentative steps into the world of big time drug dealing. Unfortunately for Martin, there are a lot of sharks swimming in that sea, and some of them don't believe that Martin has any right to the cocaine he has found. They want it back and they don't care who they hurt along the way.

The bodies pile up (many of them killed in ingeniously painful ways) and no matter how far Martin runs, the bad guys always track him down. Eventually a compromise is reached, but Martin still has to flee to the comparative safety of Morocco…

As the second book opens, we find Martin in serious trouble in Marrakech. He is rescued by an itinerant rich American called Eugene who persuades Martin that, for the sake of his health, he really ought to come to Florida. Once there, Martin finds himself involved in a scam that Eugene has been working on for years and which is now coming to fruition. It looks like Martin might be earning himself half a million dollars by pretending to be a dealer in rare coins.

Unfortunately Martin makes the acquaintance of Sherry-Lee Lewis, a lady with a psychotic ex-boyfriend called Brad who is newly released from prison and who wants to reclaim his share of the proceeds from the sale of half a ton of generic Mexican marijuana. Sherry-Lee denies any involvement, but Brad doesn't believe her. Once again the bodies start to pile up…

These are both rather ordinary plots in the kind of genre to which these books belong. In less talented hands, they would probably be rather clichéd books of little interest. What makes them stand out from the crowd is partly the extreme nastiness of the first person narrator (you simply can't help loathing his amorality and occasional utter stupidity), and partly the fact that, gruesome though they undeniably are, they are also hilariously funny. If you like your grue well seasoned with laughs, these are the books for you. The blurb describes Chris Haslam as an English Carl Hiaasen, and for once the blurb is exactly right.

El Sid is a very different novel and probably the best thing that Haslam has written so far. Career criminal Lenny Knowles and his neurotic sidekick Nick are preparing to rob lonely pensioner Sidney Starman. They have ingratiated themselves into his life in order to con him out of his life savings.

However Sidney Starman may be old but he isn't stupid and neither is he the soft touch that Lenny thinks he is. Seventy years before, Sidney had fought in the Spanish Civil War as a young volunteer in the International Brigade. It was a dirty war and Sidney was one of the dirtier fighters in it. He was a hard man and he hasn't forgotten the lessons he learned.

Sidney tells Lenny and Nick that he was involved in stealing seventy tons of gold from the Spanish government during the war. But something went terribly wrong and the bullion ended up buried in a cave. All Lenny and Nick have to do, says Sidney, is drive him there. He doesn't mind them taking the gold. He's too old and too near his death for gold to have any value to him any more. Sidney has old friends he needs to see again before he dies, and old lovers to whom he wants to make amends for past betrayals. But the back blocks of Spain are too far for a frail old man to travel to alone. He needs Lenny and Nick to protect him.

And so begins a story of cross and double-cross, and along the way it becomes turn and turn about a story of politics, betrayed idealism and love. On the surface this is just another rather gruesome, cynical and amoral farce (and a beautifully written one as well). But underneath it is a lot more. It's even surprisingly moral at the end when everyone gets exactly what they deserve, and in some cases exactly what they want as well. El Sid is a masterpiece and Chris Haslam is a writer to watch.

The Naming Of The Dead is the latest and least of Ian Rankin's novels about Inspector Rebus. It is set in July 2005 at the meeting of the G8 heads of government in Edinburgh. There are daily marches, demonstrations and scuffles in the streets. A young politician plunges to his death from the walls of Edinburgh Castle. Did he fall or was he pushed? And is there a connection to a serial killer who appears to be preying on rapists?

In many ways this is a non-story. Rankin just noodles about until the book is long enough and then he stops. Rebus does no real investigating and makes no headway in the cases. A few hints here, a few clues there, but nothing very much. What little substance there is to the book comes largely from off-stage, from the actions and motives of spear-carriers who tell Rebus things. They are wheelers and dealers in their own world, but that world isn't Rebus' world and so we get no insights.

The novel only really exists so that Ian Rankin can make pointed remarks about the futility of government and the cynical showmanship of large set-pieces like the G8 meeting. That's far too thin a basis for a non-novel about what might even be a non-crime that Rebus doesn't solve. For once, Rankin has let the sub-text linger far too close to the surface. It's a shoddy piece of work made all the more disappointing by some of the superb novels that have preceded it.

Stephen King's new novel Lisey's Story may well be the best thing he has ever written and that's saying a lot because he has written some humdingers in the past.

Lisey Landon is the wife of best selling novelist Scott Landon. As the story opens, Scott has been dead for several years. Lisey is slowly (very slowly) clearing out his workroom. The plan is eventually to donate his papers to a university and Lisey is finding herself under increasing pressure to complete the job. Indeed it would seem that one academic has even gone to the extreme of hiring a thug to terrorise Lisey into getting on with it.

Things she finds in the study remind her of past events. There was the day that Scott inaugurated the site of a new library. That was the day that Lisey broke a tooth glass; and it was the day that somebody shot Scott. For a time, Lisey thought she might lose him then. But the wounds healed surprisingly fast and soon Scott was up and around, back at his desk with more writing to do. It was a bool, a blood bool. That was one of Scott's secret words; bool. It takes a while before Lisey really comes to grips with what it means to Scott. And only after he's left some bools for her, only after a blood bool of her own does she start to see a little behind the veil.

There's a place, you see. It has a pool, and writers can cast their nets for stories. People who know how to find the place sometimes don't come back. Rather like Lisey's sister who has psychotic episodes and who has become catatonic. Lisey discovers that Scott has long ago reserved a place for her in a hospital that specialises in such things. He saw the meaning of the symptoms long before Lisey did. Scott has seen it before, in his own family.

Scott took Lisey to the secret place once. Scott buried his brother there many years before. He showed Lisey the grave. And if the things in the forest don't get you, he says, you can make your way safely to the pool. There are tiers of seats to sit on while you watch. Can Lisey go there by herself? She is sure her sister is there, watching a ship making ready to set sail. It's all tied in with the bool, the blood bool.

It's hard to tell how much of this book is metaphor and how much is special effect for the sake of the story. And that's as it should be, for it makes the book so much richer. There are great subtleties here even though the story is simple. Stephen King plays on his reputation and gives us a nice horror story (though perhaps it might better be describes as horribly tragic) and at the same time he gives us a meditation on the craft that has made his own reputation. And he tells us a love story as well. What more could you possibly want?

Lillian Beckwith was born in Cheshire but spent much of her life living as a crofter in the Hebrides. In the 1950s and 1960s she published quite lot of books about the odd and often funny things that happened to her and about the extraordinarily eccentric people among whom she lived. The Loud Halo and The Hills Is Lonely are two of these.

Lillian Beckwith may be a gentlelady, but she is not a squeamish one, and she has no hesitation about dealing with the problems of taking a crap in sub-zero temperatures and the difficulty of digging a grave when the graveyard is full. She has a light touch with the macabre – the description of the gravediggers propping a human skull on a gravestone and trying to knock its teeth out by throwing stones at it is particularly delightful.

She pokes a lot of fun at her Hebridean neighbours, one of whom speaks in the most magnificent malapropisms it has ever been my pleasure to come across. Although the crofter's life must have been harsh and primitive, she obviously revelled in it and her joy and delight shine through all the stories. Her books are hard to find these days – but I think I need to go hunting. I haven't got nearly enough Lillian Beckwith in my life.

However the lady who stars in Michael Dobbs' new novel First Lady is definitely a lady we all need a lot less of in our lives. Ginny Edge is the wife of a young opposition MP. She overhears some gossip about her husband – it seems he is having an affair. For some women this is a normal part of the cynically manipulative Westminster scene. But Ginny is shattered by the knowledge of her husband's affair, and she gets her revenge on her husband in a most extraordinary way. She decides that the only way to rise above system is to master the system. She decides to manipulate its own cynical rules in order to manoeuvre her husband into the plum political post. She won't rest until she is the wife of the Prime Minister.

Of course he will have to abandon his affair as well.

Nobody knows the way that Westminster works better than Michael Dobbs. First Lady is a brilliant dissection of the greed, lust and corruption of twentieth century politics. I felt dirty just reading it. Heaven knows how the people who really live like that feel!

Imperium, the new novel by Robert Harris, is also about politics. It documents the rise to prominence of the Roman senator Marcus Cicero. It is very clear from reading it immediately after reading First Lady that nothing at all has changed in political life for more than two thousand years.

Imperium is a masterpiece of historical research. In my Latin classes at school, the Latin master used to give us little talks on Roman history and politics, and on the daily life style of the patricians and plebeians. The Roman political system was sufficiently similar to our own that interesting parallels can be drawn, and it was also sufficiently different to bring you up with a shock every now and then.

But my Latin master was nowhere near as good at explaining it all as Robert Harris is. I soaked up this fascinating book like blotting paper soaks up ink. There is a strong possibility that there will be sequels. If there are, I'll be the first in the queue at the bookshop.

North face Of Soho is another instalment of Clive James' autobiography. It discusses the years of his initial triumph on British TV and his career as a television critic for The Observer. There is no doubt that Clive James is a pompous twit; the book makes that abundantly clear. Unfortunately he is a hugely entertaining pompous twit and so this book, along with all his others, is pretty much compulsory reading. The man can turn a pithy phrase like no other man can, and he can make you cry with appreciative laughter as you go madly hunting for a pin to burst the pretentious balloon of words with which he surrounds himself. The only kind of bushel behind which Clive James wants to hide his light is one made of the clearest, most transparent glass.

Michael Palin is also dipping his toes into autobiographical waters with the publication of a decade of his diaries. The book is a fascinating glimpse of his life as a Python. It is the inside story of how the TV shows were written and how the feature films were put together. And it pulls no punches about the squabbles that ultimately sent the group on their separate ways. It is a detailed insight into a most influential decade of comedy. It's not a life of Brian, but it is a life of Michael. I loved it.

George R. R. Martin Dreamsongs Gollancz
Scott Lynch The Lies Of Locke Lamorra Gollancz
Chris Haslam Twelve Step Fandango Abacus
Chris Haslam Alligator Strip Abacus
Chris Haslam El Sid Abacus
Ian Rankin The Naming Of The Dead Orion
Stephen King Lisey's Story Hodder & Stoughton
Lillian Beckwith The Loud Halo Redwood Editions
Lillian Beckwith The Hills Is Lonely Redwood Editions
Michael Dobbs First Lady Headline
Robert Harris Imperium Simon & Schuster
Clive James North face Of Soho Picador
Michael Palin Diaries 1969-1979 Weidenfeld & Nicolson
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