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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (weta maxima)

Alan And Robin Go Bush

When one is in Karori, one must visit the Karori Nature Reserve. So we did.

It's a small area bounded by a pest proof fence. The fence goes deep underground so that the vermin can't dig underneath it; it has a fine mesh so that they can't get through it; and it has a complex slope at the top so that anything that climbs up it won't be able to climb over without falling off.

Building the fence must have been a job and a half in itself. It runs firmly up some very steep hills, and it pays little or no attention at all to the local geography. There is not so much as a zig in it, and scarcely even a zag. The fence is so straight, it could have been built by the Romans. I shudder to think what it must have cost, and how difficult it must have been to build, given the extraordinarily steep terrain that it marches through.

Once the fence had been put in place, the area inside it was cleared of pests – no rats, no stoats, no ferrets, no mice, no possums. Native flora and fauna were then introduced into the reserve and left to flourish. For a modest fee, people can wander round inside the fence and if they are lucky they get to see and hear lots of amazing nature.

Just outside the entrance gate is a small fenced area containing a table. On the table is a plastic rat which is sitting up on its hind legs snarling at the visitors.

"Ahhh," said Robin, stroking it lovingly, "it's so cute."

The Karori Nature Reserve lady glared at her.

"This," said the lady, "is the kind of pest that has decimated New Zealand's wild life over the years and we simply don't want it, or anything like it, in the reserve. So before you go through the gate, can you all please examine your bags very closely to make sure that there are no rats or mice or pussy cats hiding in them."

We examined our bags.

"Do people really come here with rats and mice and things in their backpacks?" I asked.

"Oh yes," she said. "It's quite common – usually they are people who've been on a camping holiday or something, and things sneak in to their bags without them knowing anything about it! We've had quite a few shrieks and screams from visitors when the unexpected nasties run out of their bags."

"And is the fence successful at keeping the reserve free from predators?"

"Pretty much," she said. "There's certainly nothing large and vicious in there. No rats or cats or possums; the fence does a wonderful job of keeping them out. We do have some mice though, and we suspect they've been carried there by birds flying over the fence with their prey in their talons. When the birds settle down for a good feed, some of the not-quite-dead-yet mice manage to escape. We've got traps set and hopefully that will stop them from getting to be too much of a nuisance."

"Are there any birds strong enough to fly over the fence with a rat or a possum in their talons?"

"I hope not," she said grimly, "but I'm suspicious of the morepork."

"The morepork?" I asked.

"Yes," she said. "It's New Zealand's native owl. Do you know why it's called a morepork?"

"Because that's what it's song sounds like," I said. I was quite certain of this, having heard the story many times. "morepork. morepork. I've heard them singing."

"Well, that's part of it. But there's a bit more to it than that. Pork really is their favourite food and they'll go to any lengths to get hold of a pig. All the neighbouring farms have to keep their pigs in morepork-proof sties. But sometimes the pigs get out, and several times I've seen a giant morepork flying over the pest proof fence with a squealing, wriggling pig clutched in its talons. Fortunately moreporks always seem to eat the entire pig, including the squeal. We've never even found any bones! But one day one of those unfortunate pigs is going to escape, and then we'll have a real problem on our hands as the reserve fills up with feral pigs."

Solemnly, she handed me a bowl of salt. I took a large pinch and returned the bowl to her.

A new Tim Powers novel is often a cause for much rejoicing. He is not prolific, but he writes to a high standard. Usually. Not to put too fine a point on it, Three Days To Never is utter crap from beginning to end. What makes it even more unfortunate is that there is the germ of a really great novel here. I'm more than willing to believe that Einstein (in collaboration with Charlie Chaplin) built a time machine in the early years of the twentieth century and that his experiments with time changed the not-quite-preordained flow of history. However I absolutely point blank refuse to believe that vital components of the time machine are things of great occult power (such as the concrete slab from outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre with Charlie Chaplin's hand prints and foot prints embedded in it). It is simply beyond the bounds of all reason to claim that Einstein consulted the great occultists of his age and was only able successfully to construct his time machine by taking their wisdom into account. I cannot willingly suspend my disbelief that much.

The plot is strong, the puzzles are interesting, the situation fraught with peril and derring do. But the utterly dumb spiritualist claptrap that permeates the novel completely destroys the genuinely clever idea that lives at the heart of the story. Avoid this book at all costs.

A. E. Van Vogt was once one of the giants of the SF field. Fans would mention him in the same breath as they mentioned Asimov and Heinlein. But then he fell silent for more than a decade, seduced by dianetics and scientology. He returned to the field in the 1970s with a whole new batch of novels, but he never quite reached the heights of popularity that he had once enjoyed and when he died in 2000 his books were mostly out of print and his reputation was in eclipse. Transfinite is a collection of his short fiction published by NESFA Press. These are the stories that first propelled Van Vogt to stardom and any serious student of the SF genre cannot afford to be without them. But I have to admit that they have not aged well. They are very redolent of their pulp origins, and to a modern eye and ear they seem unsophisticated and naive.

I found this very sad, for Van Vogt was one of my childhood heroes. In my youth I read his stories and novels over and over and over again. There was a time when when I could quote large chunks of them from memory. And I still get a spine tingle when I read sentences such as: Here is the race that shall rule the sevagram or On and on Coeurl prowled!

This last is the opening sentence of Black Destroyer which was Van Vogt's first published story. Later, heavily revised, it formed the first section of his fix-up novel Voyage Of The Space Beagle. The version included in Transfinite is the original story of course, and I found it almost unreadably crude; very badly structured, full of naive assumptions and with logical holes in the plot that you could drive a space ship through. I went and re-read Voyage Of The Space Beagle in order to compare the two versions and while the revisions certainly improved the story, they didn't improve it enough. It still reeked of its pulp origins. No modern reader of any sophistication would put up with its idiocies for a moment.

There are some illusions that it hurts to lose. Deep in my heart I still love Van Vogt's stories and I have what I think is a complete collection of his novels and a representative set of his short stories on my shelves (though given his habit of building up his novels by combining his short stories with bits of linking material, that often amounts to the same thing!). But I don't think I can re-read him with any genuine enjoyment now. Time has passed him by.

Dave Langford, he of Ansible fame, has joined the ranks of Harry Potter commentators. The End Of Harry Potter summarizes the essential nature of the Harry Potter story to date and uses this investigation as the basis for speculations as to what the last book in the series will be about. Langford is not alone in this kind of crystal potter-ball gazing. That there interweb thingy is stuffed to overflowing with (mostly) semi-literate and semi-logical wishful thinking nonsense from the vast hordes of Harry Potter fans who, one and all, read far too much into J. K. Rowling's teasing hints and deliberate misdirections.

But Langford is far too canny to fall for all that. The bulk of his book is a very detailed, extremely erudite, and closely argued analysis of the plot lines of the six books that currently exist. He shows how closely the books follow on from each other, and how cleverly Rowling plants misdirectional clues in the early books; clues whose significance can only be appreciated fully in light of later events. Rowling is extraordinarily good at what she does and her light, breezy style hides enormous subtleties.

Langford also points out contradictions and anomalies and amusing factual errors. For example, in chapter nineteen of Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix, we read that "...November arrived, cold as frozen iron...". Since molten iron freezes and becomes solid at 1,538 degrees centigrade, it must have been a really sultry winter in England that year! Damn this global warming phenomenon!

Langford analyses the Harry Potter canon with his customary wit (his book is often extremely funny) yet he treats the source material with great respect. You never feel that he is condescending. Quite the reverse, in fact. He heaps a lot of praise on Rowling's skills as a writer and story teller. And he makes many very sensible predictions as to how the story of the last book might proceed; predictions that are solidly grounded in his close examination of the minutiae of what has gone before. It will be very interesting to compare his predictions with the actuality when the last book eventually appears.

He also speculates as to what the title of the final book might be. Would you believe Harry Potter And The Return Of The King? No, neither would I. But wouldn't it be nice?

Once our bags had proved to have no cats or dogs or dragons or pigs in them, we were allowed into the reserve proper. It's just bush, with paths through it. The creatures are not captive, they are not in cages, so it's pure luck whether you see anything on your visit. The guidebook admonishes you to keep quiet and listen closely. Often the first intimation that something is sneaking up on you is a rustling in the bush, or a chirrup from up a tree. And if you pause and look carefully, you might just spot something looking back at you.

Of course sometimes it's easy.

"Chirrup, chirrup, tweet tweet tweet," sang something.

We looked around eagerly, and a tui came crashing through the canopy, singing at the top of its voice. It made a bee-line for a nice looking tree and came in fast for a three point landing. It grabbed hold of the branch, and engaged full reverse thrust on all its engines to soak up the momentum. But I think its instruments must have been faulty because it fell off the branch and tumbled head over heels all the way down to the ground.

And as it fell, it said: "SQUAWK!", and we all knew exactly what it was saying. Some words are part of a universal language.

It landed with a thump and struggled to its feet. It seemed a bit dazed. It shook itself, looked a little embarrassed and preened all its feathers very thoroughly. Then it said: "I meant to do that, you know. It was all done on purpose."

It flew back up into the tree and settled down on a better branch.

It is quite obvious to me that tuis are descended from cats, and they still retain much of their feline nature. I do so enjoy seeing evidence of evolution in action.

We saw a tuatara as well, though being a lizard and not a bird, it didn't sing any songs. Indeed it didn't do anything except sit in a hole and look at us.

"People," it said to itself. "I don't like people. Noisy things. Far too active. I think I'll move away from them."

"Look, look," we said to each other excitedly. "It's a tuatara. Look!"

"Any week now," said the tuatara, "once I get a round tui. I mean tuit."

"Quick, quick, where's the camera? Gimme the camera!"

"Definitely going to move," said the tuatara. "They've got a camera for goodness sake. Every picture steals a bit of your soul. I can't be having that. I've got to move."

"Is it real? It isn't even blinking. I'm sure it's a plastic model."

"Yep!" said the tuatara, "I'm definitely going to move somewhere else. Plastic model, indeed! I've never been so insulted. Moving. Moving..."

The connection between the tuatara's brain and its muscles is notoriously slow, and by the time we left it in order to go in search of further excitement, it hadn't even blinked yet, let alone moved its body. However when we came back about two hours later there was no sign of it. So obviously the messages had finally got through to the muscles in the legs. Either that or a Karori Ranger had come by when we weren't looking, and had picked up the plastic model and put it elsewhere in the reserve to fool another batch of tourists.

Jeffrey Deaver writes mystery stories which usually have several O. Henry twists in the tail. He is noted for pulling the rug out from under the reader's feet when the reader least expects it, again and again and again in the course of a single story – sometimes even at the very end of the book, just when you are quite convinced that all the loose ends have been tied up in a satisfying knot, he reveals one more twist that, yet again, makes you re-think everything. This is enormous fun the first time you read the story, but it tends to make it almost impossible to read the story again because much of the suspense vanishes once the final secrets have been revealed.

Despite this, I do enjoy his books – he writes very strong, sympathetic characters and you really do want to know how everything turns out for them.

Several of his novels form an ongoing series. The hero is Lincoln Rhyme who is a forensic detective. Unfortunately Rhyme is a quadriplegic, so he can never visit crime scenes himself. Instead, he depends on a small band of loyal friends/employees to sift the scene for clues and then he uses the enormous power of his brain to solve the crime. Well that's the basic outline. Obviously there's a lot more to the books than that, otherwise they wouldn't be worth bothering with.

The Twelfth Card is the sixth Lincoln Rhyme novel (though don't let that put you off, you do not have to have read the earlier novels in order to enjoy this one). Sixteen year old Geneva Settle is in a library researching material about one of her ancestors. It's early in the morning and she's alone in the library. She is attacked. Possibly it is an attempted rape; the man who attacks her has brought a rape kit with him; condoms, a knife, a rope. By means of a clever stratagem, she manages to escape and the man flees. Amelia Sachs (Lincoln Rhyme's chief assistant) is brought in to collect the forensic evidence and the game is afoot.

It soon becomes clear that the rape kit was just a diversion designed to muddy the waters. Something about Geneva's research seems to be causing such enormous problems to somebody that she has been marked down for death. But how on earth could events from 140 years ago have any relevance today?

When Geneva was attacked, she was reading an old magazine article about Charles Singleton, a black man who had fought with the Union army in the Civil War. Geneva is his direct descendant, and she owns several letters that Charles had written to his wife and daughter. After the war, Charles had been closely involved in the Civil Rights movement, though he was later discredited for it seems he had stolen some money from the movement. The article that Geneva was reading concerned his arrest and trial. The letters that Geneva owns hint at a secret that Charles knew. Could it be that this secret still has some power to affect the modern Civil Rights struggle?

The story of The Twelfth Card is played out on both the modern and historic stages and this serves to give the novel a lot more depth than other novels in the series (many of which really are quite shallow, being merely vehicles designed to show off the devious logic of what is often a rather contrived plot). It held me enthralled from beginning to end and despite the multitude of "unexpected" twists I honestly think that this is one of the few Deaver novels that would stand up to a very careful re-reading. There is sufficient depth to the story that the twists add to it, rather than detracting from it as is more usually the case.

One of the minor characters in The Twelfth Card is Parker Kincaid, a specialist in the analysis of documents. Lincoln Rhyme calls him in to obtain his professional opinion on the authenticity of the letters from Charles Singleton that Geneva owns, and also to analyse some documents that Rhyme believes belong to one of the main suspects in the case. Kincaid's analysis of these documents proves crucial to the investigation.

Kincaid is a fascinating character, and he is the major viewpoint character in The Devil's Teardrop. (Ironically, Lincoln Rhyme is a minor character in this novel; Kincaid calls him in at one point in order to make use of his forensic skills). The novel is set on New Year's Eve of 1999. A psychopathic killer called The Digger has fired a machine gun into a crowded subway station. Many people have been killed and many more are seriously wounded. The Mayor of New York has received a ransom demand. Unless the city pays 20 million dollars, The Digger will continue his random killings at four-hourly intervals.

Shortly after the note is delivered, the man who wrote it is killed in a traffic accident. He was the only one who knew how to contact The Digger. Now that he is dead, there is no way to call The Digger off. It seems like a lot of people are going to die.

The only clue is the note itself (and the dead body of the extortionist, of course). The FBI call in Parker Kincaid. Perhaps his knowledge and skill can pull answers out of the ransom demand. Perhaps he can find The Digger before any more people die.

And so the scene is set for a novel of nail-biting tension and Deaver's usual surprise twists of course. And they are surprising. Almost nothing in this book is what it seems to be. This one is a mad roller-coaster ride from start to finish.

The story with a twist in its tail has traditionally been a short story rather than a novel. Deaver is almost alone in applying this technique to the larger canvas of a novel. Nevertheless he is perfectly happy to do it with short stories as well. More Twisted is a collection of such stories. The title derives from the fact that, in a sense, the collection is a sequel to an earlier collection which was simply called Twisted. What can I say without giving away too much? Almost nothing. Great stories with nice surprises. Deaver is a master at what he does.

As the title implies, Five Great Novels is an omnibus of five of Lawrence Block's early novels. They were published in the 1960s and, as far as I can tell, they have been out of print ever since. I was curious to see how well they had stood the test of time. After all, these days Block is a well respected crime novelist whose books are subtle, powerful and moving. I was astonished to find that even though these were novels from the very start of his career, they still exhibited all of the virtues that have made him what he is today. When Block started writing, he hit the ground running.

I was also slightly surprised to see how frankly the books discussed sex and violence. The earliest novel in the collection dates from 1961 and I remember that time as being still somewhat puritan on these matters. And yet his characters engage in explicitly described sexual intercourse; the occurrence of one of the female character's period is an important plot point; bullets fly and Block does not shrink from describing what happens when they hit their target. Astonishing!

One of the things that has always attracted me to Block's work is his wry sense of humour. There are a lot of jokes in his novels, sometimes at the most inappropriate moments. This just adds to the attractiveness, of course. I was very pleased to see that this trait too was there right from the very beginning. In a sense, I suppose you could call the stories sick. Well, I always did like sick stories.

I thoroughly recommend this omnibus. It is probably the only chance you will ever get to read these early, long out of print books. Grab it while the grabbing is good.

Candlemoth and Ghostheart are Roger Jon Ellory's first two novels. Candlemoth concerns one Daniel Ford, a white man who has been convicted of murdering a black man, Nathan Varney. Varney was his best friend, and now, thirty years after they first met, Varney is dead and Ford is under sentence of death. In just over a month he will face the long lonely walk to the electric chair. In this last month of his life, Ford is visited by a priest. Somewhat to his own surprise, Ford finds himself telling the priest all about the events that have brought him to this sorry place. And this is the bulk of the novel, of course.

It is a moving tale. The reader's knowledge that these are Ford's last days casts an aura over the whole tale, for Ford is a sympathetic character and we do not want him to die. Nevertheless we know that there is no possibility of a pardon. This is an extraordinarily powerful book which is only slightly spoiled by the Jeffrey Deaver like twist at the end.

With Ghostheart, Ellory has reached his maturity as a novelist. Annie O'Neill owns a second hand bookstore in Manhattan. She is 30, single and tired of the quiet anonymity of her life. A stranger arrives in her shop. His name is Forrester and he claims to have known Annie's father, who has been dead for twenty years. Intrigued, Annie asks for details and Forrester embarks on a tale that stretches from the remote fastnesses of Eastern Europe through the Nazi death camps to the gangs of 1960s New York. It is a fascinating tale, beautifully told.

Joseph Wambaugh has an enormous reputation but he has never been a prolific writer. Hollywood Station is his first novel for about ten years. But it has been well worth the wait.

Wambaugh's best novels all have much the same structure. The cops bumble around doing their day to day jobs. There's a big crime going on in the background but mostly the cops know nothing about it. They just arrest bums, put drunks in the tank to sober up, deal with domestic violence and arrest petty crooks when they are lucky enough to stumble across them. Somehow all this adds up to a novel. The big crime gets solved, often to the surprise of everyone involved.

What makes the novels so entertaining is the sheer eccentricity of so many of the characters and, despite the seemingly rambling nature of the tale, the extraordinarily tight plotting that ties it all together. He makes it look so easy, but of course it's really very hard. Probably that's why he only produces a novel every decade or so.

This one starts with the robbery of a Hollywood jewellery store, then connects up with a Russian nightclub, an undercover operation gone horribly wrong, and an utterly clueless, unbelievably dumb pair of crystal meth addicts (tweakers in the jargon). Trying (and failing) to put the pieces together are the usual crowd of misfit detectives and sadistic street cops. The opening scene sets the mood...

Two street cops, annoyed that they have no legal powers to curb a gang who are breeding pit bulls, decide to take matters into their own hands. They turn off the lights in their police cars and arm themselves with snooker cues. Then they play a game of pit bull polo and, to loud cries of "Chukker!" they ride up and down the street terrorising the dogs. They are somewhat vague about the rules of polo. They think that "Chukker!" (not chukka – they don't know how to spell it either) is something you shout when you score a goal. They score a lot of goals before the balls (sorry, dogs) are defeated.

Wambaugh will probably never again reach the heights of The Choirboys, his most brilliant novel. But Hollywood Station is almost as good, and I loved it.

One of New Zealand's more amazing creatures is the weta – a fearsome insect that is named after the famous digital effects studio that did all the computer graphics for the Lord Of The Rings movies. The weta is best described as a cross between a cockroach and tyrannosaurus rex. They are quite harmless (though the larger ones can give you a painful bite). However they have all the aggressive instincts of their T. Rex ancestor. They are one of the very few insects that will actually chase a human being, though they seldom know what to do with one when they catch it. Most New Zealanders, suitably bribed with beer, can tell you horror stories about being trapped in a corner of the garage by an angry weta out for blood.

The Karori Reserve has built quite a lot of hotels for its wetas where they can live a life of unbridled luxury and decadence. A weta hotel is simply a dead tree with lots of holes going deep inside it. Such holes are very attractive to wetas. A section of the tree has been cut in half lengthways, thus exposing the interior of the holes. Transparent plastic has been set into the holes so that the viewing public can see inside them. Then the tree is put back together again, complete with a set of hinges so that one side can be swung open by any passing visitor. In the fullness of time, wetas will move in to the hotel in search, perhaps, of unbridled luxury. Wetas enjoy being waited on hand, foot and antenna. Visitors to the Reserve can open up the hotel and stare through the plastic at the wetas as they consummate their passions.

I swung open the door of a weta hotel. A dozen or so wetas, who were sitting around a table in the bar drinking vintage champagne, waved their antennae furiously at me.

"Shut the bloody door! The sunshine is blinding!"

"Sorry," I said.

"Hey Jimmy, can your mother sew?" asked one particularly vicious specimen.

"Yes," I said, puzzled.

"Then tell her to stitch this, Jimmy!" And he head butted me through the plastic.

I staggered back, shut the hotel door and left them to their carousing. It was time for me to go home and do some carousing of my own. Someone had moved the plastic rat at the entrance and now it was staring longingly into the reserve that it was forbidden to enter.

"Poor little thing," said Robin, and she gave it a final stroke as we left.

Tim Powers Three Days To Never Morrow
A. E. Van Vogt Transfinite: The Essential A. E. Van Vogt NESFA
David Langford The End Of Harry Potter Gollancz
Jeffery Deaver The Twelfth Card Hodder
Jeffery Deaver The Devil's Teardrop Pocket
Jeffery Deaver More Twisted Hodder
Lawrence Block Five Great Novels Orion
Roger Jon Ellory Candlemoth Orion
Roger Jon Ellory Ghostheart Orion
Joseph Wambaugh Hollywood Station Little-Brown
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