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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (aqua aqua ubique)

Alan And Robin Dry Out

Condensation has been an ongoing problem chez robson ever since we moved in.

Robin opened the curtains and wrinkled her nose at the water streaming down the windows, flooding the window sills, soaking the curtain and dripping on to the floor.

"It's worse than it was yesterday," she said.

I clambered out of bed and splashed through huge puddles to the shower. I got myself clean and dry, and then I swam back to the bedroom to get dressed. I picked up the extra towel I keep in the bedroom and dried myself again before I put my clothes on.

Robin drew a stick man in the condensation on the window pane. She considered him thoughtfully for a time, and then she drew a stick woman to keep him company. She decided that they didn't look happy together and so she wiped them out.

"Yuck," she said, "my hand's all wet."

"It's the blood," I told her. "From the stick man massacre. It gets everywhere."

The cats tippy-toed into the kitchen in search of food – they never look very gruntled in the morning until they have had their breakfast, but when the condensation is at its worst, they look singularly disgruntled as they step carefully towards their biscuits, shaking each paw as it comes up from the water covering the floor.

"It's not good enough," said Porgy. He sounded angry. "You've got to do something about it. We can't carry on like this."

"I agree with Porgy," said Harpo. "Get it fixed or I'll bite you." He thought for a moment. "Perhaps I'll bite you anyway," he continued, "because I can."

Bess didn't say anything. She just ate her breakfast before the boys stole it.

"I'll take care of it," said Robin, "don't you worry your fluffy heads about it."

"It won't stop me biting him," said Harpo, and he bit me just to prove the point. "Yuck!" he said, "you taste horrid. What have you been eating?"

I bought my copy of the latest and last Harry Potter novel from Borders because I had a Borders voucher that allowed me to buy it for $20. To my surprise, I also got a free Owl with it as well. What a bargain!

Robin insisted on reading the book first and she vanished into her room, emerging only for meals and toilet breaks. She'd finished it by lunchtime the next day, which pleased me because I was flying to Auckland that afternoon and now I could take the book with me. Wonderful!

There were six other people on the plane reading the book. All were my age. There were several children on the flight, but none of them had the book. They gazed with wistful envy at the middle-aged readers.

But what of the book itself? Well, it's a Harry Potter book, with all of the vices and all of the virtues that we've come to expect. Harry remains a total wanker who spends most of the book wandering aimlessly around moaning and whinging and wondering what to do. Indeed, at one point he is being such a right royal pain in the neck that Ron tells him a few home truths and walks out on him. Good for Ron! I cheered.

And so we burble around through 600 pages while Harry et al search out the various plot coupons that Rowling has decided they have to find. Then there's a battle. Then it's all over.

On the plus side, many mysteries are resolved, the enigma of Snape is finally explained; some people die, others don't. It's even possible that some people live happily ever after. And I have to confess that I stayed up until 1.00am to finish the damn thing. Rowling has an enviable ability to force you to turn the page. You simply cannot read any Harry Potter book without being overtaken by an overwhelming urge to find out what happens next. To that extent it's a great book.

But I really wish that Harry wasn't such a dork.

This month also saw the publication of several other last books in some very, very long series.

The Sons Of Heaven by Kage Baker is the last book in her ongoing saga about The Company. We finally get to learn what happens in July 2355 – that mysterious date beyond which the future remains unknown to the time travelling operatives of The Company. If you haven't read the previous books in the series, you will almost certainly find this book utterly incomprehensible. If you have read the previous books, you will probably find it anti-climactic. There are no great surprises here. Every character we've ever met in all of the earlier books come together in uneasy alliances to bop Dr Zeus Incorporated. And Dr Zeus having been bopped, they all live happily ever after. Except the ones who don't. It's been a long journey for all of them.

As always with Kage Baker there are lots of good jokes – some of the immortals have a sideline in exhuming the corpses of show business stars and selling them to collectors. They've received an order (and a huge advance payment) for the corpse of Harry Houdini, but when they open his crypt, it's empty. Hmmmm…

There's no doubt that the idea behind the Company novels is a fascinating one – time travelling, immortal cyborgs collect artefacts from the corners of history where their disappearance can have no further effect on the course of events. Manuscripts are rescued from the burning library at Alexandria, for example. These artefacts are delivered to the future, to Dr Zeus Incorporated, who presumably make a great profit from them. The first few novels concentrated on the adventures of the cyborgs themselves and wonderful books they were. But gradually the plots of the later books grew more complex as the cyborgs began to suspect that there may well be more to Dr Zeus than they have been told. Wheels within wheels, motives both murky and suspicious. Somehow the later books were less satisfactory than the earlier ones and this last novel, which ties up all the loose ends is the least satisfactory of them all. There are no great surprises, no great revelations; just the dotting of i's and crossing of t's.

But nevertheless, I suspect that every reader of the earlier books will be unable to resist seeing what happens next.

Harry Turtledove has also finished off a series. In At The Death is the last instalment of his Settling Accounts series. Despite the rather artificial way the publishers have divided up the numbering of this series, it actually stretches across eleven books and tells a coherent, ongoing alternative history of the twentieth century covering more than fifty years. It's quite a tour de force and I've enjoyed it all. I'm rather sorry that it's finished (though knowing Turtledove, it is always possible that is isn't finished).

In At The Death tells of the last days of the Confederacy. The years of war have ground it down and military defeat seems almost inevitable. The President, Jake Featherstone, pins his hopes of pulling victory from the jaws of defeat on the research effort to develop an atomic bomb. He does indeed manage to explode one such bomb, almost destroying Philadelphia. But the USA has more atomic bombs than the Confederacy and the writing is on the wall. The Confederacy is forced to surrender. The war is over and now it is time for the USA to start winning the peace.

It seems highly likely that The Nail And The Oracle is also the last of a series. For the last few years, North Atlantic Books has been engaged in a project to publish the complete short stories of Theodore Sturgeon. When the project was first announced, the plan was for ten books. The Nail And The Oracle is volume eleven. So we really must be close to finishing…

I've been looking forward to this volume for quite some time. It contains what is probably the most wonderful story that Sturgeon ever wrote – When You Care, When You Love. This was originally published with the promise that it was the first section of a forthcoming novel. But the novel was never written. Sturgeon went into a writer's block that lasted for the rest of his life, leaving only this first section of the story of a man who was his own parent. Sturgeon is not the only writer who has played with this concept of course. Heinlein did it several times, and so did David Gerrold. But nobody ever approached the idea in the way that Sturgeon did. (Heinlein and Gerrold did it with physics and convoluted time travel; Sturgeon did it with biology, and it makes a much more convincing tale). It's an indescribably brilliant piece of writing and I have always been under the impression that it was one of the last things that he ever wrote (apart from the posthumous Godbody of course, but that was unpublished during his lifetime because it wasn't very good).

Sturgeon was probably the most talented (dare I say literary) writer that science fiction ever produced. The set of very handsome books that collects his complete short stories sits proudly on my bookshelves, and it should sit proudly on yours.

John Scalzi's new novel isn't part of a series, as far as I know, so it's neither the first nor the last; it just is. Scalzi made his name with a military SF trilogy that began with Old Man's War and I must confess I'd started to typecast him in my mind. This was very foolish of me – The Android's Dream is utterly unlike his earlier books. It's a rip-roaring comedy and I loved every insane word of it.

The story opens with the death of an alien member of a trade mission who are currently negotiating the price of bananas with a delegation from Earth. The alien is farted to death by one of the humans who himself dies shortly after the assassination. Uproar ensues. Only a sheep can save things. Unfortunately the necessary breed of sheep appears to be extinct. Perhaps Robin Baker, the owner of a pet shop, can help.

After that the plot gets silly.

I suspect that John Scalzi might do humour a lot better than he does the more serious stuff. I was dubious about the sequels to Old Man's War, but I absolutely loved The Android's Dream.

Robert Rankin also does rather oddball humour. His new novel is called The Da-da-de-da-da Code and it is very much the mixture as before, and the mixture is getting tired. The book opens with the headless corpse of Jonny Hooker floating in the ornamental pond at Gunnersbury Park. The bulk of the book, of course, is the story of how Jonny lost his head.

Jonny receives a special letter that informs him that he has been selected by a competition supercomputer and he is a WINNER!! WINNER!! WINNER!!

All he has to do to claim his prize is solve the da-da-de-da-da code. Jonny is a musician and he knows that all popular music has da-da-de-da-da somewhere in the beat. Then Jonny discovers that legendary blues guitarist Robert Johnson, who is popularly supposed to have sold his soul to the devil in the 1930s, and whose music inspired a host of musicians in the 1960s, visited Jonny's local pub towards the end of his life and recorded his last song there. The da-da-de-da-da code also has a connection to the last castrato whose high voice was so beautiful that it touched the angels in heaven and they came down to join him in the final chorus of his last recording.

So many last recordings and so many famous rock musicians who died at the age of 27 after hearing these suppressed sounds. Knowledge of the da-da-de-da-da code can be lethal. People lose their heads over it...

Somehow it doesn't work. Rankin's madness doesn't quite click this time around and the book comes across as silly (which it is) and not at all funny (which it is supposed to be). The musical soundtrack of the story (performed by Robert Rankin himself) is available on a free CD stuck in the back of the book. That isn't very good either.

Joe Haldeman has a brand new novel. The Accidental Time Machine tells the story of Matt Fuller, a graduate student at MIT. On the instructions of his supervisor he has built a calibrator which is designed to provide one photon per unit of time – the unit of time being a chronon, the length of time it takes light to travel the radius of an electron. When Matt pushed the reset button on the calibrator, it vanishes and then reappears a second later. He tries again. This time it disappears for about twelve seconds.

Careful measurements suggest that the calibrator is travelling in time. Every time it vanishes, it goes twelve times further (longer?) into the future.

Matt has a dead end job and his girl friend has just left him. What has he got to lose? He attaches the calibrator to a vintage car that he borrows from his dope dealer and presses the reset button. He arrives in the near future and is immediately arrested for the murder of the dope dealer. The dealer, full of experimental substances, seems to have dropped dead with shock after seeing Matt vanish before his eyes. Matt isn't going to beat this rap. More time travel is called for…

And so Matt journeys ever onwards through larger and larger increments of time into the far future, visiting strange societies, meeting strange people and having strange adventures.

It's a wonderful, wonderful novel. The story is told with beautifully understated humour. It's a delightful ripping yarn.

In many ways, the novel is an absolutely pure example of traditional science fiction. It's got everything; it's got a time machine (of course), it's got tractor beams and pressor beams, it's got talking bears, it's got Martians (well, sort of), it's got social commentary for those who want it, it's got a delightful time paradox avoidance mechanism, it's got influenza, it's got a pretty girl, it's got a perfect (and very clever) ending. What more could anybody want?

You know, it's been years and years and years since I last read a science fiction novel with tractor beams and pressor beams in it. That's what's wrong with modern science fiction, in my opinion. Not enough tractor beams and pressor beams. I'm glad Joe Haldeman is doing his best to bring them back into favour. I recommend The Accidental Time Machine unreservedly.

Of course, one of the major reasons that I loved it so much was that I found it very, very easy to identify with the hero because he shares a birthday with me. Admittedly he will be born eighty years after I was born, but nevertheless we shared a month and a day. (I'm not sure if I've got my tenses right in this paragraph; there's nothing like a time travel novel for screwing up your tenses, damnit!).

Simon Haynes novel Hal Spacejock is an intermittently amusing story about an incompetent, accident prone space pilot who owns an obsolete hunk of rust that he uses to carry cargoes round the galaxy. To quote the blurb: Partial deliveries, non-arrivals and total write-offs a speciality.

It isn't nearly as amusing as the blurb would have you believe and the endorsement on the cover from Tom Holt ("Better than Red Dwarf") is best treated as hyperbole.

Chris Roberson is a new writer to me. I bought Here, There and Everywhere simply because of its intriguing description. Roxanne Bonaventure was only eleven years old when a badly wounded, dying old lady gave her a device called the Sofia. Using the Sofia, Roxanne learns to travel through time, exploring not only worlds that will be or may be but also worlds that could have been and might someday be. She visits Rome under the rule of Julius Caesar in order to gain proficiency with spoken Latin to so as to help with her school homework. She travels from Victorian London to ancient Egypt and forward to the end of the universe. She explores the Beatles in many different world lines – did you know that there are some worlds where the Beatles never recorded Mandala and there are other worlds where Pete Best never died?

The novel is cobbled together from interlocking short stories, but nevertheless it works brilliantly. I thoroughly enjoyed it and even as we speak, three more Chris Roberson books are travelling across the seas towards my bookshelves.

Over the next few days hordes of sleazy house drying salesmen came to the door, summoned by Robin through the magic of yellow pages. Each attempted to convince us that their particular product was much more suitable than the rubbish being offered by those other salesmen whose business cards they couldn't help noticing piled on the lounge table. Robin collected vast mounds of leaflets which she thumbed through carefully every night before she went to bed.

"Have I got a bargain for you squire. Low mileage guaranteed; one careful little old lady owner who only used it to drive to church on Sundays. You'd better buy it quick, it won't last long at this price."

"Why are you trying to sell me a second hand car?"

"Oh, sorry squire. Force of habit. That was last week's job. Now what am I selling this week? Oh yes – I remember..."

And then the man from HRV arrived to peddle his wares. He had a clipboard, which immediately impressed us. He measured up the rooms and took copious notes. He drew little diagrams for us and sketched in arrows to indicate how the air should flow for maximum drying effect. It all seemed terribly efficient.

"Can I look in the roof?" he asked. "That's where we fit the fan and the ducting. I'd like to make sure it's roomy enough."

I carried a stool into the hallway and positioned it nicely below the trapdoor that opens up into the roof space. He climbed on the stool and stretched up towards the trapdoor, but he couldn't quite reach it.

"Bugger!" he said. "My arms aren't quite long enough. Never mind! I have the perfect answer."

He reached down and unclipped his prosthetic left leg then, balancing carefully on top of the stool on his right leg, he used his left leg as a lever to push open the trapdoor. Once the trapdoor was properly open, he re-attached his leg, jumped up and grabbed hold of the frame and heaved himself into the opening. He looked around the roof for a time and then dropped back down onto the stool.

"That looks perfect," he said. "Isn't it amazing the number of things you can do with an artificial leg? It's so much more useful than having a real one. I'd recommend it to anybody."

Robin and I were in instant agreement. We didn't even have to talk about it. It was never going to get any better than this.

"Where do I sign?" asked Robin.

"Here, here, here and here," said the man from HRV. He scratched his left leg. "It still itches," he said thoughtfully, "even though it isn't there."

James Lee Burke lives in Louisiana and all his previous novels have been set in and around New Orleans. So it is hardly surprising that he would choose to write a novel about New Orleans in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. If anybody can do the subject justice, it should be him. Unfortunately I suspect that he is just too close to the misery that Katrina caused and he feels too deeply about it, for the book is probably his very worst. He wraps a fairly trivial plot around the fact of the hurricane and seems to use the book mainly to preach about the venality and incompetence of the authorities in the aftermath of the disaster. Not that the authorities cared very much – the dead and dispossessed were only poor blacks after all. Burke makes his points, makes them again and just in case we didn't get it, he shouts it out loud. The Tin Roof Blowdown is a book written from the heart, but that doesn't make it a good book.

I tried very hard to like Telegraph Days, really I did. Larry McMurtry is a great writer and his novels about the American west are among his very best. He even won a Pulitzer prize for one of them. But I don't think he'll win any prizes at all for Telegraph Days. The story is told by Nellie Courtright (yes; that's how she spells it). She is 22 years old and as the book opens she and her teenage brother Jackson have just been orphaned. Nellie sweet talks the sheriff into hiring Jackson as his deputy while she takes over the vacant job as the town's telegraph operator. By pure chance, Jackson kills an entire gang of notorious outlaws and he becomes famous. Nellie spreads his story far and wide; she even writes a book about him.

As Nellie and Jackson grow up, the nineteenth century grows to a close. Despite the fact that they live in the back of beyond, Nellie manages to make the acquaintance of every famous Wild West character you ever heard of: Buffalo Bill, Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid et al. It's just too much of a good thing. The stew is over salted; the story never quite works, and the humour is forced and laboured. I tried to like Telegraph Days, but I failed.

Restless is a spy novel by William Boyd. It's hard to make a spy novel work these days. Graham Greene, John Le Carré and Len Deighton wrote the definitive spy novels and I sometimes wonder why anybody else even bothers to try. But what do I know? Not as much as William Boyd, obviously because Restless is a very, very good book indeed.

In 1939, the beautiful Russian émigrée Eva Delectorskaya is living in Paris. She is recruited by the British secret service. She learns the tricks of her trade very well, becoming cynical and untrusting as all good spies must be. She survives the war and re-invents herself as a charming suburban housewife and mother. But once a spy, always a spy and her past is about to catch up with her. If she wants to come out ahead, Eva will need help. She decides to enlist the aid of her daughter.

The novel is elegant and witty, full of pithy observations and meditations on treachery. The cynicism of betrayal has never been more beautifully portrayed. Move over Greene, Le Carré and Deighton; you've got serious competition for the first time in a long time.

In the fullness of time, HRV engineers came and laid pipes throughout the roof. They put ceiling vents into all our upstairs rooms and connected the vents to the pipes. They attached the other end of the pipes to a mysterious humming mechanism. Wires ran from the mechanism to a dinky little control panel on the wall in our hallway. The engineers pressed the on button and it beeped (always a good sign). Red lights came on, and mysterious numbers glowed. It was all very impressive.

Astonishingly, the instruction manual was only four pages long. Furthermore it was only written in English. I found this quite unnerving. These days even the instruction manual for the kettle is a hundred pages long and written in twenty languages. I began to wonder if perhaps we'd made a mistake buying something with such a thin manual. I read it nervously. The device seemed quite simple and straightforward. I felt worried all over again.

Mostly the unit is completely automatic. It just sits and hums quietly to itself as it sucks moisture up through its vents. If the temperature in the roof space gets higher than the temperature in the rooms it starts to blow instead of suck, and all the hot air from the roof gets spread around the house. This is indicated by a little red light coming on. When the light goes out, the unit stops blowing and starts sucking again.

By pushing buttons in arcane patterns, the unit can be switched to burnt toast mode. This is a super suck designed to rid the house of horrid smells and fumes such as those produced by burning toast. Oh yes! I had to try that. I pushed the buttons...

The unit in the roof began to hum as the fan went into overdrive. The ceiling vents vibrated slightly as air rushed up through them into the roof space. Vast draughts of air whistled past me as the fan sucked mightily. My hair stood on end and loose papers plastered themselves over the vents. Porgy the Cat gave a frightened squawk as the suction pulled him upwards. Fortunately I managed to grab him as he flew past me. I hid him safely in his favourite cupboard until the burnt toast mode turned itself off. Wow! That was impressive.

One of the heroes of my youth died last month. George Melly was a jazz singer in the 1950s. He fell silent in the 1960s as rock and roll started to take over all the old jazz clubs. However his career enjoyed a revival in the 1970s and he continued singing (usually at Ronnie Scott's club with John Chiltern and the Feetwarmers) until his death. He wrote many books. Revolt Into Style was one of the first serious analyses of the rock life style that seemed to permeate all of the arts in the 1960s. Far from resenting the movement that, briefly as it turned out, killed his own career, Melly embraced it whole heartedly and recognised its importance from the very beginning.

Melly also wrote his autobiography; and typically he wrote the early volumes backwards. Owning Up, the first volume, is a hilarious account of life on the road as a jazz musician in the 1950s. Don't let those upstart rock and roll singers convince you that they invented sex and drugs to go with their rock and roll. Melly was doing more drugs and having more inventive sex than many of them ever dreamed of! Then he wrote Rum, Bum and Concertina which tells of his life as a conscript in the Royal Navy. At that point in his life, Melly was firmly homosexual and the navy was the ideal life for him. Finally he wrote Scouse Mouse. This was his story of growing up in Liverpool before the war and being sent to Stowe, the public school, where he was first introduced to homosexuality, of course.

Shortly before his death, he published his last volume of autobiography and this time he got the order right! Slowing Down is an account of the trials and tribulations of growing old. In it he confesses quite cheerfully that he is now completely impotent and has had to give up the sexual escapades that once loomed so large in his life. Drink and drugs are still within reach however, and both continue to be indulged in to excess. Melly had the reputation of seldom performing sober. Once he collapsed and lay comatose beneath the piano. "The captain has left the ship," remarked John Chiltern dryly as he and the Feetwarmers continued to play jazz around the recumbent, snoring Melly.

Slowing Down should have been a sad book since it chronicles the terrible decline into decrepitude of a notorious rake. But it isn't sad at all. Melly describes all the terrors and disasters of old age with his usual humour, and you will cry with laughter as he relates tales of his explosive diarrhoea, his detached retina and his lung cancer. Melly was, and is, larger than life and twice as natural.

On the other hand, he must have been absolute hell to live with. His wife of forty years, Diana Melly, has written an account of her life with George. Take a Girl Like Me is also very funny and very moving but it definitely paints another picture of George; sometimes not a very attractive one. Quite why they remained married for so long is a bit of a mystery. Certainly they stopped sharing a bed very early on in their marriage. George's constant affairs put paid to that. Nevertheless they remained very close right up to the end. As the mood took him, George would often put Diana into his songs. He was particularly prone to refer to her when singing Dr Jazz: "...who put the LSD in Mrs Melly's morning tea?" And also: "...who put the Benzedrine in Mrs Melly's Ovaltine?"

Hello central, get me Dr Jazz.

I have two of George's jazz records. On the day I learned of his death, I played them both and one of them ("Nuts") is playing in the background as I write these words.

After a day or so of happy sucking we noticed a big improvement in the condensation problem. Robin could no longer draw stick figures on the window in the morning.

"You know," she said thoughtfully, "I think I'm going to miss those stick people. I felt I'd got to know them really well. And it was such fun, wiping them out every day."

Even the cats noticed the difference.

"Gosh," said Porgy, "it's so nice having dry paws at breakfast time."

"I like it when the kitchen floor isn't covered in water," said Harpo. "I think I'll bite you, just to show my appreciation."

He bit me.

"Yuck!" he said. "You still taste horrid."

J. K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Bloomsbury
Kage Baker The Sons Of Heaven Tor
Harry Turtledove Settling Accounts: In At The Death Del Rey
Theodore Sturgeon The Nail And The Oracle North Atlantic
John Scalzi The Android's Dream Tor
Robert Rankin The Da-da-de-da-da Code Gollancz
Joe Haldeman The Accidental Time Machine Ace
Simon Haynes Hal Spacejock Freemantle Arts Centre Press
Chris Roberson Here, There and Everywhere PYR
James Lee Burke The Tin Roof Blowdown Simon and Schuster
Larry McMurtry Telegraph Days Pocket
William Boyd Restless Bloomsbury
George Melly Slowing Down Penguin
Diana Melly Take A Girl Like Me Vintage
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