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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (triffidus rex)

Alan Gets Crowned

I know how bodies work. I've read Fantastic Voyage and Fantastic Voyage II (biology text books by Isaac Asimov). I've seen the instructional video that was made from Asimov's books, and I pay close attention to the documentaries that screen on television in between the programmes. So I am completely familiar with the armed forces that trudge up and down the highways and byways of my body fighting off infectious invaders and keeping my bodily fluids pure and fresh. The minutiae of health care are as an open book to me. So I was somewhat annoyed when a recent rebellion in my mouth caused me a few problems.

It all started, as so many of these things do, with a slice of bread; an attractively brown slice of bread, nice and healthy, chock full of fibre, anti-cholesterol oats and lots of seeds. Some of the seeds appeared to have taken advantage of the cooking process to change their chemical composition slightly. They had undergone a rather arcane phase change, and now appeared to made of a specially hardened chrome-steel alloy. This is not an uncommon phenomenon. Trust me – I know these things; I've got a degree in chemistry. That's why I work with computers all day and every day.

I tried to avoid biting down on these devil seeds and I began to wonder if perhaps I should extract them from the bread and use them as reloads in my shotgun cartridges. They seemed almost to have been designed for the purpose. No sooner had I begun to consider this idea than I heard a great "Aha!" inside my mouth, closely followed by the ratcheting sound of a shotgun being made ready for use.


Lumps fell off my upper right molar and the armed rebels in my mouth began to cavort with glee.

"The revolution has started lads. Free vodka for the workers! Free white stick with every bottle!"

I rang my dentist and explained the problem.

"We can fit you in at 3.00pm."

"I'll be there."

Red Seas Under Red Skies is Scott Lynch's sequel to The Lies Of Locke Lamora, a book I raved about when I read it last year. In the new novel, Locke and his friend Jean Tannen have fled, sick and wounded, from Camorra and have ended up in Tal Verrar. They are soon back in the game that they play the best – robbing the rich to give to the poor. And the poorest people they know are themselves. They decide to rip off the Sinspire, the most exclusive and heavily guarded casino in the world. Its nine floors attract only the wealthiest clientèle. The most expensive games are played on the higher floors, and you can only play in those games by invitation. To rise to the top you must impress the powers that be with good credit, amusing behaviour and impeccable play. Requin, the owner of the Sinspire, has one cardinal rule. An automatic sentence of death is imposed on anyone caught cheating.

Undeterred, Locke and Jean lie, cheat, trick and swindle their way to the upper floors. The game is afoot and Requin's teeming vault is so close to opening for them that they can smell it. But someone from their past has uncovered their secret and the complications that this adds to their plans will bring them very, very close to death.

This book has everything; it has a complex plot, vast peril, magic, mystery, love, laughter, pain and pirates. Especially pirates. I loved it and so will you.

On the other hand, you won't love Red Lightning by John Varley. The first half of the book isn't actually that bad. Something, possibly a meteorite, has crashed into the ocean causing a huge tsunami that has pretty much wrecked coastal America. The scenes of devastation as the viewpoint characters travel through Florida in a desperate attempt to find and rescue their scattered family are brilliantly done and if the book had been nothing but a disaster novel I'd probably praise it highly. But once the disaster starts to recede, once the family members are reunited and once it becomes clear that it wasn't a meteorite that caused the tsunami, the novel degenerates into an incoherent mish-mash of semi-political junk. Don't waste your time and money on this one. There's no doubt that it is one of Varley's weakest and worst novels.

Chris Roberson's Paragea is a rip-roaring adventure of the old school. Leena Chirikov is a Soviet cosmonaut. Shortly after being launched into orbit from Baikonour in 1964 she falls through a strange bubble into a another dimension. She finds herself in a parallel Earth, a world of strange science and ancient mystery. Here she meets Hieronymous Bonaventure another exile from her own world, though from a vastly different era. Hieronymous was a Captain in the Royal Navy of the early nineteenth century. But now he is as timelost as Leena herself. Together with Balam, an exiled prince of the jaguar men, Leena and Hieronymous embark on a journey to find their way home.

And so we have a recipe for a typical quest story across a hostile world. Lots of adventures and battles and deeds of derring-do; lots of monsters and mysteries. There are no great surprises in the novel but it is a ripping yarn told with great gusto. I enjoyed it a lot.

Mortal Engines is the first volume of a quartet of children's novels. Like all the very best children's books it can be read and enjoyed by adults as well, and I thoroughly enjoyed the rather quirky story it tells. It is set in the far, far future long after the sixty minute war largely destroyed the Earth that you and I live in. Most of the knowledge from that ancient time has been lost but at some point between then and now the engineer Nicholas Quirke attempted to redress the sorry situation in which everyone found themselves by mobilising the cities and towns that were left from the disaster. As the novel opens, the city of London is hunting a smaller city which, once London has defeated it, will supply food for London's inhabitants and fuel for London's engines…

Tom Natsworthy is an apprentice historian. Hester Shaw is a young, very badly scarred girl who comes aboard London from the wreckage of the city that London has just destroyed. She has only one mission in life; she wants to kill Valentine, the head of London's Historian Guild. She accuses him of murdering her parents and leaving her badly injured and scarred. Tom prevents her first attempt to kill Valentine but in the process both of them are ejected from London. And so they begin a long adventure as they cross a ruined landscape unable to defend themselves from the roaming cities. Slowly Tom becomes convinced of the justice of Hester's cause and starts to regret having saved Valentine's life at the beginning. He realises that the Anti-Tractionists (people opposed to the mobile cities who live in static cities behind a great shield wall) are not necessarily as evil as he has been brought up to believe. It's a big, confusing world out there.

Mortal Engines is a great book, with a lot of wonderful jokes in it (one of the mobile cities is called Tunbridge Wheels). Apparently it has won a lot of awards. It deserves every single one of them.

Mark Haddon made his reputation with a novel called The Curious Incident Of The Dog In the Night Time which was an amazingly sympathetic study of autism. Now, in A Spot Of Bother he casts his quirky gaze on a man who is descending into madness.

At the age of fifty seven, George is settling down to a comfortable retirement. He is building a shed, reading historical novels, listening to jazz. His life is happy and he is content. Then his daughter Katie announces that she is getting married to Ray, a man that none of the family like very much and who they regard as very unsuitable. Nevertheless the wedding will go ahead and the planning for it takes over completely. Katie's mother, Jean, is very put out by the way the planning gets in the way of the affair she is having with one of George's business colleagues. Katie's brother Jamie finds that his life disintegrates when he fails to invite his lover Tony to the nuptials. And George discovers a lesion on his hip which he is sure cannot possibly be the eczema that his doctor assures him it is. It must be cancer. As this preys upon him, he quietly begins to lose his mind.

It's a funny novel and a very painful one. The family is typically dysfunctional and so there are lots of amusing set pieces built around that dysfunction. But it's a painful book as well. There is nothing funny about a mind at the end of its tether and the effects upon George himself and the people around him are not funny at all. And yet somehow you continue to laugh. That's a very, very difficult tightrope to walk but Haddon manages it perfectly; he never once stumbles, he never once falls off. At the end of Haddon's first novel I felt I knew more about autism and its effects than I had before. And at the end of this novel I felt the same about mental illness. There's enormous sympathy and understanding here. Mark Haddon is a hugely talented writer. He takes very unpromising material and turns it into pure gold.

The edges of my broken tooth were sharp and I had to be careful not to move my tongue across it in case I got cut. Volunteers from the rebel army tried valiantly to drag my tongue up and over to the tooth, but because it was right at the back of my mouth and was thus somewhat awkward to get to, they failed in their purpose. The revolutionary leaders had them shot, and I spat the bodies into the gutter.

The dentist sat me down in a comfortable chair and reclined me at a suitable angle. A wide screen LCD monitor on the wall was connected to his computer and on it was displayed my dental records and a diagram of my teeth. He probed my mouth with his instruments and compared what he found in there with the picture on the monitor. Suddenly the computer's screensaver kicked in, and lines of green symbols extracted from the movie The Matrix began to scroll down the screen.

"Wonderful," said the dentist. "It matches the inside of your mouth perfectly."

"i' 'a 'o," I said. "a's 'ood 'o 'ow!"

"Well," said the dentist, "actually it only matches for quite small values of perfectly. Your upper right molar appears to be on the point of disintegrating. Several large lumps have dropped off and there are cracks in the surface structure indicating that several more large lumps will drop off soon. I think I spotted a few armed rebels hiding in the cavities and they seem to be equipped with dynamite and detonators, so your tooth may not have long to live."

He swung me into an upright position and removed his instruments from my mouth. He put the instruments carefully on his tray. There was a saxophone, a cello, a flute and a violin. The violin was a Stradivarius. Nothing but the very best instruments for my dentist.

"I could fill the tooth," he said, "but it wouldn't be a satisfactory solution. It won't be very long before the rest of it falls apart. What you really need is a crown."

"What's a crown," I asked with vague black and white memories of Queen Elizabeth's coronation in 1953 floating through my head.

"One thousand two hundred and eight dollars and forty two cents," said the dentist. "And two more appointments."

"No, really. What's a crown?" I asked.

"Well," said the dentist, "we reduce your tooth to a stump using an angle grinder, a pneumatic jackhammer, two steamrollers and possibly an atomic bomb. Then we superglue a lump of gold to the tooth and cover the gold with porcelain."

"Why do you cover the gold with porcelain?"

"So that nobody knows you've got gold in your mouth. It's a safety precaution to stop you getting mugged when you go out on the razzle of an evening."

"That sounds wise," I agreed. "But I don't do much razzling these days, so I doubt that it will be a problem. How do you think the rebels in charge of the revolution in my mouth will cope?"

"I should imagine that they'll accept the de facto situation as de jure," he said, and I was forced to agree with that incisive insight. "But even if they don't," he continued thoughtfully, "they'll probably try to sell the gold on the black market to finance the purchase of more weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps I'll put two dabs of superglue on the crown so they won't be able to lever it off in the night when you're asleep."

Laurie R. King is best known for a series of novels about Sherlock Holmes. They are told from the point of view of a woman called Mary Russell who, eventually, marries Holmes and they have lots of adventures together. Great fun! But Laurie R. King has also written a series of contemporary detective stories centering around Kate Martinelli, a San Francisco homicide detective. Somehow the blurb on the Kate Martinelli stories never really attracted me, and so I didn't bother with them. But then I stumbled across The Art Of Detection. It's a Kate Martinelli mystery, but it's also a Sherlock Holmes mystery as well. I simply couldn't resist that combination and so I bought it and I read it and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Perhaps I'll read the other Kate Martinelli mysteries now…

Philip Gilbert is a Sherlock Holmes fanatic; so much of a fanatic that he even has his sitting room decked out in an ornate Victorian style. There's a slipper nailed to the mantelpiece with pipe tobacco in it, and there are bullet holes in the wall that spell out the initials of the late queen. Gilbert is a world expert on Holmesiana and he has a collection of priceless memorabilia including, perhaps, a century old manuscript written by Sherlock Holmes himself! Some other collectors would kill for almost anything in Gilbert's collection – and perhaps one of them did, for Philip Gilbert has been horribly murdered and Kate Martinelli must find out who did it, and why they did it.

It's an utterly fascinating premise carried to a surprising conclusion with enormous skill. The Art Of Detection is an unputdownable book, and I loved it.

I was also very pleased with Exit Music the latest novel about Inspector Rebus from Ian Rankin. I was disappointed with the previous Rebus novel (Naming the Dead) but Exit Music marks a definite return to form and it's a superb book.

It will probably be the very last Rebus novel. The events in it all take place just a few days before Rebus is due to retire from the force. And indeed, by the very end of the book, he has retired. So perhaps we will not see him again. That will be a shame.

Anyway, a dissident Russian poet has been found dead. At first it looks like a mugging that has gone wrong; but there are a few suspicious circumstances. By coincidence (or maybe not), a delegation of Russian businessmen is currently investigating business opportunities in Edinburgh and surrounding districts and also, down south in London, another Russian has just been poisoned with radioactive polonium! Nothing quite so exotic has happened on Rebus' patch, but nevertheless there are grounds for suspicion, a suspicion which hardens to practically a certainty when a particularly nasty second killing takes place.

Meanwhile, almost as an aside, Big Ger Cafferty, Edinburgh's most notorious gangster and a long time thorn in Rebus' side has been attacked and is unconscious and seriously ill in hospital. Is Rebus perhaps trying to settle old scores before he finally fades away into the sunset? Some people think so, and on the eve of his retirement Rebus is suspended from duty. It might be an ignominious end to a less than stellar career…

The plot is nicely complex with lots and lots of lovely red herrings that don't look like red herrings at all to begin with (so perhaps they are really chameleons). Everything twists and turns under the microscope; motives change, alliances are forged and then broken. The tension never lets up. It's a thoroughly satisfying read and I recommend the book highly.

John Lawton has written a series of novels about Frederick Troy, a Scotland Yard detective. Most of the books involving Troy are set in and just after the second world war. However Second Violin, although it is Lawton's latest novel, is chronologically the earliest novel that we have so far about Frederick Troy. It opens in 1938. Troy has just been newly promoted from the uniform branch to the CID. On the European continent, Hitler is taking over in Austria and rumours of war abound. Many Jews escape from Austria by the skin of their teeth and some of them arrive in England. Troy's brother is a journalist who reports on the nightmare that is Vienna under the Nazis and in his own small way he gives some small help to a Jew called Josef Hummel.

In 1939, Frederick Troy is promoted to detective sergeant and he moves to Scotland Yard. His brother returns to England, and Josef Hummel also arrives in England though by a more clandestine route.

In 1940, with England in the thick of war, Frederick Troy is seconded to the Special Branch. One of his tasks is to round up foreigners and Jews and send them to internment camps on the Isle of Man. Curiously his own brother, who was born overseas and who has never applied for British citizenship is one of the foreigners sent to the camp. So is Josef Hummel. But now, in the devastation of London at the height of the blitz, Troy has another problem to solve. Rabbis in the East End are dying; someone is apparently using the blitz as a cover to settle old scores. Perhaps Mosley and his fascists are involved? Or could it be something more sinister?

This isn't really a murder mystery or a detective novel, though it has elements of both. It is much more a historical document about how the people in power treat foreigners and Jews (is there a difference? Sometimes not.) It's an uncomfortable book in many ways – it asks questions that a lot of people would prefer not to have to answer and while it may be set in the past it has many resonances with the social and political situations with which the world finds itself faced today. This is a deliberate ploy on Lawton's part. In an afterword, he explicitly states:

Why this topic now? Well, I think we have lived these last few years in a world dominated by a man to whom the rest of the world, other than those from his own green acres in Texas, are just 'kikes and niggers'. A man who cannot even pronounce the word 'Iraq'. If you will substitute 'towelhead' or 'ayrab' for kike and nigger…it doesn't alter the concept one jot.

In other words this book isn't about the events on the surface of the story. And if it has a message, surely it tells us that nothing ever changes and those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. It's a depressing book, but a very, very gripping book.

I first came across James Webb about 20 years ago. He had just written his first novel, a book called Fields Of Fire which was about the war in Vietnam. It was highly praised by everyone, and I cannot argue with that praise. This is the very best novel that I have ever read about that sad and sorry conflict. Webb wrote a few other books of no great interest and then seemed to fall silent. Maybe his day was done. But recently he has surfaced again and his new novel Lost Soldiers is every bit as brilliant as his first book. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Lost Soldiers, like Fields Of Fire before it, is about the Vietnam war.

Brandon Condley fought in Vietnam as a young man, but he never quite came home again. He stayed in Asia after the war ended and made a living for himself doing this and that for various clandestine and semi-legal organisations. The years have passed slowly for him but nevertheless they have passed and the Asia of the late twentieth century is very different from the Asia that he first saw as a young soldier. Vietnam is an easier country to visit than once it was and Condley spends a lot of time there. It has resonances for him. As the novel opens he has been asked to bring his specialist knowledge to bear in order to help the commission that is searching for the bodies of the Americans who never came home from the war; the men who are missing in action; the MIAs.

Condley follows clues and gossip and finds a body buried deep in the jungle close to one of the areas where he himself once fought. What is more, when the body is forensically examined in order to try and confirm its identity, it becomes very clear that whoever the dead man is, he is not the man that the dog tags around the corpse's neck proclaim him to be. Condley finds himself caught up in a web of intrigue and danger. As the mystery unravels, Condley moves through a maze of plot and counterplot that involve his own wartime experiences and that requires him to play a deadly game of cat and mouse politics with the current rulers of Vietnam.

It's a stunningly good book which tells a clever story and which also illuminates a lot of dark and devious history. On the strength of Lost Soldiers, I went back and re-read Fields of Fire. That too has lost none of its power over the years. When James Webb writes about Vietnam he writes from the heart, and it shows.

The grinding proved to be less of a problem than I had anticipated. Atomic bombs were not needed; conventional explosives were all that were required. The pneumatic drill did spin out of control and emerge from the top of my head in a shower of brains, but no serious damage was done. I wasn't using those particular brain cells for anything important. At the end of the process, the rebels surrendered and were safely incarcerated in an antibiotic camp.

Currently I have a temporary, plastic crown stuck to the stump with library paste so that it can be easily removed when the time comes to fit the real crown, which is being transmuted by dark alchemical rites from a lump of lead even as we speak. Apparently this process takes at least two weeks. Since the temporary crown is designed for easy removal I have been forbidden to eat brown bread with shotgun-shell seeds and I have also been forbidden to floss. Both these actions, it seems, are likely to strip the temporary crown from the stump thus causing another, possibly very painful, revolution in my mouth.

But a crown, even a temporary one, is still a crown. I expect you to bow next time we meet.

Everyman are currently involved in an ongoing project which, when complete, will see all the books written by P. G. Wodehouse republished in a very handsome uniform edition. I've taken advantage of this project to buy (or in some cases re-buy) some of my favourites.

I've long been a fan of Wodehouse's novels about Psmith – I'd give you his full name, but the name tends to vary from story to story. Only the surname Psmith remains constant. Mostly he's Rupert, but sometimes he's Ronald. Wodehouse only wrote four books about Psmith – unusually for Wodehouse, Psmith was based on a real person with whom Wodehouse was quite friendly and I suspect he might have felt a little embarrassed about this; hence the very few books. Anyway, I've bought two of the books in the Everyman edition: Psmith In The City and Leave It To Psmith. The very first Psmith novel (Mike And Psmith) is actually one of Wodehouse's school novels which were, of course, written for children. It's not one of my favourite books; the public school ethos that it embraces is long gone and there is far too much cricket in the story for my taste, though nevertheless, it does have its moments. I possess a rather battered paperback copy and I feel no urge to replace it with a more handsome edition. Psmith Journalist does not seem to have been republished by Everyman yet, but it's not my favourite of the Psmith books anyway. It's set in America, and I feel that Psmith's quintessential Englishness sits a bit uneasily there. Again, I possess it in paperback and I see no reason to re-purchase it in another edition.

But the other two Psmith books! Oh, they are just sublime!

Psmith In The City was first published in 1910. It's a little bit of a transition novel in that it bridges the gap between his school stories and his adult novels. It takes the characters from Mike And Psmith (Mike, incidentally, rejoices in the full name Michael Jackson which puts images in my head that probably make Wodehouse spin in his grave) and it describes what happens to them after they leave school. As you can tell from the title, they go to work in the City – specifically, they work at a bank. It's not a particularly plot driven book (though Wodehouse was a master plotter and the details always dovetail perfectly). The effects that the book achieves come much more from character and language that they do from the often quite ordinary and uninspiring story details. Wodehouse was a master of the English language and he knew well how to use it for maximum effect. I would suspect that there are very few, if any, comedy novels from 1910 that would still be readable and still be funny today. Humour is often time-bound. But Wodehouse transcends the material and Psmith In The City is an utter joy.

By contrast, Leave It To Psmith is a very plot-driven book indeed. It starts with an umbrella, the best to be found in the Drones Club and it leads on from there to a tale of adventure, suspense and romance. There's crime and there's gun-play, but over it all shines the unflappable wit of the monocled, devil-may-care Psmith. If you don't laugh at this one, you're already dead. I think it is probably my very, very favourite Wodehouse book ever.

While I was in a Wodehouse purchasing mood, I also took the opportunity to indulge in Uckridge, a series of loosely linked short stories starring Uckridge himself, that loveable rogue. He's a con man with an eye for the main chance. He's always on the brink of earning a fortune with his latest hare-brained scheme; he just needs a little bit of money to tide him over, surely his friends can provide? He'll repay the loan with interest when his ship comes in; perhaps a friend like to invest? No? Oh well – that's up to you old chap.

Wodehouse was reportedly very fond of Uckridge and used him in several stories and novels. Indeed one of Wodehouse's biographers entitled his biography Uckridge in honour of Wodehouse's fondness for the man. It's easy to understand, for he is indeed a sympathetic character. The stories collected in Uckridge are a delight to the eye.

I do enjoy a good Wodehouse story and almost all of his stories are very good indeed. Isn't it nice that he wrote more than ninety books, and isn't it even nicer that Everyman is republishing them all?

Scott Lynch Red Seas Under Red Skies Bantam
John Varley Red Lightning Ace
Chris Roberson Paragea PYR
Philip Reeve Mortal Engines Scholastic
Mark Haddon A Spot Of Bother Vintage
Laurie R. King The Art Of Detection Bantam
Ian Rankin Exit Music Orion
John Lawton Second Violin Weidenfeld & Nicholson
James Webb Lost Soldiers Dell
P. G. Wodehouse Psmith In The City Everyman
P. G. Wodehouse Leave It To Psmith Everyman
P. G. Wodehouse Uckridge Everyman
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