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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (fiat cyaneus lux)

Robin And The House Of Blue Lights

"Pfft!" said Robin's computer.

"Excuse me?" asked Robin, somewhat taken aback.

"I said Pfft!" said the computer. "Have you got cloth ears? Pfft!"

"But what does it mean?" asked Robin.

"Mean?" said the computer. "It means Pfft! That's what it means."

"Fiddlesticks!" exclaimed Robin.

"Pfft!" said the computer with an air of finality, and all its lights went out and the gentle humming of its parts faded away into silence. Robin pressed buttons here, there and everywhere. Nothing happened; the computer remained silent, lifeless and pfftless, pining for the fjords.

"Ah!" said Robin. "So that's what Pfft! means. It means I need a new computer."

For many years, when overtaken with overwhelming techno-lust, I have been in the habit of slaking that lust in the welcoming wallet of my friend Helen who builds computers to order, stuffs them full of the sexiest electronics she can find, and then sells them for ridiculously low prices. In the days when we lived just up the road from each other at the top of the North Island, this was an easy thing for me to do. However these days I live at the bottom of the North Island and she lives at the bottom of the South Island where her cats spend their days hunting sheep and their nights howling rabidly at the moon. But I couldn't see why the distance between us should make any difference to the habits of a lifetime and so I sent her an email:

Robin needs a new computer.

Once I had broached the subject, I retreated into the background while Helen and Robin spent some considerable time discussing the finer points of graphics cards and processor speeds before finally coming up with a design for a super-computer housed in a gleaming silver case fitted with huge swirly ventilation slots that are protected by an embedded wire mesh behind which electrical components can be seen lurking slyly.

No sooner was the specification agreed upon than a courier delivered a large cardboard box to the door. Robin unpacked it and drooled.

"Careful you don't short circuit the motherboard with saliva," I warned.

Hurriedly she thrust cables into appropriate looking holes and turned the computer on. It glowed cool blue round the edges and through the sides. Perhaps the computer was so powerful that the electrons were moving between the components faster than the speed of light and so we were being bathed in Cerenkov radiation. I adjusted my lead lined underwear appropriately and nodded with admiration while Robin explored the many features of this undeniably sexy box.

"Look at that!" she exclaimed with glee, pointing out the gauges and meters on the front of the case that were displaying the temperature of vital internal components.

"Oh wow!" she gasped as she watched the blinkenlights flashing on and off in boastful and hypnotically complex patterns. "Everyone knows how important proper blinkenlights are," she assured me solemnly. "I can't think how we ever managed without them."

In addition to looking powerful enough to control the finances of a galactic empire while still having enough grunt left over to play graphics-intensive games in its copious spare time, this computer really is powerful enough to control the finances of a galactic empire while still having enough grunt left over to play graphics-intensive games in its copious spare time. For once, function follows form. I began to feel quite inadequate and more than a little jealous.

"If you are an extra specially good boy during the day," said Robin sweetly, "I'll let you touch the case for five minutes in the evening before you go to bed."

What a thrilling promise! Fair sent shivers down me timbers, it did.

There was only one problem. Everything the computer did was done silently. Robin examined the sound card carefully. There were six identically unlabelled holes into which it was possible to plug the cable that connected the card to the speakers. The designers of sound cards appear to be in love with vague ambiguities. Robin took the cable out of its current hole and tried another one. It made no difference to the lack of sound so she tried again with another hole. Not unnaturally, it was only when she plugged the cable into the sixth and last hole that the computer finally began to make noises. What a relief!

The Guild Of Xenolinguistics is a collection of stories by Sheila Finch about the problems associated with communicating with alien species. Finch has made a lifetime study of linguistics and this, together with a foreword by Ian Watson (himself a science fiction writer whose novels have often been concerned with the same theme) predisposed me to like the book. Unfortunately this predisposition did not survive the reading of it. The stories are stuffed full of extremely clever, not to say erudite, speculations, but the writing and the characterisation are very clumsy, sometimes embarrassingly so. The best idea in the world cannot save a poorly written story, I'm afraid.

I wasn't quite sure what I was going to get when I purchased a new Joe Lansdale book called The God Of The Razor. But hey! – it's by Joe Lansdale; it's always worth buying his stuff sight unseen. What I actually got turned out to be a reprinting of a novel from very early in his career called The Nightrunners, together with some short stories involving (or influenced by) the God Of The Razor himself, who is (or more accurately, might be) a major character in The Nightrunners. This pleased me very much, for The Nightrunners has been out of print and unobtainable for many years. I settled down for a night of terror...

Becky Jones has been raped in her home. Clyde, the rapist, was caught and he committed suicide in prison. But his soul lives on in Brian, one of the young thugs who was part of his gang, and with whom he has a very close relationship. We learn a lot about the nasty secrets of their past. The gang comes back to Becky. Clyde/Brian has unfinished business.

This is mainly a horror novel (and the horror is very real). Supernatural elements are hinted at but they can be ignored if you are of a mind to do so. The God Of The Razor (the Lord of all sharp things) may not be real. But the exploits of Clyde and Brian are very real indeed. In many ways this is a very sick book; definitely the stuff of nightmares and certainly it leaves no punch unpulled. I loved it for lots of (probably very sick) reasons; and I also loved the way that Becky finally got her revenge. Believe it or not, in many ways this is a very moral tale as well as a very horrid one.

Black Man is a new novel by Richard Morgan. The American edition is called Thirteen because you can't use the words black man in the land of the brave and the free any more (or do I mean the land of the cowardly and enslaved?). Carl Marsalis is one of the 13s; genetically engineered people designed for fighting wars. They are soldiers, hard men, men without conscience and when the wars are over, the Earth has no more use for them. They are hunted down without mercy. Many seek exile in the harsh and unforgiving environment on Mars; Carl was one of those. But he came back to Earth and now he works for the UN as a bounty hunter, seeking out and killing other 13s who have also followed the same path back to Earth.

The bulk of the book deals with the chase and along the way we are exposed to horrors and prejudices and much rigid thinking. If the book has a sub-text (I'm not sure it does), that sub-text is the corrosive and dehumanising nature of prejudice itself, all of which makes the American title seem more than a little ironic since it was just that kind of prejudice that caused it to be changed.

The book has received high praise from other reviewers, but I simply couldn't engage with it. It has lots of nice bits of business and well thought out scenarios, but for me it simply went on too long. Once the mysteries were explained only the chase was left and it had no other purpose than to be a chase. Too much! Too much! I found the book quite disappointing.

Michael Moorcock is back with The Metatemporal Detective, a collection of stories about the Begg (and Von Beck) families. In his youth, Moorcock wrote stories for the Sexton Blake series of penny dreadfuls, and these stories are cast in that same vein. Seaton Begg and his companion "Taffy" Sinclair work for a secret department of the British Home Office. They investigate crimes and villainies across the mutiverse – the murder of the ex prime minister of England, Lady Ratchett; the kidnapping of the King of a country that has been taken over by a totalitarian regime; the death of Adolf Hitler's mistress Geli Raubel. In these and many other cases, Seaton Begg often finds himself pitted against his arch enemy Zenith the Albino who wields various incarnations of a black sword that drinks the souls of the men that it kills (hello Elric, nice to meet you again).

I've come across some of these stories before. Moorcock seems particularly fond of a short story called The Pleasure Garden Of Felipe Saggitarius. It was first published in 1966 and it tends to turn up again and again in various collections of Moorcockiana. The names of the protagonists usually change to reflect the surrounding material and in the version included in The Metatemporal Detective, the hero is called Sam Begg.

The Metatemporal Detective is a jolly romp of a book. Moorcock is at the top of his form and he has enormous, light and frothy fun with these outrageous shaggy detective stories.

Moorcock's book is very similar in tone to a new collection from Kim Newman. The Secret Files Of The Diogenes Club is a sequel to Newman's earlier The Man From The Diogenes Club and it tells yet more ripping yarns involving the strapping lads and lassies of the eponymous club (along with a story involving Richard Riddle, the Boy Detective who was never actually a member of the Diogenes Club, probably because he disappeared under mysterious circumstances that doubtless Newman will tell us all about one day).

Ha'penny is the second in Jo Walton's alternate history series set in a fascist England after the surrender to Nazi Germany in 1941. (The first novel was called Farthing).

It is now 1949 and Hitler is on a state visit to England. He and the British prime minister Mark Normanby will be visiting the theatre to see a production of Hamlet. Meanwhile, Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard is investigating a bomb which has exploded in a house in a quiet London suburb, killing an actress and an as yet unidentified man who was with her. What he finds there leads him to a conspiracy whose ultimate goal is to murder Hitler and Normanby while they are watching the play.

The chapters dealing with Carmichael's investigation alternate with chapters told by Viola Lark (or sometimes Larkin), an actress who is initially blackmailed into helping the conspirators but who soon comes to believe in their aims and their methods.

Walton is careful not to use real people as the protagonists of her novel; too many prominent families have too many fascist skeletons in their cupboards – they'd blackball her in all their clubs at the very least! And so real historical people are relegated to the role of spear carriers, or else they are off stage during the whole of the action. But it doesn't take much knowledge of the social history of Britain to realise that Viola Larkin and her sisters are really the Mitfords, and that adds an extra frisson to the tale.

Walton gets the mood exactly right. If fascism ever really had been a viable political force in England, this is what it would have looked and felt like. The sheer eccentricity of the way the British view the world would have smoothed off some of the rough edges. The European model of fascism was always a non-starter in the British Isles. It is to Jo Walton's credit that she recognises this and it is a tribute to her writing skills that she brings it off so successfully. Ha'penny is a wonderful novel and I am eagerly looking forward to the next one, which is rumoured to be called Half a Crown. I have no idea whether or not there will be any more instalments after the third, but if there are, it would be highly appropriate to call the very last one Guinea. The snobbery behind that coinage fits exactly the mood of the times that Jo Walton is portraying and I am absolutely certain it is a joke that has already occurred to her.

"I've got a birthday coming up," Robin hinted at me.

"Really?" I asked, as if I had forgotten all about the strategic reminder notices I kept finding written on the fridge with the words from the magnetic poetry kit we got given as a wedding present. Since the magnetic poetry kit is the erotic edition, there was more than a certain piquancy to the reminders, and I was quite looking forward to her birthday. Strange delights beckoned.

"Yes," said Robin, "I really do have a birthday coming up. Don't you think my old beige monitor looks a little infra dig when set alongside the new computer?"

"It's got a nineteen inch screen," I pointed out.

"But it's beige," said Robin. "And it's bulky as well. It's got a really old fashioned cathode ray tube in it. It's so twentieth century!"

"But it's got a nineteen inch screen," I said.

The computer flashed a few of its blinkenlights. "It's beige," said the computer forcefully, experimenting with its new-found ability to make sounds. "And cathode rays give me a headache in all my diodes; particularly the ones down my right side."

"Don't you mean the ones down your left side?" I asked.

"No," said the computer. "I haven't got any diodes down my left side. I keep my spare capacity there. I've got rather a lot of that," it added smugly.

"OK," I said to Robin, "let's go to the shopping mall."

A new shop has recently opened in the shopping mall. It has a noticeboard outside it which proclaims, in large friendly letters: We Fix PC's. Because of the apostrophical misuse on the notice, I have always refused to enter the shop, but Robin is less sensitive to punctuational abuse than I am and she has browsed around inside it several times and has been quite impressed with the things that she found there. It is a one man and a dog operation (I think the dog wrote the notice) and therefore they have a very small, but very carefully selected, stock of computer bits and pieces for sale.

"Can I help you?" asked the man.

"Wuff," said the dog, looking up from a complex spreadsheet displayed on a massive wide screen LCD monitor of fearsome proportions and alarmingly bold sensuality. He wagged his tail and typed a complex mathematical formula for calculating the tensile strength of a bone into a vacant cell. I began to change my mind about who might have written the notice.

"I want one of those," said Robin, pointing at the screen in front of the dog.

"Well hello there," smarmed the screen in a sultry voice, "I'd really like to go home with you! Just wait 'till you check out the depth of my colours."

"Wuff," said the dog, ears drooping with disappointment.

"That's the only one we have in stock," said the man. "I'll go and get the box."

"I notice that you fix PC's," I said to the man when he returned with the box for the LCD monitor. "Do you, perchance, also fix PCs?"

"Yes," he said, looking slightly puzzled.

"We have a computer that said Pfft!" I explained. "Do you have any advice for us?"

"Ah!" he said wisely. "I know exactly what that means. Bring it in and I'll take a look at it."

"What does it mean?" asked Robin.

"Mean?" said the man. "It means Pfft! That's what it means. Could be quite serious. Or possibly not."

We brought the new screen home and Robin retired to her room to enjoy her hugely graphical games. It was obvious that I wasn't going to see her again until bedtime (and probably not even then) so I went downstairs to my distinctly primitive looking computer and clicked on the icon that connects me to the internet.

"No dial tone," it said smugly. "And therefore no internet either. Go away!"

I picked up the phone that is connected to the same socket. It was dead as a very dead thing. I was not being lied to. Hmmm. What about the other phone sockets in the house?

I went up to Robin's room. She was absorbed in building the Roman Empire. The new graphics card and huge monitor allowed her to zoom in and micro-manage every blade of grass in Italy. She didn't even notice me come in to her room. I unplugged the cable leading from the socket and plugged the phone in. I was greeted by the warm, friendly sound of a dial tone and the lights on my phone lit up. I plugged Robin's cable back into the wall socket and went downstairs.

"No dial tone!" said the internet connection icon. "It isn't your lucky day, is it?"

Fortunately there are two phone lines coming in to the house. I used the other one to phone TelstraClear.

"I understand simple words and phrases," said the TelstraClear robot that answered my call. "Please tell me which of the following options best describes your needs."

It gave me several choices.

"Report a fault," I said.

"Did you mean debauch a sloth?" it asked.

"Report a fault," I said again.

"I do not know how to deport a malt," said the robot. "I will connect you to a human being who is an expert in divorcing vaults."

The phone rang in my ear and then a human voice said, "Salt department. How can I help you?"

I explained my problem.

"We'll send a technician round tomorrow," said the human voice.

The Lords Day by Michael Dobbs begins with the state opening of Parliament. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles are there and so is the Prime Minister and most of his cabinet. But the ceremony soon goes badly wrong – it is interrupted by armed men who hold all the distinguished people hostage and who demand the release of their leader from prison as their price for sparing the lives of the men and women caught in the chamber of the House of Lords.

And so the hostage drama plays itself out under the eyes of the television cameras that were there to broadcast the ceremony but which now have a much more serious job to do. The world watches and holds its breath.

In many ways the novel is silly melodrama, a ridiculous little potboiler. But there is sufficient realistic audacity in the idea to allow the willing suspension of disbelief in the reader. And of course there is always the enormous joy of reading about the Queen going to the toilet as the hours drag on and on.

Does it have a happy ending? Well, read the book and make your own mind up.

Water For Elephants is set (mostly) during the depression in 1930s America. Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and running away from veterinary school, jumps on a passing train. It turns out to be a circus train and it isn't long before Jacob is hired and put in charge of the circus menagerie. He fits well into this world of freaks, swindlers and misfits. He falls in love with Marlena, the beautiful equestrienne and wife of August, the paranoid, and intermittently violent, animal trainer. He also falls in love with Rosie an elephant who is quite unmanageable until Jacob discovers the unusual key to unlock her behaviour patterns.

This book has it all – a fascinating setting (nobody can resist a circus), great love, great violence, great hatreds and the solidarity of us against the world as the show starts in the big top and the rubes are separated from their money. I loved it and so will you.

The Pure In Heart and The Risk Of Darkness are two more novels in Susan Hill's ongoing series about Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler. He is an odd sort of policeman and these are odd sorts of detective novels. Serrailler never really solves any of his cases. Things just happen around him and he agonises his way through the story, but makes little if any progress. Outside forces conspire to clear things up (or not) without his help. He simply acts as a catalyst, bringing people together, encouraging and enforcing reactions and watching what bubbles up out of the flask he is shaking so hard. Despite the fact that the books deal with very dark and nasty subjects (serial killers and child abductors) they are much more novels of character than they are novels of detection. This gives them an unexpected depth and they are insightful books – Serrailler might be an ineffective detective (!) but he is nevertheless sensitive to nuance and relationships.

I find it very hard to categorise or even describe Tuesday's War and Charlie's War by David Fiddimore. Ostensibly they are novels about the second world war, but beneath the surface there is rather more going on than that simplistic description would suggest.

The first novel is fairly straightforward, though the odd peculiarity suggests that this is not all it appears to be. The second novel is downright weird.

Charlie Bassett, the narrator, is a wireless operator in a Lancaster bomber. A Polish refugee called Piotr is the rear gunner. As the novel opens, the bomber is coming back from a raid on Germany. The plane is severely damaged. To their horror, another plane is landing just in front of them and they are too badly shot up to abort their own landing. It seems they will crash into the other plane. Suddenly the pilot of the other plane zooms off into the skies leaving the runway free for them. They land safely and the other plane lands behind them. The pilot of the other plane is a young lady called Grace, a pilot with the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) who is delivering a new bomber to the airfield. They ask her if she heard their frantic radio broadcasts telling her to get out of the way. No, she says. She simply got a bad feeling in her coccyx. Whenever she gets that feeling she knows her life is in danger.

This is Charlie's first brush with the supernatural. It won't be his last.

Grace enters their life in a big way. Soon she is sleeping with the whole crew (though she has a soft spot for Charlie) and even moves into their hut with them – a Lancaster crew has seven people in it, but there are eight beds in their hut, one of which has curtains that can be drawn discreetly round it.

Piotr is heavily involved in the black market and even more deeply involved in the convoluted world of Polish politics. If he puts a foot wrong in either of these endeavours he is likely to be killed and it isn't long before strange men with guns come looking for him and he is forced to lie low for a time. Grace takes over as the rear gunner and even manages to shoot down a night fighter. All this under the approving gaze of the ghost of a fighter pilot from the first world war.

By the end of the first book, Charlie's crew have finished their tour of bombing duty and are about to be split up and reassigned. Piotr is dead, Grace is pregnant, and Charlie has become a murderer. Of course you could argue that he has been a murderer right from the start of his bombing career. Every bomb he drops on Germany kills defenceless people; he's probably murdered hundreds. But somehow that's different from doing it in person, up close and intimate. Charlie disposes of the evidence by dropping the bodies out of the Lancaster's bomb bay on a bombing run...

Charlie is reassigned to a new airbase. He gets a lift there in a Norseman aeroplane. There's another passenger in a plane. He's called Glenn Miller. After dropping Charlie off, the plane continues its journey. Nobody ever sees Glenn Miller again.

In Charlie's War, Charlie is working with the secret services at an airfield that ferries resistance fighters and spies to Europe. It is late 1945 and much of Europe is now back in allied hands. But the war goes on and there are those who believe it is only the prelude to a longer and possibly colder war with their soviet allies.

Grace has vanished into the chaos that is Europe and Charlie is pretty much blackmailed into going over there to find her and bring her back. He is introduced to Major James England and his driver Raffles, men with a secret agenda of their own. Ostensibly Major England is a supplies officer – he travels to the front and estimates how much food is required to keep the troops moving and then makes sure that it gets there. Charlie sees little evidence of this. England scribbles a lot in a notebook and introduces Charlie to some highly dubious people; resistance fighters and crooks. The war may have passed them by but they are still fighting it. There are grudges to be settled and there will always be enemies to kill.

Underneath a tarpaulin, Charlie finds the shot-up wreckage of a Norseman aeroplane. He recognises it as the one that took Glenn Miller to his mysterious doom.

There are still pockets of German resistance even in the so-called liberated areas of Europe. Charlie sees a patrol of four Americans with red shoulder flashes marching down the street. They won't talk to him because they are dead. The village is booby trapped.

Grace, it seems, is now behind German lines with a group of mad French doctors who believe that medical care transcends war and politics. They call themselves doctors without frontiers. Charlie has a long way to go; all the way to the ruins of Bremen.

Glenn Miller isn't the only famous person to wander into the book (Picasso throws a hell of a party). The books are dark and sometimes bitter with a running undercurrent of very black humour. A third volume will be published in March 2008. I look forward to it eagerly.

The technician tested my socket and found it wanting. I showed him Robin's socket. He was greatly impressed.

"That's live," he said as he unplugged himself and put Robin's cable back.

He carefully traced the phone line from the top of the gently rotting pole out on the footpath to a mysterious grey box attached just to the right of my front door. Then he dismantled the box and attached meters to various cables. He examined their dials with a frown on his face.

"That's not possible," he said, and he did it all again with the same result. Desperate measures seemed to be called for, so he scratched his head. As it invariably does, this worked perfectly and the answer was revealed to him. All he had to do now was reveal it to me.

"The cable from your new computer is shorting out the phone line," he said. He unplugged the cable from the socket in Robin's room. "Now go and check your socket downstairs."

I did so and was greeted with the melodious hum of a dial tone.

He plugged the cable back into the wall. "Now go and test your socket again."

Dead as a dead thing. A small pile of dodo corpses lay rotting around the phone.

"See?" he said triumphantly.

I stared suspiciously at the back of Robin's computer. For the first time I noticed that the phone cable was plugged into the network socket. It wasn't a perfect fit (the plugs are the same shape, though a slightly different size) but it fitted well enough to make contact with some wires that disagreed with it and which gave it indigestion of the phone circuit, thus causing dodos in the downstairs room. I carefully removed the cable from the network socket and plugged it into the modem socket where it belonged.

Dial tones! No dodos. Scarcely even any dodo's.

The technician packed his backs and left, happy with a job well done. Robin, glowing blue, returned to Rome. I went downstairs to check my email.

Sheila Finch The Guild Of Xenolinguistics Golden Gryphon
Joe R. Lansdale The God Of The Razor Subterranean Press
Richard Morgan Black Man Gollancz
Michael Moorcock The Metatemporal Detective PYR
Kim Newman The Secret Files Of The Diogenes Club Monkeybrain Books
Jo Walton Ha'penny Tor
Michael Dobbs The Lords Day Headline
Sara Gruen Water For Elephants Allen & Unwin
Susan Hill The Pure In Heart Vintage
Susan Hill The Risk Of Darkness Vintage
David Fiddimore Tuesday's War Pan
David Fiddimore Charlie's War Pan
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