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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (domicilus rex)

Alan Stays In And Reads A Lot And Nothing Happens To Him.

The Somnambulist is Jonathan Barnes' first novel and it is so extraordinarily good that I was less than a dozen pages into it when I felt compelled to put it down in order to visit, where I ordered his second novel, (The Domino Men, it has only just been published). That being done, I then went back and finished reading The Somnambulist, which just got better and better and better the further I got into it. And also distinctly more odd.

The story takes place in Edwardian London. Pay no attention to the blurb which claims the times for Victoria. We are told often in the text that the old Queen is dead and the new century is well upon us. Edward Moon is a stage conjuror and sometime detective, though since last year's debacle in Clapham his reputation is much diminished. He owns the Theatre of Marvels in Albion Square and there, every night except Sunday, he presents his magic act. The high spot is always the moment when he pierces the Somnambulist with a sword that emerges again and again unblooded from the Somnambulist's body. The Somnambulist is a great and silent enigma; a huge giant, bald as an egg, wig-wearing and mute. He drinks nothing but milk and communicates by chalking badly spelt words on a blackboard.

Other strange events take place in that fateful year in London. The Directorate sees fit to destroy the pleasure house run by Mrs Puggsley and, much to Edward Moon's distress Mina, the bearded lady whore who is his favourite, is forced to seek new employment. The Directorate has information that there is a plot against London which will come to a head in eight days time. Strange murders have happened; people have vanished from sight. Much against his will, Edward Moon is forced into helping with the investigation. It seems some people still trust in his skill, despite what happened in Clapham. Thomas Cribb, who is living his life backwards and who has seen London in flames in the future that he has already lived through, sees merit in Edward Moon's efforts. Even Barabbas, imprisoned in Newgate and awaiting his death, has heard of the conspiracy and endeavours to help Edward Moon in his investigations. There is some small encouragement here.

Meanwhile, deep beneath the city streets, the Sleeper dreams of his last days in Highgate, of Gillman and of Ned and perhaps of King Lud, the founder of the city of London, the city that still bears his name.

I think they call this genre steampunk; a carnival of surreal grotesqueries and primitive science mixed in with some mysticism and set in a past that never was but perhaps ought to have been. The London in which Edward Moon and the Somnambulist investigate the strange conspiracy that threatens the city and the Empire is recognisably Dickensian, though writ perhaps a trifle larger, and a trifle more bizarrely than even the mighty Charles would have dared to attempt, save maybe in his last, unfinished novel. It is perhaps no coincidence that it is only a small step from Edwin Drood to Edward Moon. Or maybe it is just a coincidence after all – heaven knows there are enough of them already in the plot of this utterly mad and strangely beguiling novel which is replete with red herrings, master criminals, Limehouse opium dens, fake Chinamen, secret underground hideouts, mad scientists (no beautiful daughters, unfortunately) and even madder philosophies. I absolutely loved every insane word of it.

Fantasy writer Emma Bull has taken on one of the great American myths in her new novel Territory. We all know the story of the gunfight at the OK Corral. There have been a million movies, a zillion books about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, the Clancy brothers. By now it is so much a part of the collective unconscious that you'd think there was no more to be said about it. But you'd be wrong to think that. Emma Bull has found something new to add to the story.

In 1881 the town of Tombstone in Arizona is a thriving, bustling place. Rich veins of silver run like ley lines through the earth forming a network of power that belongs to anyone who knows how to use it. When a failed stagecoach hold up results in the death of two men, rumours abound with speculation as to who was responsible for the robbery. Doc Holliday himself was seen to leave town shortly before it took place. Hmmm…

If the truth comes out it could greatly harm Earp's plans for wealth and he will do anything to keep the truth buried. Events are building up to the shoot out at the famous corral. But you will never truly understand it until you read Emma Bull's account of the secret story behind the story.

In some ways this is a very pedestrian book. The clue that the veins of silver form a nexus of power makes it plain that there will be competing magicians somewhere in the story. But somehow, despite the predictable twists and turns of the plot, Emma Bull manages to keep the interest going.

Stephen King has a new novel called Duma Key. As always the book is nicely fat, and it is very easy to snuggle up to it and lose yourself in the story for days at a time. I do love a good Stephen King novel, and this is a very good Stephen King novel indeed.

Edgar Freemantle is a rich and successful businessman. But his whole world is torn apart when he is involved in a horrifying accident on a building site. The accident rips off his arm and for a time it is touch and go as to whether or not he will survive at all. He does eventually pull through, but the accident leaves mental scars as well as physical ones and his marriage breaks up because of them. Edgar resolves to leave it all behind, to run away, if you like, and start a new life. Let's face it, he's a very rich man. He has enough money to do anything that he wants to do. And so he rents a house on a remote strip of land off the coast of Florida. It's one of the Florida Keys and it is called Duma Key. There, in that remote isolation, he intends to rebuild himself; he intends to be an artist. All his life he has sketched and doodled. Now he is going to do it properly.

The island is owned by an old lady called Elizabeth Eastlake. There is a terrible tragedy in her past and she no longer lives in the old family home. That house was at the other end of the island and it has been allowed to rot. The jungle has taken over there and the people who live in the few remaining houses never visit it.

At first Edgar's rehabilitation seems to be going well. Most of his paintings are just paintings. But sometimes, when the mood is on him, there is an edge and an anger to the things that he paints that seems to come from outside himself. These paintings are things of power, they can make things happen, odd things, some might say supernatural things. Edgar is at one and the same time fascinated and scared by the power he sees in his pictures.

The story gets grimmer and grimmer. The island's secrets have been awoken and they have no intention at all of going back to sleep. Sooner or later Edgar knows he is going to have to investigate the house in the jungle at the other end of the key.

It's all utter nonsense of course. But Stephen King has always had the enviable ability to make you truly believe the most outrageous things just for the sake of the story. He has the real story teller's ability to suck you in and surround you with real people and real events. You believe in everyone and everything and you identify completely with the characters. You are intimately involved in their triumphs and their tragedies. Stephen King is a magic man. I fell under his spell a long time ago. Duma Key is one of his very best novels and I loved it to bits.

Khaled Hosseini's novel The Kite Runner is sprawled all over the bookshop shelves in a multitude of different editions – hardback, paperback, and soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture-back. It's a book that's impossible to avoid, so I bought a copy and I was completely blown away by it; it's a marvellous heart string tugging book and I positively devoured it.

The story begins in Afghanistan in the 1970s. Amir is twelve years old and his one ambition in life is to win the kite fighting tournament. Together with his loyal friend Hassan he sets out to build the best kite ever. But the day of the tournament turns out to be the worst day of Amir's life. For years, on and off, he has been tormented by the local bully, a completely uncontrolled and psychopathic child. But on this very special day the bully chooses to pick on Hassan instead. Amir, to his eternal shame, turns away from his friend and leaves him to his fate.

Life loses its savour for Amir. He takes out his shame and confusion on Hassan and distances himself from his friend (though Hassan remains loyal). Time passes and the Russians invade Afghanistan. Amir and his family are rich and have influential friends and they are able to flee to America. Hassan, from a much poorer and less influential family, has to stay behind.

America is kind to Amir. He gets a good education and a career. He marries well. Life is good and the festering sore of his childhood shame is deeply buried. But then, from an old friend of his father, Amir learns something about his family background that resurrects the whole agonising memory. He realises that he has to go back to Afghanistan, back to Hassan, for that is where redemption lies.

These days Afghanistan is ruled by the Taliban. Amir, with his decadent American education and attitude is not welcome in their austere country. But somehow he manages, somehow he gets in and returns to the wreckage of his old life. And only then does he come to recognise exactly how much that childhood incident has poisoned his life, and Hassan's life, and the lives of the next generation. It may be too late now to make amends, too late to seek redemption. Too much time has passed. Too many irrevocable events have marred and broken too many lives. Amir feels responsible for all of this and the knowledge is almost too much to bear.

It's a sensational book that speaks from the heart. We've all of us got secret shames, and it isn't hard for the reader to identify closely with Amir. The ramifications of his lack of action on that terrible day are (thankfully) much, much worse than anything that has happened to any of us. Nevertheless, there is the terrible knowledge that there but for the grace of God go I. That immediate sympathy is, I think, the key to the whole novel. It sucks you straight in and it doesn't spit you out until the shattering conclusion of the story. When you read this book your world goes away and Amir's world completely takes over. The story tugs at your heart strings and plays eerie tunes upon them.

By the end of the book I was emotionally exhausted. I felt drained and yet at the same time exhilarated. I was completely under Khaled Hosseini's spell and at that moment I wanted nothing more than another book by him. Fortunately such a book was waiting in the bookshop; his second novel A Thousand Splendid Suns. Reviews claimed that it was even better than The Kite Runner. Off to the bookshop I went, full of anticipation.

Unfortunately I found A Thousand Splendid Suns to be very disappointing. Perhaps I read it too soon after finishing The Kite Runner, but I felt that Hosseini was trying much too hard to repeat himself. The book seemed like a deliberate attempt to pull the same emotional strings. But you can't do that intellectually, you can only do it emotionally. The Kite Runner was written from the heart; A Thousand Splendid Suns was written from the head, and that's why it fails.

Mariam is fifteen years old. She is the illegitimate daughter of a local wheeler and dealer and she dreams of one day being accepted into his house. But that can never be. A marriage is arranged with a man thirty years her senior and she moves into his house in Kabul. Nearly twenty years later she meets Laila, another fifteen year old whose life is marred by tragedy. Mariam and Laila grow very close. Despite the difference in their ages, they are almost like sisters. And when the Taliban come they will need that strong emotional bond to help them through those bad times.

I could almost see Hosseini ticking off the events and emotions one by one on a large chart hanging in his study. It's writing by numbers and I simply couldn't get involved. The Kite Runner sang to me, A Thousand Splendid Suns just whistled an out of tune song with some of the notes missing.

These days Lawrence Block is a well respected writer of crime novels. He is one of the leaders of the field, one of the standards by which other writers are judged. But it was not always thus; like everyone else he served his apprenticeship and fifty years ago he was just a struggling young writer of cheap, lurid paperbacks.

Hard Case Crime is a publisher that is trying to resurrect those bygone days by producing its own cheap, lurid paperbacks. It's a deliberate attempt to push the nostalgia button, and they seem to be doing very well with it. Many of their books are written to the standard formula by contemporary authors (Stephen King has written one) but they are also republishing books from the old pulp fiction days. They have just republished two of Lawrence Block's early works. A Diet of Treacle dates from 1961 and Lucky At Cards from 1964. Both went in and out of print in the blink of an eye and neither have been available for many decades. I fell on them with glad cries of glee, eager to find out what kinds of things Block was writing before he rose to his current eminent position in the field. I didn't really expect very much and I was pleasantly surprised at just how much I got.

I must admit, A Diet Of Treacle isn't very good. Anita Carbone runs away from her family to Greenwich Village where she hangs around with a couple of beatniks. Shank is a drifter, a dealer in dope who gets his nickname from the knife he always carries. Joe is a drop out, a bum who takes occasional casual jobs and spends the rest of the time getting high. Eventually Shank kills someone and they all have to go on the run.

The plot is neither original nor very interesting. However I found the book quite fascinating. It was published in 1961 which means it was probably written towards the end of the 1950s. I would imagine the beatnik slang is authentic (I doubt the book would have been published at all if it wasn't). I was quite astonished at just how modern it all seemed. Good things are "cool" and really good things are "choice". Much of the dialogue could have come straight out of any modern subculture novel. Even a lot of the drug slang sounds modern (though contemporary designer drugs are, of course, absent). I wonder if the youth of today realise just how much they sound like their grandparents? I wonder if they know that they are doing many of the same things that their grandparents did? I wonder if they consider their grandparents cool?

Lucky At Cards is a much better book with a much stronger plot. Bill Maynard used to be a stage magician, but these days he makes a living as a card sharp. When you can make the odds run in your favour, you can earn a reasonable living. He joins a card game and meets the young, lovely and very bored wife of one of the players. She spots him as a cheat but instead of giving him away, she inveigles him into a plot to get rid of her husband…

So far so predictable, but once the scene is set the plot takes off in very unexpected directions indeed. The number of twists and turns that Block inserts into the story is quite breath taking. Rabbit after rabbit is pulled out of hat after hat and just when you think it is all done and dusted, off he goes again in an utterly unexpected direction. It's astonishingly clever and astonishingly convincing as well. It even has a happy ending! What more could you possibly want?

Last October I reviewed a book by Laurie R. King. It was one of an ongoing series of novels she has written about the San Francisco homicide detective Kate Martinelli. As I recall, I enjoyed the book a lot, but I didn't go out of my way to search out others in the series. However, on a recent visit to a second hand bookshop, I stumbled across several more. And again, I thoroughly enjoyed them.

A Grave Talent is the novel that first introduced Kate Martinelli to the world. As the book opens, the reader does not yet know that Kate is gay. The identity of her lover is concealed behind a deliberately chosen gender neutral name (Lee) and it only gradually becomes clear that Lee is a woman. Once we discover this, Kate's fierce separation of her private and professional life starts to make sense. She is not sure how a lesbian detective would be accepted by the rest of the force, and she is not eager to put it to the test. However the murder cases she is faced with in this novel creep over into her private life. The bodies of three children have been found and the natural suspect is an enigmatic artist called Vaun (or sometimes Eva Vaughn). She has a conviction for a similar crime, though she has always maintained her innocence. Neither Kate nor her partner Al Hawkin are really convinced of Vaun's guilt and Lee (a psychologist and psychotherapist) agrees with them. And then Vaun almost dies under strange circumstances that strongly suggest she is being targeted by the real killer. The final pursuit and unmasking of the murderer leave Lee badly injured and Kate's face and background splashed across every newspaper in San Francisco. Her private life is now very public indeed.

The second novel, To Play The Fool, is quite different in tone. Kate is now well accepted by the police department for what she is and her lifestyle is no longer an issue – if indeed it ever was. Al Hawkin found out very early in the first novel and it never made any difference at all to the way he treated Kate. Now they find themselves faced with a very curious case indeed. It begins with the cremation of a dog called Theophilus. He had been the companion of John, one of San Francisco's homeless men. When he died the vagrants cremated him in Golden Gate Park. This, while unpleasant, seems not to be actually illegal and the police do nothing. However they become very interested when, a few days later, John himself is cremated in the park. The autopsy reveals that the cause of death was a blow to the head.

Kate and Al quickly find that the rather enigmatic figure of Erasmus is deeply implicated in the homicide though exactly how is very unclear. Erasmus is an enormously charismatic figure who is the embodiment of a Fool (in the Shakespearian sense) and who will only speak in quotations from Shakespeare, the Bible, the lives of the saints and, incongruously, Gilbert and Sullivan. If he cannot find an appropriate quotation to fit the circumstance, he remains mute. Interrogating Erasmus is more than a little frustrating!

In an attempt to solve the enigma that is Erasmus, Kate arranges a meeting with a visiting British scholar who has made a lifetime study of the phenomenon of the Fool. Erasmus is not unique, and during the mad revolutionary days of the 1960s Fools were actually quite a prominent part of counter culture. However, given his age, it seems unlikely that Erasmus was involved in that particular manifestation.

It isn't long before Kate is able to delve into Erasmus' background and she finds out why he is the way he is. It is a bitterly sad story. Kate's problem now becomes one of breaking through the barriers that Erasmus has built against the world in order to find out what he knows about the murder. Ironically there is a strong possibility that if she succeeds in this, she may also destroy Erasmus. It's a pretty problem, without a pretty answer.

Night Work opens humorously. A group of people known as The Ladies Of Perpetual Disgruntlement are attempting to reclaim the night. Sexual predators are found naked and bound with duct tape with their willies exposed to the ridicule of passers by. The willies are painted purple and, in one case the phrase "I Screw Children" has been tattooed on it in careful letters. Kate rather enjoys the pranks of the Ladies Of Perpetual Disgruntlement until the day that a well known wife beater turns up dead. His wife has a cast iron alibi. Then a second and a third body are discovered. Again these are men who have been guilty of sexual violence against women and again all the obvious suspects have alibis. It isn't clear that The Ladies Of Perpetual Disgruntlement had anything to do with the killings, but somehow, as far as Kate is concerned, the humour has gone out of the situation.

The Kate Martinelli novels all involve somewhat bizarre crimes, extremely bizarre characters and, despite the surface humour, some very ugly crimes. They are also very feminist and I spent a long time avoiding the novels because I suspected that they might be preachy. I was completely wrong about that – Laurie R. King is the kind of writer who shows rather than tells and though the message may be overt it is never, ever thrust in your face. It's just a natural part of Kate Martinelli's world and it quickly becomes a natural part of the reader's world as well. And that's just the way it should be, of course. I loved these books; I loved them because they are very clever (and very oddball) murder mysteries, I loved them because of the weird characters that flit in and out of the pages, I loved them because Kate herself is drawn strongly and clearly and very, very believably. I loved them because they are damn good stories.

Unlike a lot of writers, Laurie R. King doesn't restrict herself only to her series characters. Folly is a stand alone novel of amazing brilliance, though at first glance it seems less than attractive (I think she is badly served by her blurb writers; they often make her books sound deeply unappealing). Rae Newborn is a woman in her fifties. She has had a hard life. In her childhood she was petrified of her fierce grandfather. She rebelled against this strict upbringing and made a name for herself as an artist in wood – she makes the most exquisite sculptures and furniture, and her art has made her rich. But her first marriage ended in divorce and the child of that marriage wants little or nothing to do with her. She found love in a second marriage and a second child but they were taken away from her in a car accident. Shortly after that she herself was attacked and badly beaten. Is it any wonder that she suffers from severe depression?

In the 1920s her great uncle built himself a house on a deserted island off the coast of Washington State. Shortly after he finished it, it burned down. Now Rae has returned to the island determined to rebuild the house and perhaps, in the doing of it, to rebuild her life. But there are secrets in the old ruin, ghosts from the past, the resolutions of family mysteries. Perhaps more tragedies await Rae.

Despite the gloomy scenario, this is not a gloomy book. The therapy of house building is good for Rae and there is something quite inspiring about watching her drag herself back from the slough of despond. This is a book with everything; it's a treasure hunt and a dark mystery; it is a story of self-reliance and self discovery. It held me enthralled from the first page to the last.

Another of her stand alone novels is A Darker Place (the British edition is called The Birth Of The New Moon but don't let the title change fool you, they are both the same book). The story introduces Anne Waverly, a university lecturer on religious movements and an expert on sects and cults. She herself was once a member of an extreme cult and it killed her husband and her child. Consumed with guilt, and trying perhaps to atone, Anne has several times given her expertise to the FBI and has infiltrated cult groups with a view to breaking the terrible hold they sometimes have on their followers.

In this book she infiltrates the "Change" community, a cult which makes a point of taking in "at risk" children, though the real motives behind this seeming altruism remain unclear until very late in the book. Anne slowly works herself into the community – a very large part of the novel involves itself with the minutiae of daily life – until she finally comes to grips with its odd philosophy and the strange secret at its heart.

This novel won't be to everyone's taste. There's a lot of religious debate, a lot of esoteric philosophy, a lot of peculiar views about the world. It moves very slowly indeed. I absolutely loved it, and in many ways I think it is my favourite of her novels. I enjoyed the intellectual conundrums and, I must confess, I found something deeply attractive about Anne; a woman in her fifties, a well respected member of the establishment who, for the sake of her mission, gives a very convincing impression of an old time hippie still looking for answers. That dichotomy lies at the heart of the novel, not just in Anne herself but also as a metaphor for the relationship between the Change Community and the outside world. It sucked me in and refused to let me go.

The writer George MacDonald Fraser died recently. I knew him only as the author of the Flashman books, a pseudo-historical series that started out well but which I felt got increasingly dire as the series progressed. I was discussing Fraser with a friend who dismissed the Flashman books out of hand. "They're shite," he said, demonstrating the deep critical insight for which he is well known. "You ought to read the McAuslan stories. That's what he'll be remembered for. They're the funniest things I ever read."

I'd never heard of them, but I noticed that was offering an omnibus collection of all the McAuslan stories called, imaginatively, The Complete McAuslan and I decided to take my friend at his word. I bought it, and I'm very glad I did.

The stories are semi-fictional accounts of Fraser's time in the army just after the end of the war. He was a lieutenant in a highland regiment and McAuslan was one of his squaddies. McAuslan is more than a little dim and he also has a reputation as the dirtiest soldier in the army. It has been said of the average squaddie that if you lock him in an unfurnished cell with a cannonball, by the time you let him out again he will have lost the cannonball, or broken it or dropped it on his foot. McAuslan would probably do all three, and get it dirty as well.

The humour of the stories arises from Fraser's beautiful observation of character and situation. He never puts a word wrong. There's nothing intrinsically humorous about the events, Fraser and McAuslan just make them seem so; Fraser by his wry tone and McAuslan by his dimwitted Glaswegian view of how the world works.

It's hard to give the flavour of the humour, depending as it does upon character rather than comedy, but sometimes Fraser descends into bawdy and I am particularly fond of the story in which McAuslan, endeavouring to increase his "edumacation" learns a little bit about astronomy and becomes very proud of his ability to search the night sky and identify "the Constipation of O'Brien"…

Jonathan Barnes The Somnambulist Gollancz
Emma Bull Territory Tor
Stephen King Duma Key Hodder & Stoughton
Khaled Hosseini The Kite Runner Bloomsbury
Khaled Hosseini A Thousand Splendid Sun Bloomsbury
Lawrence Block A Diet of Treacle Hard Case Crime
Lawrence Block Lucky At Cards Hard Case Crime
Laurie R. King A Grave Talent Harper Collins
Laurie R. King To Play The Fool Harper Collins
Laurie R. King Night Work Bantam
Laurie R. King Folly Harper Collins
Laurie R. King A Darker Place Bantam
George MacDonald Fraser The Complete McAuslan Harper Collins
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