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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (musica mammaria)

Soothing The Savage Breast

Back in the days of my youth, when dinosaurs roamed the West Riding Of Yorkshire and television sets were powered by steam, music was a hugely important part of my life. Generally speaking, I was a folky; most other people that I knew were rockers. Naturally we didn't talk to each other. They were musical philistines. So, presumably, was I; in their eyes at least.

My father would sit in his chair moaning bitterly about "twanging guitars" whenever Top Of The Pops was on the television. I was always glued to the screen because all the girls on the dance floor wore very short skirts and the cameraman had a knicker fetish. He kept trying to peer up the girls' legs as they twitched like epileptics to whatever group was currently miming a hit. Every so often, if you were very lucky, you'd get a flash.

"They can't be good songs," said my father. "If they were good songs, The Black And White Minstrels would sing them."

"Yes, dad."

I didn't think much of most of the music on Top Of The Pops either. But I'd have died before I admitted it to my father. I got my real musical thrills late at night beneath the bed covers as I tuned my transistor to Radio Luxembourg. It crackled and whined and faded in and out, but in between the interference and the adverts a whole new musical world opened up for me.

No knickers on the radio though.

Weaver is the fourth and last volume in Stephen Baxter's Time's Tapestry series. I bogged down a bit in the third volume and so I approached this one with some trepidation. However I was pleasantly surprised; it was very readable and the story grabbed me from page one and didn't let go.

We finally get to meet the people who are trying to interfere with history in order to bring a more desirable outcome to their contemporary present. Much to my surprise, they are not remote, mysterious beings from the far future. The book is set in the early 1940s. It shows us the debacle at Dunkirk. Most of the British army is killed or captured. Almost none are rescued. The Nazis then prepare, and successfully carry out, an invasion of southern England. There is still strong resistance in the North and the British prepare to launch a counter attack.

But both the Nazis and the allies have a secret weapon in the struggle; they know that history can be changed.

It's a rattling good yarn. The descriptions of England invaded are harrowing. But nevertheless the German army did not consists solely of sadistic maniacs (something we are inclined to forget after all the anti-nazi propaganda we've been bombarded with over the years). Most of them were just soldiers, doing the job that soldiers do. Much of the strength of this novel comes from the relationships that are built up between the conquered people and the soldiers who have conquered them. One German soldier is billeted with an English household and, after the mutual suspicion dies down a bit, he is accepted as one of the family. He's quiet, polite, respectful and helpful. He fits in easily. These small touches are what makes the book – the plot is actually more than a little melodramatic (as it has to be when it concerns the changing of time itself) but the story is told through the eyes of ordinary people. It really is stunningly good and it's a shame that some of the earlier novels in the series were quite weak. I suspect some readers may have given up because of that and so they will never know what a treat lies in store for them in this book.

In various columns over the years I have raved about the detective novels of Laurie R. King. Recently, consumed with curiosity, I visited her web site where I discovered that the first literary love of her life was science fiction. She grew up with Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke and she longed to be an SF writer. So she did indeed write an SF novel and even managed to get it published. It's called Califia's Daughters and it was published under the pseudonym Leigh Richards. Naturally I had to read it…

It's a (rather good) 'after the catastrophe' novel. Plagues, wars and environmental disasters have decimated humanity. The population is a fraction of the size it once was. Social orders have been overturned and beliefs and customs that were once dearly held have vanished into dust. The final irony is a virus with a propensity to attack the male of the species. Very few men are born and even fewer survive to reach adulthood. America (and, by implication, the rest of the world) is divided into isolated matriarchal communities. This is the story of one of those communities, just outside San Francisco.

It's a fairly routine story with a predictable plot but nevertheless I found it to be a compulsive page turner. Laurie R. King's major strength as a writer is to bring her characters brilliantly alive on the page. You can identify with them so easily because she makes them so real. This book is essentially the story of Dian who sets out from her community on a quest. It's one of the oldest stories there is, but Laurie R. King makes it fresh and new all over again. I loved it, and so will you.

I first came upon Charlaine Harris as the writer of a series of quirkily humorous supernatural stories involving vampires and werewolves and such. I enjoyed them a lot and so when I discovered that she'd started a new series, I thought it would be worth giving it a go. And I was right; I enjoyed these books as well.

Grave Sight and Grave Surprise both involve a woman called Harper Connolly and her step brother Tolliver. When she was a teenager, Harper was struck by lightening. As a result of this experience, she can find dead bodies. She can sense the location of people who have died and she can share their last moments of life. She makes a living travelling the country finding bodies for bereaved relatives and helping the police with their inquiries (this last should be read in an ironic tone of voice). Tolliver is her business manager and she depends on his expertise a lot.

Really, the novels are just whodunits with window dressing. Harper's ability to pinpoint the dead is an interesting addition, but nevertheless the stories are traditionally structured in the true Agatha Christie vein.

Charlaine Harris knows exactly what she is doing. The puzzles are suitably puzzling, the twists and turns unravel nicely, and there is always a satisfyingly dramatic denouement at the end as the murderer is revealed. Her normal quirky wit keeps the story rolling along merrily. They are just the thing for a rainy afternoon. Or a sunny one, come to that.

I spent my teens and twenties travelling round to obscure pubs where folk singing was committed. I learned many things – I learned that Whiskey In The Jar is a cliché and it must never be sung on pain of being booed. I learned that after six pints of Guinness, anybody can sing a folk song and usually they will. I learned that folk singers stick their right forefinger in their ear when they sing, unless, of course, they are called Martin Carthy (who played, on occasion, with Steeleye Span). He would stick his right forefinger in his right ear and his left forefinger in his left ear when singing, thus making it hard for him to play the guitar accompaniment. Memory insists that he stood on his right leg and ran his left foot up and down the frets, strumming the strings with his willy. But that may well have been a hallucination induced by six pints of Guinness.

Many musicians started to marry the folk tradition to contemporary rock music. I heard them on John Peel's radio show and I hunted down their albums and, on rare occasions, I saw them in the clubs. Most of the groups consisted of two or three men playing instruments and a woman with a golden voice that was almost an instrument in its own right singing all the songs. I fell in love with Maddy Prior, Sandy Denny Jacqui McShee and Annie Haslam. Many of the groups performed the traditional finger-in-the-ear songs but they also wrote a lot of their own material. Some of it even had a driving beat. Suddenly folk music was modern and trendy. Perhaps I wasn't a complete philistine after all. Sometimes I saw bewildered rockers looking very out of place in the folk clubs.

"Nice Guinness!"

"Yes it is. The blackness of the drink matches your tee shirt perfectly and the white head looks just like the ones around your nose."

"When does the head banging start?"

"After they sing Whiskey In The Jar."

"They don't play very loudly do they?"

"Pardon? I can't hear you over the noise; they've really got the amplifiers turned up high tonight."

We didn't have a lot in common.

A Cure For All Diseases is the new Dalziel & Pascoe novel from Reginald Hill. I was a little disappointed with the last novel (The Death Of Dalziel). It was a bit too straightforward, the plot was too simple and there were no interesting characters in it. But A Cure For All Diseases is a welcome return to form. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Dalziel is convalescing in Sandytown, a quiet seaside resort devoted to healing of both the conventional and the alternative kind. Death is the cure for all diseases, but Dalziel isn't quite ready for that cure yet. He befriends Charlotte Heywood, a psychologist who is investigating the benefits of alternative therapies. The alternative therapists are not falling over themselves with eagerness to be investigated. But that's hardly surprising.

Sandytown's owners argue bitterly about their plans for the resort. There is only one way out of the impasse and so one of them dies in a spectacularly gruesome way. Peter Pascoe is called in to investigate with Dalziel and Charlotte interfering as best they can. Peter doesn't have an easy time of it.

As part of his convalescent therapy, Dalziel is required to keep a journal and much of it is reproduced in the novel. I found this fascinating – for the first time we get to see Dalziel from the inside. Previously we've only ever seen Dalziel through the eyes of his colleagues, but now we get to see him as he sees himself. And as a bonus we get to see his colleagues through his eyes as well!

The plot is twisted, the characters are weird and an old friend (Franny Roote) makes a welcome return. This is a thoroughly enjoyable book.

Foxtrot Oscar is the second book in a series by Charlie Owen. I haven't read the first, but I enjoyed Foxtrot Oscar so much that I immediately ordered the first one from The title of the first novel is Horse's Arse. Who could resist a book with a title like that?

Both books are set in Manchester in the boiling hot summer of 1976. As the blurb reminds us, James Callaghan was the Prime Minister and a group called Brotherhood of Man won the Eurovision Song Contest with Save Your Kisses For Me! Surely things cannot get any worse?

Hanstead is an overspill suburb of Manchester. It is made of concrete and graffiti and inhabited mostly by tearaways who are known, none too affectionately, as the Park Royal Mafia. As Foxtrot Oscar opens, the Mafia are in disarray. Most of their senior members are either dead or banged up following a violent confrontation with the police. However their propensity for violence has attracted the attention of Sercan Ozdemir, a Turkish gangster who finds himself in need of some suitably dumb villains to perform some robberies for him. He intends to use the proceeds of the jobs to finance a rather large dope deal.

Meanwhile the police, in the persons of The Grim Brothers, Psycho, Pizza and the rest of their hardboiled copper friends try to keep a lid on things in their own inimitable, ruthless style. You can do a lot of damage with a truncheon, and they really like doing damage.

The thing that stops this book from being an absolute downer is the author's style and humour. It is very dark, but it is also extremely eccentric, a bit like Joseph Wambaugh's novels with an English rather than an American flavour. I laughed like a drain through all the blood, guts and violence. I simply couldn't help myself. It's rude, crude, grotesque and hilarious. If you like your humour tinged with blood, this is the book for you.

In The Woods is Tana French's first novel. Rob Ryan is a detective with the Dublin police. When he was twelve years old, he and his friends went playing in the woods. Something terrible happened and only Rob returned to tell the tale. Except he had no tale to tell – he remembered nothing about what happened. Now a little girl's body has been found at the site of that earlier tragedy and Rob is forced to confront his ghosts as he investigates the murder. Soon the past and the present are inextricably intertwined. There are too many hidden secrets and all of them lead back to the mystery in the woods.

On the one hand it's a gripping contemporary murder story. On the other hand it's a psychological thriller which grabs hold and won't let go. On the gripping hand it's a supernatural mystery. Finally it fails because it tries to be too many things at once and it doesn't quite succeed at any of them. I'm not sure whether the broth has too many cooks or too many ingredients, but either way it's just a little bit spoiled.

Empire Of Sand is a new novel by Robert Ryan. It's an example of biographical fiction, which tells the story of the early days and adventures of T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence Of Arabia).

Lawrence was a strange man – a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, as Churchill once said about something completely different. Perhaps that's why Lawrence has remained such a folk hero. There's the romantic Boy's Own heroism of his exploits in the desert coupled with his passionate interest in Arab politics. Lawrence had a deep understanding of the Arabian psychology and of their familial and tribal squabbles. He had in mind a map of the Middle East that was quite different from that which exists today. Had he succeeded in implementing his dream of an independent Arabia growing from the crumbling remains of the Ottoman Empire, it is highly likely that many of today's troubles could have been prevented, or at least ameliorated. But that's the wisdom of hindsight, of course.

Meanwhile, Empire Of Sand tells a rattling good yarn and I recommend it unreservedly.

Sean Thomas Russell is a brave man. His novel Under Enemy Colours is a story of naval adventure in the late eighteenth century. As soon as you try and write such a thing you will always be compared with C. S. Forester and Patrick O'Brien who, between them, wrote the definitive stories of this period. Many others have tried but they have been found wanting. However Russell is not afraid to challenge the masters and, to his credit, he makes a very good job of it. He has certainly not unseated them. At least, not yet. But as his writing skills mature, I think he may inherit their mantle. In the very near future the duo of Forester and O'Brien may well become a trio.

Lieutenant Charles Hayden had a French mother and an English father. Charles himself ran with the Parisian mobs, full of revolutionary fervour. But in the end his loyalties lay with England. However his lords and masters are suspicious of his allegiances and he has not risen in the ranks. He is overdue for an appointment as Master and Commander. Instead he is appointed first lieutenant of the Themis a new frigate under the command of Captain Josiah Hart, known to his men as 'Faint Hart' because of his propensity for avoiding battle. He is also a tyrant and the morale of his crew is at rock bottom. They are close to mutiny.

Hart is well connected and seemingly unassailable. But Philip Stevens, the First Secretary of the Admiralty wants him out of the way. Stevens makes it very clear to Hayden that not only does he want Hayden to revitalise the crew, he also wants evidence that will allow him to remove Hart from his commission. He provides Hayden with a clandestine communication channel so that Hayden can keep him up to date with developments. Hayden is unhappy both with the job (which seems hopeless) and with the fact that he is also a spy (which makes him feel unclean). Nevertheless, Stevens makes it very clear that if he does not accept the posting his career in the navy is finished. Unhappily, Hayden agrees to do what he is told.

And so the stage is set for a most unconventional story of life at sea in one of His Majesty's frigates. All the expected features are there of course, but the clandestine nature of Hayden's appointment and the extreme disaffection of the crew of the Themis add intriguing elements to this familiar tale. I enjoyed it a lot and I look forward with great anticipation to the further adventures of Charles Hayden.

Then somebody clicked their fingers and forty years passed, just like that. Wellington was hosting a weekend of rock and roll. Superannuated wrinklies with corrugated iron skin and no eardrums were playing a concert in the stadium. Rumour had it that their contract stipulated that there must be wheelchair access to the drum riser at all times. Scores of groupies were recruited from the Malvina Major Retirement Village in Khandallah. They had their hair done specially, and they were all of a twitter.

Robin and I took the bus into town. It was our wedding anniversary and we were going out to dinner.

The bus stopped at every blade of grass, and lots of people in black jeans, black tee shirts and tattoos got on. One individualist was wearing a white tee shirt and they made her sit in a seat all by herself. They carefully left their beer bottles behind in the shelter and dutifully stubbed out their joints before they climbed on to the bus. They knew that smoking and drinking were forbidden on the bus and they were anxious to obey the rules like the good little rockers they were. They were all high and happy; they'd been preparing carefully for the concert for hours and hours. One of them had his eyeballs rolled so far up in his head that he'd had to drill holes in the top of his skull in order to see out.

"How much to the stadium?"

"$3.00," said the bus driver.

There was much scrambling around in pockets for loose change. They were all from out of town and none of them had a magic bus card. One of them picked up a single dollar coin and gave it to the driver with an air of triumph.

"The fare's $3.00", said the bus driver.

The rocker looked puzzled. "Yeah," he said vaguely. "That's right. Three."

One of his friends reached over and handed the driver another two dollars. "He's a bit out of it at the moment," explained the friend. "I don't know what he's been on, but he's seeing three of everything."

"Then god help him when Ozzie Osbourne comes on stage,' said the driver as he handed over the ticket. "Three of him will be a sight too terrible to see."

Most of the rockers were teenagers. They were far too young to remember Ozzie's first bat (mind you, it's doubtful if even Ozzie remembers his first bat these days, so they had lots in common with him). There was the occasional middle aged greaser looking very self-conscious in his torn and faded twenty year old reunion tour tee shirt and stick on tattoos, but mostly they were teenagers, chattering gaily and txtng thr frnds.

The driver closed the doors, ready to pull away from the stop.

"Wait, wait!"

One of the young rockers raced up to the driver and began whispering and gesticulating wildly. The driver sighed and opened the doors. The young man got out and ran down the road. He looked round the corner and began jumping up and down and waving his arms.

"The bus is here," came the faint and distant cry. "Get your finger out. Stop doing that you evil pervert, and get over here right now!"

He shambled back to the bus, giving his mate plenty of time to finish whatever unsavoury thing he was doing. Presently a harassed looking rocker appeared and raced towards the bus. He was trying to multi-task, running and drinking at the same time. Being a man (sort of), this was utterly beyond him, and his bottle was still quite full when he arrived panting and choking at the bus. He laid it rest among the corpses of its brothers and climbed aboard.

"How much to the stadium?" he asked.

"$3.00," said the driver patiently.

The closer we got to town the more excited the rockers all got.

"Is this the stadium stop?"

"No, it’s not this one."

"Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?"

"Are we there yet?"

"Here we are!"

Buses from all over town were disgorging snakes of black clad rockers which wended their gothic way to the stadium. Ours joined them and we wished them well.

"Enjoy the concert," I said. "Have a great time."

"Rock on dude!"

Stephen Baxter Weaver Gollancz
Leigh Richards Califia's Daughters Bantam
Charlaine Harris Grave Sight Berkeley
Charlaine Harris Grave Surprise Berkeley
Reginald Hill A Cure For All Diseases Harper Collins
Charlie Owen Foxtrot Oscar Headline
Tana French In The Woods Hodder
Robert Ryan Empire Of Sand Headline
Sean Thomas Russell Under Enemy Colours Penguin
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