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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (scribus solitarius)

Robin Flies West

Robin was off to Australia to celebrate her mum's 80th birthday. The cats and I were looking forward to two weeks of eating mice, and sharing our lizards in the bed.

The first thing Robin needed to do was pack a suitcase. Like many things in Robin's life, her suitcase is purple. She claims it matches her hair, and who am I to argue with something that is so demonstrably true?

She opened a few dressing-table drawers at random and tossed a bra, a sock and a knicker into the suitcase. Then she held them in place with a tee shirt and a trouser. Now all she needed was her toilet bag. This was difficult – she had two to choose from. Naturally she chose the wrong one.

"My toothpaste tube is too big to fit into the bag," she complained, brandishing something the size and shape of a small alp.

"Fold it in two," I suggested, and she gave me a purple glare.

"Never mind," I said. "I can easily fix the problem. Pass it over here."

Somewhat dubiously, she gave me her toothpaste tube and I went into the bathroom where I swapped it for a smaller tube that I just happened to have lying around. However when I got back to the bedroom where Robin was busy with her suitcase, I found that it wasn't needed. She'd changed her mind.

"I think I'll use the other toilet bag," she said. "It's bigger."

She began transferring things from the old bag to the new one. "Can I have my original toothpaste tube back, please?"

I retrieved it from the bathroom. "Thanks," said Robin vaguely, as I handed it to her. She was too deeply immersed in the intellectual problem of deciding which items needed transferring and which ones she could do without to pay much attention to me.

"Shampoo?" she pondered. "Yes, I think so." It went into the new bag. "Conditioner? Yes, my hair is in a delicate state at the moment. Toothbrush? I suppose so, since I'm taking the toothpaste. It would be a shame not to use it. Nail clippers? No, I don't need those. Motor bike?"

"Motor bike?" I asked.

"A girl never knows when she'll need her motor bike," said Robin as she retrieved the small plastic model from one toilet bag and placed it carefully in the other.

I left her to her packing and went to watch the television. I had 42 channels to choose from but there was nothing on any of them, and so I watched the blank screen instead. Have you ever noticed how well designed screens are? They are just perfect for watching. I've tried feeling them and smelling them and tasting them and even listening to them, but nothing works nearly as well as watching them.

Galaxy Blues is a kind of a sequel to Steele's earlier novel Spindrift, though it stands alone very well. Jules Truffaut is a spaceship pilot. He has been expelled from the space fleet for various vague misdemeanour's which don't become clear until a long way into the story. He stows away on a ship to Coyote in order to start his life again on the colony world. But he is discovered, and starts his new life in prison instead. However before he can be deported back to Earth, he is employed as a shuttle pilot by Morgan Goldstein, an eccentric billionaire who is taking a starship on a voyage to Rho Coronae Borealis where he hopes to develop trade relations with the alien hjadd. And then things start to go wrong...

It's a traditional SF adventure which held me enthralled. To that extent I loved it. But it is a very American book, stuffed full of American cultural references which make it almost incomprehensible at times. I got fed up with endless baseball metaphors – a sport about which I know nothing and care even less. And what in heaven's name is a "Right Field Bleacher"?

I turned with relief to The Execution Channel by Ken Macleod. He's Scottish, but we can easily forgive him that sin. At least there's no baseball in his books. The novel is a near future thriller. War has spread over most of the Middle East and central Asia. Images of official executions circulate on the internet, broadcast on the eponymous Execution Channel. State agencies in the Western world have secret departments dedicated to flooding the net with misinformation and complex conspiracy theories.

James Travis works for a software company. But he's also a spy for a foreign power. His son Alex is in the army and he posts a regular blog about his active service. His daughter Roisin is a peace activist picketing a USAF base. James receives a hint from Alex's blog that something big is happening. Roisin takes a photograph of a strange mechanism being delivered to the base. Shortly after that, the base is destroyed by a nuclear explosion and various other acts of sabotage begin disrupting Britain's infrastructure. The whole Travis family finds itself on the run, the target of several different secret services.

And then something very odd, and very science fictional happens which puts a whole new complexion on things.

It's a complex story. Loyalties shift, motives are murky and all the narrators are unreliable. Len Deighton and John Le Carré would have been proud to write it. The ending, because it is so very science fictional, is a little bit unsatisfying. But the journey towards that ending is just brilliant and the picture it paints of a disintegrating world at the start of the 21st century is more than a little frightening. This is an excellent book.

ReVisions is an anthology of alternate history stories. It tells tales of what our world might have been like if things had gone slightly differently. Some of the stories are excellent: Nikola Tesla invents a laser and does something amazing with it. Joseph Bell and Arthur Conan Doyle investigate the AIDS virus in nineteenth century London. Leonardo Da Vinci makes and loses several fortunes by building his engines of war. Two hundred and fifty Einstein clones plot world domination. Other stories are less interesting and two are simply incomprehensible. But the overall standard is sufficiently high that I think it represents a very good read.

Robin's plane left at sparrow fart which meant that check in time was at evil-o-clock. The alarm went off at 3.00am.

"Yippee!", said Porgy The Cat, wide awake in an instant, and eager with the anticipation of breakfast. "Yummy, yummy. Feed me now."

"Me too, me too!" Bess was anxious not to be left out.

"Hurry up with those biscuits," growled Harpo, "or I'll bite you in the goolies. Perhaps I'll bite you in the goolies anyway just because I can. I'm fluffier than you are and that counts for a lot; you just can't win against me. I'm wearing knickerbockers and white ankle socks."

With cats criss-crossing dangerously between my naked and moderately fluffy legs, I staggered into the kitchen, put some biscuits down and topped up the water bowls. Then I went to have a shower. As I was drying myself, Porgy wandered into the bathroom for his daily treat. He ambled into the shower stall and slurped up some shampooey water. Then he sat down in a puddle of it and watched me pulling the towel back and forth across my damp skin.

"You look funny without your fur on," he said. "What colour fur are you going to wear today?"

"I think I'll wear black," I said to him, "so that I blend in with the darkness outside."

"Good idea," he replied and he wandered off, his wet bottom gleaming in the light of the energy saver bulb.

"Ahhhhhhh!!!", screamed Robin from the bed, where she was cunningly grabbing a few more moments of illicit sleep. "Porgy sat on my face! He's all wet!"

"Have a shower and wash it off," I suggested. She crawled out of bed and began to ablute.

I got dressed and made myself a cup of coffee. I picked up the biscuits that Harpo had scattered all across the kitchen floor (he's a very messy eater) and put them back in the bowl as a surprise treat for Bess. Robin staggered sleepily from the bathroom to the bedroom to get dressed. "I wish I hadn't packed my motor bike," she said. "I could really use a motor bike just at the moment."

"Can't you make do with the stress turkey that's hiding in the dragon's hollow tree instead?" I asked.

"I suppose I'll have to," she said. "But it's not the same."

Once she was dressed we put the purple case into the car and set off for the airport. It was about 3.45am. The man who lives in the house at the bottom of the street was mowing his lawn, and he waved as we drove past. The roads were full of traffic.

"Where are all these people going to and coming from?" I wondered. "Surely they can't all be catching a plane? If they were all leaving, the country would be empty! Oh wait..."

"I bet none of them have purple cases," said Robin proudly. I'm sure she was right.

"Did you remember to pack a book to read on the plane?" I asked her.

"Yes," she said. "I chose it very carefully. It's a bodice-ripper called Emma And The Persuasion Of Mansfield Northanger. I picked it because it's full of purple prose, but with no sense or sensibility about it at all."

"Any pride?" I asked.

"Only prejudice," she replied.

The airport was full of hustle and bustle and bright lights. I dropped Robin off and gave her a hug. She purpled herself and her suitcase into the terminal building where she checked in and received a boarding pass with a luggage receipt stuck on the back of it. The luggage receipt was about an eighth of an inch wider than the boarding pass, and so it exposed a small sticky strip around the edge that was just ideal for picking up pocket fluff and cat hairs, and for sticking firmly to the pages of a book and tearing them when you used it for a bookmark. I do admire such design perfection – it must have cost the airport authorities a fortune to get it just right.

On the face of it, there doesn't seem to be anything science fictional about Laurie R. King's new novel Touchstone. It's a story about the general strike in England in 1926 (King, for all that she is American, is very much an anglophile, and her stories reflect this). Mainly, it has to be admitted, the book really is about the social and political history of the 1920s. However there is a distinct touch of SF about it. One of the characters is an ex-soldier who was severely injured in an artillery attack in the first world war. The nerve damage he sustained has left him particularly sensitive to nuance and to mood. He can always tell when people are lying and can often tell what they are really thinking. He isn't quite telepathic, but he'll certainly do until the real thing arrives!

King is astonishingly good at writing about England and the English. She understands the English character and sense of humour like no other American writer I have ever read. She must have immersed herself in the culture from an early age (though she did make a horrendous error with the monetary system in an early novel The Beekeeper's Apprentice -- a character needs to be given a shilling and is handed a threepenny bit, a halfpenny and six farthings, making 5d in all instead of the required 12d. I think she confused 5p with 5d. Quite understandable of course. The British monetary system has always been specifically designed to confuse Americans. But it's the only error I've ever caught her in).

There's something terribly arrogant and egotistical about an American writer trying to write a book about something as quintessentially English as the social history of 1920s Britain, the General Strike, the communist menace and how the English class system coped with it all. But Laurie R. King does it magnificently, never putting a foot wrong. I loved this book. Sometimes it takes an outsider to show us at our best and our worst.

Keeping Watch is a novel that Laurie R. King wrote about five years ago. It involves the same characters as her novel Folly but is nevertheless a completely stand alone book. It tells the story of Allen Carmichael who served as a soldier in Vietnam in the 1960s. He returned from that conflict a broken man and spent many years simply bumming around the country in an alcoholic haze, trying, and failing, to come to grips with the horrors in his head. Eventually something gels – the horrors don't go away but at least they can be sealed up. Carmichael becomes involved in a clandestine organisation that helps children in need; abused children, runaways. One such child is Jamie who believes that his father is going to kill him. There is something odd about Jamie's father – he's like no other parent that Allen has ever gone up against and soon, not completely to his surprise, he finds himself on the run again.

The framing plot of Keeping Watch is a little too melodramatic to be believable. For once, Laurie R. King doesn't quite pull it off. However the bulk of the book, the story which defines just why Allen Carmichael has become the man he is, is quite superb. King seems to specialise in broken men (there are strong resemblances between Allen Carmichael and the World War 1 soldier in Touchstone). I think I would have preferred Keeping Watch without the framing story, but even with it, it is still at times a very moving book.

Charles McCarry made his name as a writer of spy stories in the early 1970s. He deliberately set out to produce the same kind of thing that Len Deighton and John Le Carré were writing and it was often said that McCarry was the only American to even come close to the British masters of that particular genre. His first novel was The Miernik Dossier and it has been out of print forever. So I was thrilled to see it reappear on the shelves in a new edition and I grabbed it as soon as I saw it. In some ways it is a very depressing book – the novel was written in 1973 and the events described in it all take place in 1959. A large part of the story concerns the infiltration of an Arabian terrorist organisation. There are massacres taking place in Darfur. So much of the story could have written today. Does nothing ever change?

The book has an unconventional structure. It is related as a collection of intelligence reports, wire taps, and surveillance notes. At first this is quite off putting, but once you get used to it, the story soon grabs hold and won't let go.

A party of five friends embark on a road trip from Switzerland to the Sudan. All of them work for the UN in Geneva, but all of them have another, more clandestine employment as well. The story is one of subtle intrigue and occasional brutal acts of violence. The scenes shift hypnotically from the sophistication of Geneva to the repression of Eastern Europe during the Cold War, to the terrorist training camps hidden deep in the desert. Charles McCarry deserves his reputation. The Miernik Dossier is superb.

Emily Cockayne's Hubbub is subtitled Filth, Noise and Stench In England, and that's exactly what it is about. It's a very scholarly (and delightfully prurient) examination of the nastiness of pre-industrial revolution England; a place where the streets are crowded, noisy, filthy and reeking of decay. The book focuses on all possible offences to the eyes, ears, nose and taste buds. It explores the daily life of the rich and poor (with extracts from many contemporary documents). It is a squirmy book, definitely not for the squeamish, full of a child like sense of wonder about everything that is gross and revolting. And just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, it does. This book taught me a new word: psorophthalmy – it means eyebrow dandruff. That's the level of detail about the general ickyness of things that the book explores. You'll need to take at least two showers after reading it.

I left Robin to the tender mercies of the airport administration and I drove off to Woolworths to do the weekly shopping. What else is there to do at that time of the morning?

Woolworths was deserted. The drunks were long gone, sleeping off the beer and wine they'd blearily bought two hours ago. Cashiers with nothing better to do chattered in a desultory fashion, waiting for their shift to end so that they could all go home and sleep the sleep of the just finished work. As I pushed my trolley round the empty aisles, I could feel their suspicious eyes staring at me.

"Oooh look! He's put some vegetables in his trolley! Nobody's ever bought vegetables at 4.30am before. Do think we should ring the police? He must be up to no good."

I wandered past the meat counter and down to the bulk produce area.

"He's chosen some lamb! That proves it. He must be a terrorist. Look! Look! Cashew nuts! What's going on?"

I pushed the trolley past the chiller.

"Oh no! Yoghurt! There's no way he can be an honest man. What is the world coming to?"

I paid for the things in my trolley and took them home. The man in the house at the bottom of the street had finished mowing his lawn and was now pruning his roses. The prunes kept falling off the thorns, and he was swearing at them.

I cooked a lamb korma with the ingredients I'd bought from Woolworths. It had finished simmering by 8.30am, and I put it to one side to cool down. It always tastes better after the ingredients have had several hours to mingle and rot. I would be eating lamb korma for my tea for the next four days. Ah – the joy of homonyms!

Time to put the washing on. Perhaps I should vacuum the carpet or clean the windows. It was still very early, and the rest of day stretched endlessly before me. I was rapidly running out of avoidance tactics. Soon I would have to read a book...

Allen Steele Galaxy Blues Ace
Ken Macleod The Execution Channel Orbit
Julie E. Czerneda and Isaac Szpindel ReVisions DAW
Laurie R. King Touchstone Bantam
Laurie R. King Keeping Watch Bantam
Charles McCarry The Miernik Dossier Scribe
Emily Cockayne Hubbub Yale University Press
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