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Wot I red on my hols by Alan Robson (Endomorpheus)

Warrantable Risks

Only the names have been changed, for all the usual reasons.

It was time to have the car serviced and get it a warrant of fitness. So I hied me hence to Peter the One Man Band, who owns a garage and gives massages on the side. I have never availed myself of the massages, but several of the ladies at the office consider him to be quite hunky and go all coy when questioned. I have no idea what this might mean. But the thought of a massage given by fingers that have spent their day immersed in sump oil and grease seems less than attractive to me. And the fingernails! Oh my dears, the fingernails…

The service was no problem, but the warrant proved somewhat difficult. Normally Peter takes the cars entrusted to his care up to a testing station on the other side of town. However this requires him to persuade his father to look after the garage while he’s out; and today dad was busy doing other things. So Peter did what he hates to do – he took the car across the road to his bosom enemy Mike.

Mike is about six foot eight in every measurable dimension and gives the distinct impression that, if he really felt like it, he could pick the car up and carry it under his arm into the testing bay. However he would never do this, because he hates cars with a deep and utter loathing and would dearly love to exterminate them entirely. Peter has virtually ceased to ask Mike for warrants because Mike, as a matter of course, fails about 90% of the cars brought to him.

Naturally my car failed. The driver’s seat was too loose.

I couldn’t move it at all. Peter couldn’t budge it. Mike the Massive Mechanic could jiggle it half an inch or so if he really, really tried hard. Obviously it was far too loose.

Search though he might, Peter couldn’t find a single adjustment toggle. Nothing to twist, nothing to tighten, nothing to turn. The seat had all electrical adjustments. Lots of switches and buttons to move it hither and yon in the interests of driving comfort, but nary a screw or bolt. It appeared to be welded firmly to the frame.

But Mike said it was too loose, so of course it was.

I began to contemplate the horrors of a thousand dollar replacement seat merely on the say-so of a pathological automobophobic mesomorph. It was not to be borne.

"Tomorrow you must call your dad in to mind the shop," I said. "Take it to the usual place. Make it so!"

And thus it was made, and the car passed with flying colours. The proper testing station couldn’t force the seat to move either.

In Eric Nylund’s novel Dry Water, a man who can see death in other people’s futures comes to the eponymous town where he finds himself involved in a duel between two semi-immortal wizards. The story is a fairly commonplace fantasy full of unsubtle power plays and deep and meaningful sentences that are, unfortunately, deep and meaningful only to the protagonists, not to the reader. In this novel Nylund joins the school of "never explain anything" writers and explains so little as a result that motives remain murky, actions unexplained and the whole rather puzzling. The blurb compares him to Tim Powers and given my antipathy to Powers’ more recent work I think the comparison is justified – exactly the same stylistic tricks adorn the work of both writers. This is the third Nylund novel I have read and in every review I’ve written so far I have felt constrained to compare him to another writer with whom I detected stylistic influences. I am starting to conclude that Nylund does not really have an original voice; rather he is imitative and thus ultimately derivative. I think I’ve gone off him.

The cover blurb on Slaphead claims that it is the funniest novel since War and Peace, and that sums it up very well indeed. Terry Small wants a woman and so he goes to an organisation called "Reds in Your Beds" which maintains a string of Russian ladies who are keen on marrying Westerners in order to escape the poverty trap that is contemporary Russia. His contact in Moscow is Katya and the only man she cares about is her six year old son who is a budding entrepreneur desirous of making his way high into the ranks of the mafia; and given that his best friend is the son of one of the big bosses, it seems that he is well on the way. But then the boss dies of over-excitement caused by using a jiffy bag and a fax machine as sex aids, Terry gets beaten up, and the man who embalmed Lenin’s corpse comes up with an idea that will make his fortune. Given that the only thing he knows how to do well is embalm corpses, the novel takes on a rather macabre tone. Wry, witty and ultimately very sick, this is a very entertaining book indeed.

The Ballad of Frankie Silver is another of Sharyn McCrumb’s Appalachian novels. Two stories intertwine; the story of Frances ("Frankie") Silver, hanged for murder in the nineteenth century and Lafayette ("Fate") Harkryder about to be executed by lethal injection in the twentieth century. The two tales grow around each other in an eerie way. The story of Frankie Silver is based largely on fact which adds an extra rather creepy dimension to the whole thing. While not the strongest of her Appalachian novels, it nonetheless held me spellbound.

Christopher Moore is back in fine fettle writing hilarious horror as only he can do. Island of the Sequinned Love Nun concerns South Pacific cargo cults, the ghost of an American bomber pilot, and a transsexual called Kimi who has a fruit bat called Roberto (who just might be the only character in the novel who knows what’s really going on). Our hero Tucker is a failed pilot who recently impaled his dick on a shattered control column in a crash and as a result he now has ambivalent nightmares about joysticks. A mad missionary has acquired a Lear jet and Tucker has been hired to fly it for him. But all is not what it seems (of course) and there are cannibals abroad…well, one cannibal. The rest of the tribe don’t really approve and they make him live all by himself in a hut at the other end of the island…

Why does the love nun watch soap operas incessantly? What is the secret business that allows the missionary to afford a Lear jet? Will Roberto save our hero from several fates worse than death?

The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove introduces a large sea monster lured ashore by lust. However when he rapes the fuel tanker he was attracted to, it explodes beneath him. Miffed, he disguises himself as a caravan and eats several passers by, and a herd of cows. However it turns out that the monster is lactose intolerant, and he vomits the herd of cows back up again. After that it gets silly.

Recently Sally returned home to find the answerphone light flashing. Someone had left a message, so she pressed the button to hear it. The tape rewound for an inordinately long time. Hmmm. Perhaps she had forgotten to rewind it after the last few messages and this one was tacked on to the end?

But no; it was all one long communication. Bemused, she listened for several minutes to the sounds of many people murmuring to each other. Infuriatingly, all the voices were pitched at exactly the right level to be just (but only just) on the wrong side of indistinct. Convinced that if she could only listen hard enough she would learn much to her advantage, she urged her hearing muscles to make a supreme effort.

Suddenly she was rewarded! My voice rang out loud and clear, proclaiming words of wisdom and universal truths, gleefully accepted by all those present (as well they should, of course).

The tape played itself out, and puzzled, Sally retired to bed.

When I came home she told me of this odd circumstance and so I played the tape back again. Sure enough, it was a recording of the meeting I had been to that very night. Having been present at the meeting and being able to remember most of the words, I found the conversation easier to follow than Sally had. Again my voice rang out loud and clear, and I vividly recalled saying those self-same words not two hours previously. Hmmm…

All was now clear. At some point in the proceedings, overcome with eagerness to communicate a pearl of wisdom, it would seem that I had leaned forward in my chair. This adjustment in my position had forced the cellphone clipped to my belt to press up against the arm of the chair, thus causing buttons to be pushed. As a direct consequence of this, the phone immediately dialled the last number in its memory (fortunately my own) and the answerphone recorded the rest of the meeting until the tape ran out.

I had an interesting phone bill that month…

In Earth Made of Glass (a sequel to A Million Open Doors) John Barnes examines more of the thousand cultures, the far flung colonies of Earth originally established by long-sleep, sub-light ships and seemingly forever isolated from each other but now joined together by the invention of instantaneous travel between the stars. The novel is slow moving, and heavily involved with the very convoluted politics (and literature) of the troubled world to which Giraut and Margaret are assigned. Success depends more on aesthetic and literary understanding than on brute force or traditional politics, though all have their part to play. Eventually it bogs down in artistic introspection and grinds to a halt.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is the new Stephen King novel (or perhaps novella would be a better description since it is only 200 odd pages long, a tiny work by King’s usual standards). Nine year old Trisha McFarland becomes lost in the New England woods. The story details her struggles to stay alive, sustained only by her walkman and her baseball cap which has been autographed for her by Tom Gordon, a pitcher for the Red Sox and her hero.

As always King gets inside this child’s mind magnificently. All his very best stories are centred around children. He seems to understand them perfectly and describes them and their feelings and attitudes far better than he does those of the adults who interact with them. There are no supernatural elements in the story – it is a grimly realistic tale about the terrors and dangers of being lost and alone in a hostile environment (and as usual no punches are pulled – there are scenes that are not for the squeamish). I loved every word of it.

The British edition appears to have been typeset directly from the American with no editing in between. This leads to some remarkable linguistic infelicities. On many occasions throughout the book Trisha is attacked by insects – specifically minges and noseeums. After taking a pee and a dump in the woods, she wipes her fanny. All this (to a British English speaker) is screamingly hilarious, bordering on the obscene. In British English, both "fanny" and "minge" are slang synonyms for "cunt". In the language of my birth, Trisha should really have wiped her bum and been attacked by midges. The word "noseeum" simply doesn’t exist in my vocabulary at all, though it is easy enough to work out what it means from the context.

These copy editing blunders have an unfortunate tendency to break the story-telling magic spell. The most uncomfortably surreal images spring to mind, replete with flying flocks of vaginae dentatae, and it requires a conscious effort of will to pass them by just for the sake of the tale itself. But if you are willing to do so you will be indeed be well rewarded. Linguistic peculiarities aside, this really is a remarkably effective story.

Also effective (perhaps because it is largely based on fact, though with much interpolation and interpretation) is The Crook Factory by Dan Simmons which tells the tale of a small spy ring operated out of Havana by Ernest Hemingway in 1942. There are plots within plots - not least those of the power plays of J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI who seemed at times to regard other covert agencies such as the OSS (later the CIA) as being more his enemies than the Nazis or Japanese were! All this leads to a nicely plotted, Len Deightonish espionage novel where nobody is exactly what they seem and nobody can be trusted at all. When motives are murky and loyalties questionable, a U-boat attack seems almost welcome as a simple occurrence that can be understood on practically every level!

Simmons captures the mood of those times perfectly. Every scene seems rumpled and lived in and thoroughly believable; every character seems real. And for Hemingway buffs there is the added frisson of both a thrilling tale about an episode in his life that is largely glossed over in the official biographies and an explanation of the paranoia that he suffered from so badly in later years (and which led in large part to his suicide in 1961). I read it in a state of utter fascination.

In The Return of Little Big Man, Thomas Berger continues the story of Jack Crabb, which he left in mid stream in 1964 when the original Little Big Man was first published. In that book, Jack Crabb was adopted by the Cheyenne Indians (and named Little Big Man) and grew up with them during some of the most bitter years on the Western frontier. We saw the white expansion into the west through Jack Crabb's eyes as both an Indian and a white man which gave the novel a unique perspective. It ended with the battle of Little Big Horn, and Jack Crabb was the only white survivor. The new novel opens shortly after this. Again Crabb roams the west meeting with many of the heroes of the time (Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday etc). He was there for the gunfight at the OK Corral (and says some very uncomplimentary things about the Earp brothers(!)). He joins Cody’s wild west show and travels through Europe (and brings a frontiersman’s odd way of looking at life to some of the things he finds there). The novel is more introspective and with much less action than its predecessor. Perhaps it is a deeper, more important book as a result?

Not so very long ago, I had cause to visit an antique shop. While browsing, I noticed with pleasure a wall full of shelves covered with a huge number of immaculately reconditioned "sit-up-and-beg" typewriters of 1940s and 1950s vintage. I regarded them with nostalgia, for the very first typewriter I ever owned was of that ilk, and on it I tapped out many thousands of words of appallingly bad short stories.

The black metal frames gleamed; the keys glowed, showing no signs of wear. The machines looked eager to be used. "Give me paper and I will scribe the wisdom of the ages."

They can’t possibly have been new, but they looked it. Only the old-fashioned nature of their design and appearance gave the game away.

A family were also wandering around the shop looking at things. They had a small daughter, I would guess about five years old. She stared in utter fascination at the wall full of typewriters.

"Dad," she said. "Dad – look at all those old computers!"

Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings…

Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne is an odd little book concerning the life and times of W. C. Minor, one of the more erudite and prolific contributors the enormous exercise that eventually became the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary’s editor, James Murray, was dismayed at Minor’s persistent refusal to journey to Oxford to discuss the work and eventually travelled to Crowthorne in Berkshire to meet the man himself. What he found there astonished him – Minor was an American doctor (he had served in the civil war) who had made his way to England where, in the grip of a raging paranoia he shot and killed a harmless passer by called George Merrit. Minor was quickly arrested and tried. He was judged insane and confined to Broadmoor "at her Majesty’s pleasure" which effectively meant for life. And from his prison cell in the asylum flowed the most amazing scholarship, the most painstaking attention to detail, as he worked his way laboriously through the words of the language. The dictionary project had at its heart the desire to define the English language in a way that had never been attempted before; to pin down its history and document its evolution. That it succeeded so magnificently was due in no small measure to the brilliance of this self-confessed lunatic murderer, Dr. W. C. Minor.

Minor died in 1920, aged 85 years and nine months. He was never considered sane and the majority of his life was spent in Broadmoor and similar institutions. Seventeen years before he died, in a fit of anger at his overwhelming sexual drive and the resultant chronic masturbation, he summoned what remained of his skill as a surgeon and amputated his own penis.

The Oxford Dictionary is a towering monument to Minor’s life and this wonderfully informative biography is absolutely fascinating and should be read by all those people who love words for the light that it sheds on both the language itself and the tormented life of Dr. W. C. Minor.

But towering though his accomplishments were, let it never be forgotten that Minor was a murderer, and George Merrit, was a completely innocent victim of his rage. In my opinion, this diminishes him (I would gladly sacrifice the scholarship if it would have saved Merrit’s life). I suspect that Simon Winchester shares these sentiments, for his book is dedicated to George Merrit, that forgotten man whose cruel death had such amazingly unexpected consequences.

Eric S. Nylund Dry Water Avon
Georgina Wroe Slaphead Headline
Sharyn McCrumb The Ballad of Frankie Silver NEL
Christopher Moore Island of the Sequinned Love Nun Bard
Christopher Moore The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove Spike
John Barnes Earth Made of Glass Tor
Stephen King The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon Hodder & Stoughton
Dan Simmons The Crook Factory Avon
Thomas Berger The Return of Little Big Man Little Brown
Simon Winchester The Surgeon of Crowthorne Viking

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