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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (pythia offa)*

The Graunch That Didn't Steal Christmas.

"Graunch?" asked my computer tentatively.

"No," I said, and thumped it on the side. "What on earth gave you that idea?"

"Sorry," it said and relapsed into silence.

For the next day or two it thought hard about what I had said. Then it decided to try again.


"No," I told it, thumping it again. But this time it obviously felt that my bark was worse than my bite, because it completely ignored my orders.

"Graunch, graunch, graunch!" it declared. "GRAUNCH, GRAUNCH, GRAUNCH!"

"Oh stop that," I yelled, thumping it even harder than before.


"Oh, for goodness sake!"


I'd had enough. I turned the computer off and left it alone to sulk a bit. Hopefully once its temper had cooled it would be more inclined to behave itself.

The next day, I turned it on again.


I turned it off and immediately rang the man at WeRepairComputers Ltd.

"My computer's going graunch," I told him.

"Ah yes," he said. "There's a lot of it about at the moment. Bring it in and I'll see what I can do."

I packed the computer up and drove down to the workshop. A young man was sitting behind the counter, playing solitaire on his laptop. Apart from him, there was nobody to be seen. It was obviously a quiet day in the computer repair business.

"I'm the person whose computer goes graunch!" I said.

"Oh yes," said the man as he moved a black jack onto a red queen. Then, his eyes still fixed on the screen of his laptop, he opened a drawer in his desk and rummaged around until he found a scrap of yellow paper. "Just write your name and phone number on this."

I did as requested. He took the paper back and turned away from his game for a moment. He looked at the piece of paper. I could see his lips moving as he read the words to himself.

"Put the red ten on the black jack," I suggested. "It frees up a column."

"Cellphone number?" he grunted, handing me back the paper.

I wrote down my cellphone number.

"Thanks." He casually tossed the piece of paper back in the drawer and returned to his game of solitaire. Red ten on to the black jack. I was pleased to see him take my advice. I wanted to ask for a receipt, but I was afraid to break his concentration. He might not win his game if I interrupted him again. I left my computer sitting on his desk. Even though it wasn't plugged in, I could hear it say "Graunch." very quietly as I went back to my car.

M Is For Magic is a collection of short stories by Neil Gaiman. Ostensibly it is aimed at children in the sense that the publisher (Bloomsbury) is generally associated with children's books and Neil's introduction to the stories is addressed directly at young children. However several of the stories are taken from earlier Gaiman publications that were aimed firmly at adults and as Gaiman himself says:

Writing imaginative tales for the young is like sending coals

to Newcastle. For coals.

As you might expect, the stories are scary, whimsical and full of delightful humour. A sinister jack in the box haunts the lives of the children whose toy it is. A cat battles every night with an evil entity in order to protect the family that has adopted him. A boy who lives in a graveyard and who has been brought up by the dead people discovers the very scary world of the living. The stories are full of delightfully distorted views of the world. This is another magnificent book from Neil Gaiman, a writer who can do no wrong.

Another writer for children whose works are equally popular with adults is Diana Wynne Jones. She has two new books out. The Game is a novella which retells the Greek myths surrounding the lives of the Pleiades and Hesperides. House Of Many Ways is a sequel to her earlier novel Howl's Moving Castle.

Both books are written in very simple language with simple, straightforward plots. They are obviously designed for very young children. Nevertheless I thoroughly enjoyed both of them and quickly fell under their spell. Perhaps, at heart, I am a very young child.

The Game sees young Hayley packed off to Ireland to live with her aunts. She finds life with her aunts very bewildering – it is noisy and chaotic and full of cousins. Hayley is introduced to the game. Each child has to hunt through the mythosphere for magical objects and bring them home safely so that they can be stored in the trophy cupboard. For undisclosed reasons, it is important to keep the game and the trophy cupboard secret from Uncle Jolyon (everybody seems to be afraid of Uncle Jolyon). Inevitably, of course, Uncle Jolyon does eventually learn their secret, and then life becomes very difficult indeed.

After the story finishes, a rather plonkingly earnest appendix explains that the aunts are really the Pleiades and Uncle Jolyon is Zeus, with whom several of them have had affairs. Hayley herself is a comet who races through the skies in pursuit of who knows what.

In House Of Many Ways Charmain, a girl who likes nothing more than reading books, is sent to look after Great Uncle William's house while he is away with the elves being cured of a mysterious illness. Great Uncle William is a famous magician and Charmain soon finds that his house, despite appearing to be only a small cottage, actually has hundreds and hundreds of rooms connected magically to each other. She discovers Great Uncle William's library which is full of books of magic. She learns some simple spells.

Then Peter arrives. He is an exasperating boy, the son of a famous witch, and it seems that Great Uncle William has taken him on as an apprentice. However, since Great Uncle William is away, Charmain has to take care of him. She doesn't like this – Peter's spells always seem to go wrong and he can't tell left from right which means that he is always getting lost trying to navigate the magical paths that connect the rooms in Great Uncle William's house.

Shortly before being sent to look after Great Uncle William's house, Charmain had written to the King offering to help him catalogue his library. She is thrilled to get a letter back from him offering her the job. Soon she is commuting regularly from Great Uncle William's house to the Palace and back again. Not only is the King cataloguing his library, he is looking through all its books and papers trying to find information about what has happened to all the gold in the Kingdom. The gold has all disappeared and the Kingdom is almost bankrupt.

Eventually, of course, Charmain (with the help of a stray dog called Waif, a fire demon called Calcifer and a wizard called Howl) solves the mystery and saves the Kingdom. Presumably everybody lives happily ever after.

If you like books by Diana Wynne Jones (and who doesn't?), you will love these little stories.

Very Hard Choices by Spider Robinson is a sequel to Very Bad Deaths. However it is a stand alone story – you don't have to have read the earlier novel before reading this one. Russell Walker is visited by his son Jesse, a PR executive from New York who seems to find the wilds of British Columbia (his father's chosen home) rather primitive and bewildering. Russell has an old friend from college, nicknamed Smelly, who is a telepath. He lives on an island off the coast of British Columbia in order to try and isolate himself as much as possible from humanity at large; he finds their telepathic emanations extremely painful. Russell is one of the very few people whose presence he can bear. As the story opens, Smelly is being pursued by a CIA agent. Many years before, Smelly had been involved in a secret CIA project which had unmasked his telepathic powers. He managed to escape from the project, but the CIA have been after him ever since. Now it seems that this agent has managed to track him down. Russell and Jesse and Russell's friend Nika find themselves embroiled in a dangerous game as the bad guys close in.

It's a fairly typical Spider Robinson story, full of action and quite preachy in parts. The Spider uses the fact that Jesse lives in New York and Russell lives in British Columbia to make some rather obvious comparisons between life in America and life in Canada. He points out that Canada doesn't suffer from the fascist repression that currently seems to comprise American political philosophy. He also takes the opportunity to have a few good sneers at America's lack of social services. He is particularly scathing about America's utterly dysfunctional health care system. All of these are very easy targets to skewer – not that that makes them not worth skewering of course. But the Spider obviously feels very strongly about these things. In some ways it's refreshing to hear an American say these things. Perhaps there is some hope for the future after all.

It's not a bad book, but it's not a particularly good book either. It's just a Spider Robinson novel and it doesn't stand out from the crowd.

2008 is a very special year. For the twenty-fifth time, Gardner Dozois has published a massive anthology of what he considers to be the the best SF stories from the previous year. I am astonished that this annual anthology has continued to appear for quarter of a century. I can't think of any other publication that has managed this impressive feat. I look forward eagerly to the next twenty five years...

There isn't much to say about the stories. As always, they are first rate, though not always completely to my taste. However I still enjoyed the collection hugely, as indeed I do every year. There is a new Kage Baker story (always a pleasure to find) and Robert Silverberg has a new story as well. I think Robert Silverberg must have swallowed a pill of immortality. He's been writing brilliant stories since long before I was born, and he's still going strong today.

Another little thrill to be found in this collection is that Wellington writer Peter Friend is listed in the Honourable Mentions section at the back of his book for his story Miniature, published in OSC's Intergalactic Medicine Show (whatever that might be). Well done Peter!

Back home, the empty space where my computer no longer stood looked a bit sad. Cables dangled forlornly, eager to be plugged into sockets. Filling the space became a matter of urgent priority. Fortunately I remembered that Robin had a spare machine hidden somewhere in her study. I opened the door to her room and peeked in. Piles of scrap paper and strange objects filled my field of vision. Huge mounds rose from where I vaguely remembered once having had a floor right up to where the ceiling might have been. In among the piles of unidentifiable bric-a-brac I spotted 12 expired book tokens, a collection of naughty postcards from Brighton, share certificates from companies that no longer existed, 42 beer mats, an aquarium in a cardboard box, a street map of Redditch, 19 half-completed Sudoku puzzles, a machine for blowing soap bubbles, a wind up plastic monkey that turned somersaults, a partridge, a pear tree, a kitchen sink and a small jam jar full of gallstones.

"Robin?" I asked. "Are you in there?"

She rustled a hole through one of the piles and blinked owlishly at me.


"Your old computer," I said.

"What about it?"

"Can I use it?"

"Of course," she said obligingly. "I'm not using it for anything – it's just taking up space in here. If you remove it, I can squeeze heaps more heaps of stuff in!"

"OK. Where is it?"

She looked vaguely around. "It's here somewhere," she said. I fetched a couple of long sticks and we poked them at random into miscellaneous piles. Eventually something went clang! "Aha!" said Robin. "That must be it."

We pulled screwed up papers, a bowl of breakfast cereal festering in rancid milk and the mummified corpse of a rat out of the teetering mound. "You've been letting the cats hide treasure in here again," I observed, tactfully saying nothing about the breakfast cereal.

Soon I was rewarded with a distant glimpse of beige. "I think I can see it."

I reached in and grabbed hold and heaved a mighty heave. I staggered back with a computer clutched in my arms. Several hundred old Christmas cards fluttered after it. A stack of stickers crashed down into the space it vacated. There was a note taped to the top of the computer. Written on it were the cryptic words: Luckley. Cullercoats. Shipwreck.'

"Is this important?" I asked.

"Oooh!" said Robin, snatching it out of my hands. "I've been looking all over for that. Thank you darling."

"Don't mention it," I said, and I took her computer down to my own paperless office where it breathed an enormous sigh of relief at the lack of clutter. I plugged it in and turned it on and it hummed efficiently.

"Graunch?" I asked it.

"No," it said smugly. "I don't do that."

Charles Willeford died in 1988. He'd had a relatively undistinguished career as a writer of hard-boiled noir novels until 1984 when he published Miami Blues a rather bizarre novel about a blithe psychopath called Frederick J. Frenger Jr. and a detective called Hoke Moseley who has no teeth. The novel was a huge success. It was made into a movie. It looked like Willeford had finally broken through into the big time. He wrote three more Hoke Moseley novels before he died and all were very popular.

Willeford's prose is cold and clean, very detached and unemotional. This allows him to introduce the most horrendous things into his stories and the reader barely turns a hair – indeed the things he describes are often simultaneously both horrible and hilarious. For example Frederick Frenger has some fingers chopped off with a machete during the course of an unsuccessful robbery. Not unnaturally he runs away, leaving his fingers wriggling on the floor. Later he comes to regret this. He should have picked the fingers up and put them in his pocket. By leaving them behind, he has given the police a clue. The fingerprints will identify him unequivocally and place him at the scene beyond any reasonable doubt. He won't have any defence when the case comes to court.

I found three of Willeford's Hoke Moseley novels in a local bookshop. I enjoyed all of them hugely, so I ordered the fourth, and it is currently winging its way towards me, along with some of Willeford's earlier novels which appear to have recently been republished. I''m greatly looking forward to reading them.

Revelation is the fourth novel in C. J. Sansom's series about Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer in the reign of Henry VIII. As with all the other books, the sense of place and time is beautifully realised. The critic Colin Dexter has said that Sansom "...writes about the past as if it were the living present" and I cannot improve upon that description. The reader is immersed in the sight, sound and smell of the time and quickly comes to accept the religious and political concerns that dominated the era.

The story is set in the year 1543. Henry is wooing the Lady Catherine Parr who will eventually become his sixth wife. She is currently resisting his courtship. Archbishop Cranmer and the other Protestants at court are watching these events keenly. The lady is known to share their reformist sympathies and perhaps, if she marries the King, she will be able to turn him away from his current drift back towards Rome.

Shardlake is working on the case of a teenage boy who is exhibiting extreme religious mania and who has been sent to the lunatic asylum of Bedlam as a result. One of Shardlake's friends is horribly murdered. Shardlake's investigation of this murder begins to turn up connections to the mad boy in Bedlam, to Cranmer and Catherine Parr and to the terrible prophecies enumerated in the Book Of Revelation. A serial killer seems to be trying to bring about the end of times by implementing the catastrophes that Revelation insists will precede the rapture.

There is only one word to describe this book. And the word is brilliant!

Ruso And The Demented Doctor is the second novel in R. S. Downie's series about the eponymous Ruso, a doctor (more accurately a medicus) in the Roman army in Britain round about the year 118 AD. The current novel is set in a fortress on the Scottish border. Hadrian's Wall is still a long way in the future, and the border is still relatively open. Some of the local tribes are restive and rebellion is in the air. There have been sightings of Herne The Hunter who Ruso thinks is probably just a man with antlers tied to his head, but nevertheless his appearances generally precede acts of mayhem. A carpenter in Ruso's division has been seriously injured when a wagon ran over him shortly after Herne galloped past the army column. A trumpeter has been gruesomely murdered and beheaded and a sketch of Herne was scrawled on the wall above the body.

Ruso has been posted to the border fort to assist the incumbent doctor. However this man has confessed to the murder of the trumpeter and is now locked up. He appears to have taken leave of his senses and all attempts to interrogate him end in failure and confusion. Nevertheless Ruso is unconvinced of his guilt.

This area of England is the birthplace of Ruso's slave Tilla. She has mixed feelings about coming home and as she makes contact with her surviving relatives she soon becomes involved, much against her will, in the rebellion that is brewing.

Ruth Downie juggles the balls of this complicated plot with great skill. The mystery that Ruso must solve is cunningly presented and the solution arises naturally from the situation. The historical times are well described, the characters are well drawn and as a result the book is a page turner. You can't help but want to know what happens next. I have very high hopes for the future of this series.

A Killing Frost is the last novel in R. D. Wingfield's series about Detective Inspector Jack Frost. Wingfield died shortly after completing the manuscript. He didn't live to see the book published.

On a rainy night in Denton, someone finds a human foot in the woods. Jack Frost, called in to investigate, is unimpressed. Probably a prank by a medical student. Frost has other concerns. There is a multiple rapist terrorising the community and someone has poisoned some of the stock in a supermarket. A man claims to have murdered his wife and cut up her body. Unfortunately he can't remember where he hid the pieces. Two young girls are missing, probably abducted. Frost is starting to feel overwhelmed by the calls on his time. His difficulties are exacerbated by the arrival of Detective Chief Inspector Skinner. He is a slimy, slippery man. He and Frost take an instant dislike to each other. It quickly becomes clear that Skinner has his heart set on promotion to Superintendent and it is equally clear that he feels this ambition will be greatly helped if he can succeed in transferring Frost out if the division. Frost does not want to be transferred and battle is joined...

As always, Wingfield is perfectly in control of this extremely complicated plot. The novel races along, full of thrills, full of wit, full of delightful humour. There's nothing quite like a Jack Frost novel and I am very sad at the thought that there will be no more of them. But at least the series has finished on a high point. This is a magnificent book.

A few days later, the man from WeRepairComputers Ltd. rang me up. "We've repaired your computer," he said.

"Good show! What was the problem?"

"The noise was coming from the CPU fan. I think the bearings are stuffed and it wasn't revolving much at all. I've replaced the fan and now it is beautifully silent. Not a graunch to be heard."

"Thanks," I said. "I'll come and pick it up."

To think is to do. Do be doobe doo. I went and collected it immediately.

I was now faced with a problem. Robin's old computer was outperforming the job that my computer had once done and so I was reluctant to reinstate it. I decided instead to use my newly repaired computer to replace an extremely slow and ancient machine that was performing various network services and to retire the old machine. Step one – install Linux.

"Oh, no!" howled my computer in horror. "That's one of those nasty open source things. I don't want anything to do with it. Take it away!"

The install process stopped dead in its tracks. Indeed, it was so dead and the machine was so hosed that even the mouse pointer wouldn't move across the screen. I had to hit the reset switch before it would take any further notice of me at all.

I found this rather surprising. I've installed linux hundreds of times and never once have I had any problems whatsoever. Normally it just works. Time for a different approach. I am an expert in the arcane art of skinning cats, just ask Porgy, Bess and Harpo. They've been at the receiving end of my skinning tactics all their lives long. As a result of this experience I have bald cats (I can show you photos) and the ability to infiltrate Linux on to a computer in a myriad different ways. So I tried another approach…

It seemed to work, in the sense that the installation completed and the system rebooted. But rather to my surprise, about half the software I'd asked to be installed simply wasn't there. So I started to do it slowly by hand.

"I haven't got a clue what you are talking about," said the computer. "I can't do that."

But I insisted and so it tried hard. Strange error messages that I'd never seen in my life before appeared. Files vanished from view even as I was looking at them. Hmmm…

"FSCK!" I yelled, only I yelled it quietly in lower case, because that's the only language linux understands.

"'ello, 'ello, 'ello," said the fsck program. "What have we here then? My goodness me, that's a stuffed up disk. I've never seen one quite as stuffed up as that before. I can try and fix it, but I can practically guarantee massive data loss."

I've never had fsck say that to me before, either.

I was now officially bewildered. Time to go to the tubes on that there interweb thingy for help. I giggled all the error messages and it soon became clear that this was no laughing matter. I really was comprehensively fscked. Everything I read told me that what I was seeing was symptomatic of an overheated, very overstressed CPU that was probably about to kick the bit bucket.

In retrospect, it was clear that the graunch didn't steal christmas, but it did steal the cooling powers of the fan. At some time between the start of the graunch and the replacement of the fan, the CPU got a bit too hot and some vital bits were now dead.


Neil Gaiman M is For Magic Bloomsbury
Diana Wynne Jones The Game Harper Collins
Diana Wynne Jones House Of Many Ways Greenwillow
Spider Robinson Very Hard Choices Baen
Gardner Dozois (Editor) The Year's Best Science Fiction, 25th Annual Collection St. Martins
Charles Willeford Miami Blues Vintage
Charles Willeford New Hope For The Dead Vintage
Charles Willeford The Way We Die Now Vintage
C. J. Sansom Revelation Macmillan
R. S. Downie Ruso And The Demented Doctor Michael Joseph
R. D. Wingfield A Killing Frost Bantam

* For those who are wondering about this month's pseudo-latin tag, let me just say that all the programs that gave me trouble when I was trying to install Linux on the computer were written in a programming language called python. It would seem that python reaches parts of the CPU that other programming languages cannot reach, and it was not until python overstressed the CPU by flipping its more obscure bits backwards and forwards too rapidly that the thing completely blew up. So the dog latin might perhaps be interpreted as wishful thinking...

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