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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (fiat lux)

In Which Bits Of A House Are Painted

In the suburb where I live, the sunshine is quite significantly different from the sunshine in other parts of the world. Here the sunbeams are very sharp, with bevelled edges just like chisels, and they slide along the house peeling the paint off in great flaking strips. Naturally all the flaking paint is at the top of the house because that's the closest to the sun and therefore the sharp sunbeams hit that part first. By the time the sunbeams reach the bottom of the house they are much blunter and so the paint is able to resist them.

Eventually such a lot of paint was flaking off my house that I decided I needed to do something about it. I had sandpaper, polyfilla (the woodworker's friend), paint, a paintbrush and a ladder. The only thing preventing me from setting to work was the extreme vertigo from which I suffer whenever I find myself at the top of a ladder. Obviously I needed a cunning plan. Fortunately I swiftly came up with one.

Ring, ring. Ring, ring.

That'll be the phone.

"Hello," I said.

Ring, ring.

Eventually I realized that phone conversations work a lot better if you pick the phone up before you talk at it. So I did.


"Hello," said a voice. "This is John. I'm building a tree house and I wondered if you had a ladder I could borrow?"

"Of course I have," I said. "My ladder is your ladder. Feel free to borrow it for as long as you need it. Why are you building a tree house?"

"Because Dylan needs one," said John. Dylan is John's five year old son. They have a wonderful relationship. John uses Dylan as the excuse for playing with all the toys that he really wants to play with. Once he took Dylan to a motor show (they are both extreme petrol heads). A mutual friend spotted them there, watched them for a while, and then rang Lynelle, John's wife.

"Your small child and your other small child are having the time of their lives!"

Lynelle wasn't at all surprised at the news. So, knowing this, I was sure that Dylan would have an absolutely wonderful time playing with his new tree house. But John would have a better time because he'd been waiting for his tree house for thirty years longer than Dylan had.

"Dylan will love that," I said. "Come and get the ladder straight away."

Within minutes, John and Dylan turned up and took the ladder away. I was very pleased. Now I had a perfect reason for not painting the top of my house. There was nothing I could do until the ladder came back. Time passed...

Wavy lines, wavy lines, wavy lines.

Manna From Heaven is a collection of short stories by Roger Zelazny. My main reason for buying it was that the description on indicated that it contained all the Amber short stories; none of which I'd ever read. I didn't hold out much hope for the other stories – Roger Zelazny has been collected to death; all the good stories have been anthologised over and over and over again. At best I expected some familiar stories and a few minor works.

As it happened, the Amber short stories were a big disappointment. They were vignettes – trivial and of no interest. But the other stories in the collection were absolute gems, and I'd seen very, very few of them before.

The highlights were some stories about Kalifriki Of The Thread – he's a hero; a good guy who kills the bad guys. He has a red thread wrapped around his wrist and with it he fights evil and injustice; he uses it to cut the bad guys apart. Initially the stories read like fantasies – good versus evil in a classic confrontation. But it gradually becomes clear that there is more to them than this. The red thread is a super string that wraps up the universe and Kalifriki may well be one of the creators of this weird thing we call reality. These stories are vintage Zelazny – cynical, funny, inventive and utterly delightful and I'd never read any of them before. I had no idea they even existed

There are other stories in the collection, of course; and as I expected, some of them were old friends (I think Corrida has probably been in every Zelazny collection that has ever been printed) but many of them were new to me. I'm very pleased indeed that I bought this book. I don't care about the Amber stories; but everything else in it is quite brilliant and I simply cannot understand why so many of these wonderful stories have never been collected before.

Harry Turtledove is the modern master of the alternate history genre. Departures is a short story collection and every story in it is an alternate history. It is a fascinatingly brilliant collection, and the erudition he demonstrates is simply amazing. The stories range across time, and they are arranged chronologically. The very first story examines what might have happened if Greece had been conquered by the Persian empire in the fifth century BC. The very last is set in a bar in the far, far future. The human race should have been exterminated aeons ago, but maybe something went wrong. Perhaps that can be fixed...

There isn't a dud story in the book. It's utterly brilliant, thought provoking and clever. It's the definitive alternate history collection. If you like this kind of thing, it deserves a place of honour on your shelves.

Matt Ruff has never been a prolific writer – he's only published four novels in twenty years (not a good ratio) but every single one of those novels has been first class. Bad Monkeys, his latest novel, is probably most easily described as the best Philip K. Dick novel that wasn't written by Philip K. Dick.

We first meet Jane in a white room. She's being interrogated by a psychiatrist. She claims to a member of a powerful secret organisation. The section she belongs to (called Bad Monkeys) is responsible for ridding the world of evil people. To that end, she is armed with an NC gun; a weapon that can induce heart attacks and cerebral haemorrhages in the bad guys. It's never very clear (at least, not until very late in the book) whether she is telling the truth or simply living out her paranoid fantasies – just what is the nature of reality? This is a very Dickian theme.

While completing her assignments, Jane continually falls foul of a counter organisation known as the troop who, in their own minds at least, are good monkeys. The troop seeks to encourage the spread of evil in the world. They have a mandrill bomb, a weapon that not only kills and maims its victims, it also distorts the reality that surrounds them. Furthermore the operatives of the troop take powerful drugs that give them mental control over space and time. Well, that's the theory, anyway.

It's a rollicking roller-coaster of a book. It's never very clear where the truth lies in this tale; Jane is the most unreliable of unreliable narrators and her interrogator continually finds contradictions in her story. But the overwhelming cleverness, wit and plethora of very bad jokes kept me enthralled and entertained all the way through. I love paranoid fantasies, and Matt Ruff is particularly good at writing them.

One Night Stands And Lost Weekends is a collection of the very early stories of Lawrence Block. These days Block is a famous writer, revered, admired, and a winner of awards. But fifty years ago he was an unknown teenager producing the pulpiest of pulp fiction in an attempt to keep the wolf away from his door. These stories date from that era. They've been out of print and unobtainable for ever. The magazines in which they appeared vanished from the face of the Earth untold years ago, and if any copies remain they must be languishing unloved, unread, and rotting in damp cellars.

Initially Block was reluctant to let these stories see the light of day again. While he's not exactly ashamed of them, he certainly doesn't think they have very much merit, and he himself cannot re-read them without wincing and reaching for a pen to make corrections. But as he remarks in his introduction, from any set of choices presented to him he will always choose the option that brings money into the house. If people want to read this early juvenilia what right does he have to deny that pleasure to them? And so they are now back in print.

Well, it has to be said that the stories are not world beaters. None of them will win awards. But they aren't all that bad either – they exhibit a remarkable understanding of drama, structure and character. Remember, Block was a teenager when he wrote these. A lot of writers would give their right typing fingers to have had that much talent at such a young age. Anyone who can write to that standard in their teens is obviously going to go far; and that's exactly what Lawrence Block has done. These days he is at the top of his profession and his every word is eagerly devoured by legions of admiring fans. I enjoyed this book a lot. The stories are crude and unsophisticated, but my goodness me, they certainly do grab hold of you.

And now let me tell you about a new writer I've discovered – well, she's new to me at any rate. She's actually been writing crime novels for quite some time, but I've only just found her on the bookshelves. She's Laura Lippman and she's shot straight to the top of my "buy on sight" list.

The first book of hers that I read was called In A Strange City, and I bought it on spec because it had a most intriguing premise. It's set in Baltimore (where Laura Lippman herself lives) and it concerns the Poe Toaster – a person who visits the grave of Edgar Allan Poe every year on Poe's birthday. The Poe Toaster leaves an offering of three roses and half a bottle of cognac on Poe's grave. Nobody is really sure why he does this; nobody knows the significance of the roses or the brandy. Nobody knows who the Poe Toaster is. But every year, without fail, the Poe Toaster leaves his offering.

So far, so true – the Poe Toaster is a real person and he really does do the things I've described. The mystery of his identity is a very real mystery; a mystery that the city and citizens of Baltimore are not very interested in solving because the solution would doubtless be dull and prosaic. The more romantically inclined among us really do prefer to keep the mystery at arms length – we want to have real stories in the world. And so safeguards are in place to protect the identity of the Poe Toaster; there is a gentleman's agreement that journalists won't write about him or try to photograph him and every year, when he visits the grave, the spectators are there to guard him from exposure just as much as they are there to participate at second hand in his offering.

Anyway, Laura Lippman makes this real life event the dramatic basis of her novel. Her story opens with the Poe Toaster making his usual offering. But this time there are two Poe Toasters at the grave. One leaves his tribute and escapes, the other one is shot dead by an unknown assassin. The game's afoot! (Sorry, different sleuth...)

I keep wanting to write poetaster, damnit! (Look it up!).

One of the witnesses to this tragedy is Tess Monaghan, a private investigator based in Boston and a major character of most of Laura Lippman's novels. Obviously Tess will investigate this tragedy and (because that's the way novels of this kind work) she will solve the mystery. The fun of this book is in the telling of the story; the gradual unravelling of the mysterious threads that bind it, the sheer joy of the intricate plot and the extraordinarily deft characterisations. I read the story in a single sitting, and I fell in love with Laura Lippman. I had to read every book she had written; nothing else would suffice. I tracked her down through all the local bookshops and bought everything I could find. This turned out to be quite a substantial haul of books. But it wasn't everything. Frustrated, I turned to and there I found the few remaining books that I hadn't managed to source locally. And even as I speak, they are winging their way to me across the ocean. Laura Lippman, this is your library shelf (she's been rather prolific).

The majority of her books deal with the life of Tess Monaghan. Once Tess was a journalist, but when the newspaper for which she worked closed down, she was unable to find another job in the field. After bumming around for a while she became a private investigator, rather more by accident than by design. And so she embarks on a career and the novels are about her cases. So far so normal, so far so dull. Such a bald description makes them sound like every other genre novel and may well account for the fact that I ignored Laura Lippman's books for so long. Her blurb writer is definitely not her friend – there's nothing whatsoever in the back cover descriptions of these books to make them stand out from the crowd; nothing that makes the casual browser want to pick them up and read them. The blurbs don't make the books sound interesting – quite the opposite, in fact. The books give the impression of being ordinary and tedious, dull and routine. If it hadn't been for the weirdness of the Poe Toaster scenario, I don't think I'd have bothered with any of them. But I've always been a Poe fan, and I simply couldn't resist the idea of a novel about the Poe Toaster. And then it was too late of course; I was hooked.

The things that make these books so strong, so much better than any similar genre stories, are partly the ingenuity of the plots (they are breathtakingly clever) and partly the utterly brilliant characterisation. Tess Monaghan is a living, breathing woman who steps right off the page and into your life. I have no idea how Laura Lippman managed to make Tess so alive, but there's no question about it; Tess is a real person. She is mildly eccentric (she rows boats as a hobby and to keep fit; how weird is that?) and she is, of course, replete with all the flaws and foibles that every real person exhibits. She has a large family and a large collection of friends all of whom are also charismatic and interesting individuals in their own right. These are busy books, full of people scurrying around doing people things.

Even Tess's boyfriend Crow (probably the most colourless, least defined and least interesting of the book's regular characters) exhibits occasional flashes of character and humanity, though I do tend to think of Crow as somewhat overshadowed by Tess; she is so overwhelming that he suffers by comparison and he fades away into the background. I find him hard to envisage. He is by far the most cardboard of the characters, the least alive and breathing. He is a major character in one novel (In Big Trouble) when Tess has to travel to Texas to rescue him from himself (because he is, of course, in big trouble), but that just serves to emphasise how shallow, dull and dumb he really is – In Big Trouble is probably my least favourite of the Tess Monaghan stories. For me, Crow simply doesn't work.

But that's a minor criticism. The overall standard of the books is enormously high and I cannot praise them enough. Take my advice; go and read them. Trust me, you won't be disappointed.

As well as the Tess Monaghan series, Laura Lippman has also written several stand alone novels. There are recurring characters through these books, notably the police personnel, but they are not really prominent enough to consider these books as forming a series. Rather the police are best regarded as the threads that stitch the story together. The emphasis is much more on the protagonists than it is on the police investigating those protagonists. Laura Lippman is living a bit more dangerously in these stand alone novels than she is in the Tess Monaghan stories, and often she ventures into very uncomfortable territory indeed. For example, To The Power Of Three examines the psychology of children who shoot and kill other children in their school.

There's a degree of sensationalism in this theme of course (it's stuffed full of inherent drama; as a story it can't go wrong). Other authors have not been blind to its possibilities. Stephen King, for example, in an early novel called Rage, explored a similar theme. But King's novel consisted of almost nothing but sensationalism, thrill, drama and horror. It took a sensual delight in the mechanics of massacre and it lost sight of the fact that real people were involved. It's a shallow book. That's how Stephen King wrote in those days. I find it interesting that in light of later events such as the Columbine shootings, King has largely disavowed that early work. and he consistently refuses to allow it to be republished. It's a book with little insight, a book which trivialises real tragedy.

To The Power Of Three is utterly different. It examines the theme very sensitively and, it seems to me, has a genuine insight into the type of personality that can engage itself with such a horrible idea. There's a sensitivity to Laura Lippman's writing that is quite stunning. This is a deeply clever and thoughtful book as well as being a terrific story.

But her tour de force is undoubtedly What The Dead Know. Even if you read no other books by Laura Lippman, you must read this one. It is nothing short of utterly brilliant. It deserves every prize going. Even the blurb, for once, makes it sound vaguely interesting.

Two sisters, aged 11 and 15, are out together in a crowded mall. They have arranged to meet their father at the end of their outing so that he can take them home. But when he arrives to pick them up, they are nowhere to be found. They have vanished without trace.

Thirty years later, in the aftermath of a traffic accident, a slightly distraught and confused woman admits to being Heather Bethany, the younger of the two sisters.

There is no evidence to support her claim, and her story is confused and contradictory. The leads she provides peter out into dead ends. Nevertheless she does seem to have unusually detailed knowledge about what happened to the two girls all those years ago.

The book, of course, is about the investigation into this mystery. It weaves back and forth in time. It details the impact of the disappearance of the sisters on the lives of those involved, their parents and their friends. It speculates about the mechanics of how the girls vanished. Presumably someone kidnapped them, but how can that be? It's relatively easy to imagine kidnapping a young girl who is all by herself – I won't say it happens all the time, but it certainly does happen. But how on Earth do you kidnap two girls from the middle of a crowded precinct without anybody noticing that it's happening, without anybody hearing any cries for help?

Think about that for a while. How would you do it? Laura Lippman comes up with several plausible scenarios, all which I found thoroughly convincing. Personally I couldn't think of a single one. That's how clever she is; that's how dumb I am.

This book is thoroughly satisfying on so many different levels. It's got Laura Lippman's trademarked extremely clever plot, it's got a twist in the tail that is completely unexpected and completely breathtaking (and enormously satisfying as a conclusion to the mystery). It's got living, breathing characters with whom you cannot help but sympathise. The devastating effect of the disappearance of the girls on their father is truly heartbreaking. This book is one of the great ones. I can't imagine how Laura Lippman could ever top this one – but I'm sure she will. She just gets better and better book, by book, by book.

I am very much looking forward to the parcel from containing the few remaining books of hers that I have not yet read.

And once I've read them, I will be so annoyed because there aren't any more to read. I hope she writes fast...

Wavy lines, wavy lines, wavy lines.

A year later, many months after the completion of the tree house, I decided I couldn't put off painting my house any longer.

"Can I have my ladder back?"

"Of course," said John.

I prepared myself for the ordeal. I assembled my tools and then approached the ladder with fear and trembling. My ladder is an origami ladder. It can be folded into a multitude of configurations, thus allowing any conceivable climbing task to be conquered. So I folded the ladder this way and that, and it turned into a frog.

Hmmm. That didn't seem quite right. How could I climb to the top of the house on a frog? Perhaps I was supposed to cling to its back while it jumped high in the air. I tried again, and this time I got a fireman's greasy pole. great for coming down from the top of the house, but not a lot of use for climbing up there in the first place. Three times is a charm. I folded the ladder once more and this time I got pitons, a mountaineering harness and an ice axe. I was tempted by this, but I was worried at the thought of the damage I might do by banging the pitons into the walls of my house, so I tried another set of folds instead. Success! This time I got an actual ladder. I propped it against the house and inched my way gingerly up it, sandpaper, polyfilla and spatula clutched in my hand.

I found it hard to breathe in the rarefied air at the top of the ladder. Wind whistled past my ears, pushing and shoving, trying desperately to make me fall off. Wisps of cloud made it hard to see what I was doing. Low flying aeroplanes made strafing runs which broke my concentration.

I reached out tentatively to peel off the flaking paint, sand down the borders and fill the gaps with polyfilla. With my right hand I scraped and sanded. With my left hand I held whichever tool I didn't need at the moment. And with my middle hand I held on to the ladder with a vice-like grip to stop myself falling off. Since my middle hand is purely imaginary, life at the top of the ladder was more than a bit scary. And it didn't help that I kept stretching and straining to get at things that were just out of reach. This is not a sensible thing to do on a ladder – but it takes such a long time to climb down, move the ladder a foot to the left and climb up it again that I simply couldn't help myself. Several times my centre of gravity swayed almost to the tipping point.

But eventually the preparation work was finished and I hadn't fallen off the ladder and died. All that remained to be done now was to paint the newly prepared wood.

The next day I opened up a can of paint, stirred it vigorously and then folded the origami ladder into a spiral staircase. I climbed up and, holding the can in my left hand, the paintbrush in my right hand and with my middle hand clutching the ladder, I began to paint. First I painted my trousers, then I painted my shirt and then, having nothing else to paint, I painted the wood. A curious fly landed and explored the newly painted wood. It got stuck and buzzed plaintively. Aha! The perfect opportunity...

When I was a little boy I used to sneak up on the flies that crawled on the window panes and squash them between my thumb and forefinger. My mother found this habit quite gross and would tell me off whenever she caught me doing it. She particularly hated it when I put the flattened corpses in my pocket for safe keeping. She was always complaining about the dessicated bodies and putrefying fly guts that floated out and stuck to her fingers when she hand washed my trousers.

I became quite skilful at squashing flies. Rare indeed was the fly that escaped my grasping fingers. However some did escape and therefore the natural processes of Darwinian evolution meant that very soon the fly population of the world started selecting for the gene that gave them the speed and manoeuvrability to easily avoid me. The number of corpses in my pockets dwindled to zero as they evolved, and it has been many years since I was last able to squash a crawling fly. But now I had a fly trapped in front of me in the paint. No way was this one going to escape. I reached out and squished my first fly for forty five years.

Ecstasy! Nunc dimittis! Time to fall off the ladder.

Roger Zelazny Manna From Heaven Wildside Press
Harry Turtledove Departures Del Rey
Matt Ruff Bad Monkeys Harper
Lawrence Block One Night Stands And Lost Weekends Harper
Laura Lippman Baltimore Blues Avon
Laura Lippman Charm City Avon
Laura Lippman Butcher's Hill Avon
Laura Lippman In Big Trouble Avon
Laura Lippman The Sugar House Avon
Laura Lippman In A Strange City Avon
Laura Lippman The Last Place Avon
Laura Lippman By A Spider's Thread Avon
Laura Lippman Another Thing To Fall Orion
Laura Lippman To The Power Of Three Avon
Laura Lippman Every Secret Thing Avon
Laura Lippman What The Dead Know Avon
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