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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (xmas puddus)

Tidings Of Comfort And Joy

Christmas comes but once a year. Aren't you glad you're not a Christmas?

Well, actually...

Christmas is supposed to be a family event. But when I was a child in 1950s England, the only family members within a hundred miles were my grandparents who lived about fifteen minutes walk away on the other side of the village. So each household took it in turns to host Christmas – one year they'd come to us, the next year we'd go to them.

My grandmother had a huge and ancient fireplace with a built in oven off to one side. The fire itself was used to heat the hot water cylinder and it also kept the oven nicely warm. This gigantic oven was the only thing in the entire village large enough to contain a full sized turkey and so, once every two years, it would be ritually cleaned and scrubbed and serviced. This generally involved at least one, and possibly two, visits from a chimney sweep. He always came well equipped with oddly flexible brushes with which to poke and prod the oven's mysteriously convoluted pipes and grilles.

When all was deemed ready, the coal fire would be carefully lit and fed regularly with the best of all possible coal. The turkey would go into the oven early on Christmas eve and cook slowly for at least eighteen hours. Occasionally it would be prodded, and the juices and giblets would be examined with all the care and attention to detail of a haruspex on the threshold of an important divination. Eventually the monster bird was deemed to be cooked to perfection. Time to overeat...

Despite all the careful servicing of the oven, when the bird was eventually brought forth it would reach the table dusted with a light sprinkling of soot. The really lucky diner would also get the occasional crunchy cinder to chew on.

When it was time to go back home, my grandmother would insist that we took the turkey carcass away with us. We always obliged, and then we lived on turkey for most of January. Eventually even the dog refused to eat any more of it, at which point the semi-stinking carcass would finally get thrown away.

When my grandparents came to us the following Christmas, they were always mildly disappointed to find that my mother was serving chicken. My mother claimed that her oven was far too small to accommodate the average turkey. My grandmother was not convinced by this story, and she always seemed mildly miffed that tradition was being so blatantly violated.

The chickens of fifty years ago were very different birds from the anaemic mass produced assembly line chickens of today. The breast meat was white and succulent and juicy and the flesh on the thighs and drumsticks was very dark, almost black, with a much smoother taste than the breast. Sophisticated carvers would always enquire:

"White meat or dark?"

Less sophisticated carvers would ask:

"Breast or thigh?"

Extremely unsophisticated carvers would demand:

"You a tit man or a leg man?"

When did the chickens of yesterday metamorphose into the bland, uniformly coloured, plastic tasting birds that we know and love today, and what caused that transformation?

Damon Knight, a critic and sometime SF author, once wrote an article in which he explained exactly why the time travel story was dead and no more would ever be written. As a punishment, God sent him the plots of five new time travel stories. You can't keep a good idea down. And now Jack McDevitt has written one of the best time travel novels that I've ever read. Time Travelers Never Die concerns one Michael Shelbourne who is a physicist with broad interests in history and literature. Somehow or other he inherits (or invents, we are never quite sure) three iPod-like devices which allow their owners to travel through time. Michael disappears into the timestream and the time travel devices fall into the hands of his son Shel and his multilingual friend Dave. They go in search of Michael, and the fun begins.

One of the attractions of time travel novels is the simple enjoyment of having the protagonists interact with historical characters. McDevitt does a lot of that in this novel. Unfortunately sometimes his obsessive interest in the minutiae of American history meant that some of the so-called famous names that Shel and Dave bump into are people I've never actually heard of. I had to do a lot of googling, and it tended to destroy the spell of the story.

However that minor criticism aside, the novel was enormous fun and I enjoyed it hugely. The characters rampage up and down the time stream, poking at paradoxes and generally having a fine old time until eventually tragedy strikes. But there's a get out of jail free card hidden in the laws that govern the time stream. You see, time travelers never die.

Michael Chabon is an award winning mainstream writer whose novels are stuffed full of SF references. Chabon freely admits the influence of SF on his writing and is happy to consider himself a science fiction writer. He's a member of the SFWA. His novel The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay was first published in 2000 (and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001). It's never been out of print since then. I recommend it very highly.

Sam Clay is a New York boy who knows little of the world. His cousin, Josef Kavalier, was born in Prague and, with the help of his family, escapes from the advancing Nazis hidden inside the coffin of the golem which is being sent to Lithuania for safe keeping (much good may that do). Eventually Josef makes his way to New York where he and Sam create a new comic book hero called The Escapist who fights the Nazi terror...

This is a novel about comic books, it's a novel about political terrorism and repression, it's a novel about America's isolationism, it's a novel about being Jewish, and about being ripped off by unscrupulous financiers. It's about love and it's about loss. It's a novel about everything, really.

As a bonus, it's often very funny.

Cherie Priest is a writer who is new to me. Four And Twenty Blackbirds is her first novel (she's written four more since then). I enjoyed it immensely and I am eagerly looking forward to reading her other books. I don't know where she's been hiding since 2003 when this novel was first published, but I wish I'd found out about her earlier.

Eden Moore was orphaned at birth. But she's never alone. Three dead women are always there in the shadows, watching over her, protecting her from harm. And she certainly needs protection. Her cousin Malachi is convinced that she is the reincarnation of her great-grandfather, an African magician with the power to curse the living and raise the dead. Malachi has been told by God that Eden cannot be allowed to live and he sets out to kill her.

Despite the attempts on her life, Eden regards Malachi as a bit of a joke. However his efforts awaken a fascination with her family history. Why was her mother locked up in an asylum? What secrets is her ninety year old great aunt hiding from her? Why does she dream of an ancient book with a dead and withered hand bound into its back cover? Who are the three dead women?

The novel is set in America's deep south and a large part of its strength derives from its casual acceptance of the realities of race (and racial prejudice) that explains so much about the southern character. At one and the same time it is a contemporary novel and also a historical fiction. Slavery, voodoo and ancient sin mark every page. It's creepy, crawly and utterly enthralling. Cherie Priest is a wonderfully talented writer.

After my grandmother died, the Christmas ritual changed. Now my grandfather came to us every year. He would arrive at lunchtime.

"Hello, Billy," he would say to his son William, my father. "Hello Mu," he would greet Muriel, my mother. "Hello Jumbo," he would say to me.

I don't think my grandfather ever called me by my proper name from the day I was born to the day that he died. He was very upset that I was the first male child in the family for untold generations who had not been called either Thomas or William. When I was christened Alan, my great-great-grandfather, who was called both Thomas and William and who was consequently an extremely important person in the Robson clan, began to spin like a top in his grave. This greatly upset my grandfather and therefore he refused ever to use my real name. I was always Jumbo. I do not know the derivation of the name.

One year, my grandfather arrived at our house clutching a bottle of wine. It was his first ever contribution to the festivities. We were utterly amazed. But he explained that he had found an absolute bargain which he simply couldn't resist.

"It only cost 2/6d," he told us proudly. "I bought it at the chemist's shop in the village."

Even in the late 1950s, half a crown was an amazingly cheap price for a bottle of wine. Normally you'd probably pay at least 10 shillings. What a bargain!

Of course, it tasted exactly as you would expect a 2/6d bottle of wine bought from the local chemist to taste. It had obviously been manufactured in the back of the shop from drugs that were past their sell by date and it had been cleared and polished by filtering it through damaged condoms. But none of that mattered; it was a bargain!

Once my grandfather had arrived and settled in, lunch would be served. He would chomp his way solemnly through his chicken and then retire to the lounge where he would fall asleep in the most comfortable chair and snore loudly all afternoon. He would wake up at 6.00pm whereupon he would declare, "Well, I have to go now," and then he would leave.

We were never sure why he felt he had to leave just before tea time. The full secret was not revealed until many years later, after he died and his will was read. That was when we discovered that the randy old goat was having an affair with a lady in the village. He left her most of his estate; my father got almost nothing. Not surprisingly, this annoyed my father no end and I'll swear that if the old bastard hadn't already been dead, my father would have killed him.

And so, every year, when my grandfather left us at tea time on Christmas day, he would trot off to visit his fancy woman where he'd have yet another Christmas meal, and a quick game of hide the cracker to round off his day.

I've been reading a lot of police procedurals (for want of a better name) by a man called T. Jefferson Parker. By and large they are very good indeed, though I have stumbled upon the occasional dud (I really cannot recommend Little Saigon at all). But when Parker puts his mind to it, he grabs hold of you and he simply won't let go. California Girl exposes the hippy lifestyle of the 1960s as I've never seen it exposed before (there's always a price to pay; the love isn't really free) and his award winning novel Silent Joe is an eerily compelling study of alienation and disillusion as the eponymous hero slowly comes to realise just how corrupt and self-serving the father that he worshipped really was. And yet there is a happy ending of sorts – despite the cynicism, the manipulation and the self-serving nature of his father, Joe finally comes to realise that the man really did have a streak of goodness in him. Parker is a bitterly cynical writer, but sometimes he gives us a spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down.

Parker has even flirted mildly with science fiction! The hero of The Fallen has suffered brain damage in a fall from a building and now he has synaesthesia, a neurological condition that mixes up the senses. He sees speech as coloured geometrical shapes spiralling out from the mouth of the speaker. It's a really useful disability in his job as a police officer. He always knows when the people he is interrogating are lying to him. Lies are red and square.

Storm Runners also has science fictional elements wrapped around a murder mystery. An important plot point concerns a secret research project to induce rainfall.

One of the nice things about Parker's books is that mostly they are stand alone novels; a very refreshing change in this age of multi-volume, open-ended series. Parker has actually committed two trilogies, but it is clear (from the only one of them that I have read so far, at least) that he finds the form constraining. The first two novels in his Merci Rayborn trilogy were rather good. Interestingly, the ending of the first one (The Blue Hour) made it perfectly clear that he wasn't really considering writing a sequel at all. Perhaps he came under pressure from his publishers. The second novel, Red Light, was quite gripping as well, at least as good, if not better, than the first. But Black Water, the third book, was actually quite a struggle to read, and I suspect it was also a struggle to write. Parker was bored with the characters, and it showed. Perhaps it was the contractual obligation novel.

There is a built in assumption underlying many of Parker's books that American police personnel and American politicians are often corrupt and self-serving. This view of the way world works is not unique to Parker of course. Nevertheless, it is such a common assumption in so many American novels from so many different writers that I really do begin to wonder just how much it reflects the truth of contemporary American society.

As far as the American political system itself is concerned, there really isn't very much doubt. The official lobbyist mechanism, which is simply legalised corruption under another name, practically guarantees that matters of principle never even reach the debating chamber. The system seems deliberately designed to lend itself to abuse, and I would not be at all surprised to find that there is a more shadowy and much dirtier world flourishing beneath its shabby facade.

The matter of police corruption is sometimes even more blatant and correspondingly more shocking because it has no such legal underpinnings to hide itself behind. Some forces (notably the Chicago Police) are notoriously corrupt – there have been numerous scandals in Chicago for a century or more and it seems completely impossible to stamp out the abuse in that sad and dirty city. Indeed, the Chicago Police even appear to take a certain perverse pride in their own dishonesty! Other forces seem to be a little less overt about the whole thing but nevertheless a steady stream of prosecutions continues to prove that the problem is a very real one – in 2006, for example, 114 officers in the New York Police Department were brought to trial for offences involving some degree of corruption. Probably this was only the tip of the iceberg. Certainly the attitude seems endemic to the organisation as a whole.

This whole theme of police corruption is the impetus behind the second Merci Rayborn novel Red Light. In many ways it is a deeply cynical book. It becomes clear quite early on in the story that the people in charge of the Orange County police are replacements for a notoriously corrupt old guard that they themselves exposed, humiliated and dismissed. Sergeant Merci Rayborn, the viewpoint character of the novel, admires them for that principled stand and when elements of the cases she is currently investigating start to suggest that these people might themselves be just as corrupt as their predecessors, she tries to sweep it under the carpet. Eventually, however, the evidence becomes so convincing that she simply cannot ignore it any longer and she finds herself faced with what she perceives to be a moral dilemma; should she expose the corruption or should she ignore it? This in itself is a telling indictment of the nature of the system, of course. In actuality the dilemma (if indeed there really is one, which I doubt), is legal, rather than moral.

Personally I find it quite hard to understand just why anyone's conscience would berate them over any of this. The correct course of action is so obvious that it is a no brainer. But Merci agonises over the decision, and when she does finally expose the corrupt officials, it becomes clear that the reason for her dilemma was primarily self interest. Exposing the corruption isolates her from her colleagues. A significantly large number of people in the force believe that she has done the wrong thing and she faces an enormous amount of hostility for her actions. For all practical purposes, her career is over and she is unlikely to be promoted again. At one point she seriously considers resigning.

The thinking behind this attitude seems to be that the people in charge were, on the whole, doing such a good job that peccadilloes like taking bribes and falsifying evidence and even (in one case) committing murder should be ignored for the sake of the greater good. And Merci herself is not unsympathetic to that point of view, hence the debate with her conscience.

If this is indeed typical of the thinking of law enforcement personnel, then it seems quite clear to me that police corruption in America will not be going away any time soon. That attitude puts the police in a special position, way above the law. And once you accept that, of course, anything goes.

It is obvious from the sympathetic treatment that Parker gives to Merci Rayborn that he believes this thinking is utterly wrong. It is equally obvious, however, that he believes it really does reflect the status quo. I have no idea just how closely the novel resembles reality, but it is deeply disquieting to think that it contains even a grain of truth.

Parker really likes to make his readers squirm. Another novel, Where Serpents Lie takes the very upsetting subject of paedophilia as its theme. It opens with a police sting operation designed to trap a father who is pimping his ten year old daughter. The operation is completely successful. The man is arrested and they throw the book at him.

And his ten year old daughter is prosecuted for being a prostitute.

Again I have absolutely no idea whether or not this reflects the reality of American law. But I find the whole idea quite horrifying. I simply cannot imagine a legal system that would permit this to take place. But within the context of the novel itself, it is considered quite reasonable by all the characters involved in the case. Not only does the legal system in the novel permit the situation, it actually mandates the situation. The police have no option but to prosecute the little girl; their only wriggle room lies in the severity of the charges that they can bring to bear.

Parker's novels are bleak and hard-boiled, deeply cynical and often extremely uncomfortable. But that alone makes them very well worth reading, of course.

There's a whole class of novel which is probably best described as a cold war thriller. Its purpose is to suggest how uncomfortable life must have been inside the old Soviet Union as well as to tell an exciting story. Today these novels are often regarded as historical fiction since the Soviet Union is long gone. However I tend to think of them more as psychological studies since I strongly suspect that the peculiarly Slavic mentality that underpinned the Soviet Union is still very much alive and kicking. That makes the sub-text of these books a very real concern. Two of the best practitioners of this form of fiction are the well established novelist Robert Littell and newcomer Tom Rob Smith.

Littell's latest novel is called The Stalin Epigram. It is a thinly fictionalised biography of the poet Osip Mandelstam. In 1934 he composed a sixteen line poem that fiercely criticized Stalin and his collectivization policies. Once the security police (and Stalin himself) heard this poem, the full weight of state terror was brought to bear on Mandelstam. There was no such thing as freedom of speech under Stalin. The slightest hint of criticism was sufficient to send someone to the gulags. Mandelstam had influential friends, both at home and abroad, but even that couldn't save him. It's a terrifying novel of life under a terrifying regime.

Child 44 is Tom Rob Smith's very first novel. It was long listed for the Man Booker prize in 2008, something that is almost unheard of for a first novel. It is set in the early 1950s in a Soviet Union still firmly in the grip of Stalin's paranoid rule. It features a disgraced MGB agent called Leo Demidov. (The MGB was a precursor to the more famous KGB). Demidov initiates an investigation into a series of gruesome murders of children.

In itself this is a very dangerous thing to do. It was an article of faith that there was no crime in the Soviet Union. In a perfect society there can be no crime of course – and the official party line was that the society of the Soviet Union was rapidly approaching perfection. Consequently there was no possible motivation for common crime any more. Therefore it was axiomatic that crime did not exist. (Political crime – i.e. dissent – was something else again, of course). As a result of this, even to hint of the existence of a serial killer is almost a political crime in itself, and Demidov is literally risking the life of both himself and his family by conducting the investigation. And he is already in disgrace, and therefore under suspicion, because of an earlier failure to toe the party line.

The novel very successfully explores the paranoid doublethink of the age. It condemns the education system (perhaps more accurately regarded as a propaganda system or maybe an indoctrination system) which the Soviets used in a skilfully Jesuitical manner to control the next generation of workers. It details the secret police apparatus itself, and it goes inside the mental hospitals to which flawed thinkers, homosexuals and other deviants were often condemned. It's terrifying and fascinating at one and the same time. How could people live like that, day in and day out? But the fact remains that they did.

Annoyingly, Tom Rob Smith exhibits the literary affectation of never using quotation marks to indicate dialogue. Instead, all dialogue opens with a very long em-dash. Not only that, it's all in italics as well. I absolutely loathe and detest this habit and normally I simply refuse to read a book that indulges in it. It says much for the strength of this brilliantly scary novel that I put my prejudices to one side and continued to read it.

While my grandfather was busy getting the last turkey in the shop nicely warmed up, the rest of us would take the opportunity to indulge in another Christmas tradition. We'd huddle round the television set and listen to the Queen's Speech. Queenie herself was always nicely dressed, sometimes formally and sometimes in a cosy twinset and pearls. Her hair was freshly permed. There was always a Christmas tree in the background of the picture and Christmas cards on the mantelpiece. She spoke to us with the precisely enunciated glass-etching vowel sounds of the English aristocracy.

"My husband and I..."

I feared for the integrity of our cathode ray tube, but it always survived unscathed. Once Queenie was safely out of the way, the BBC would broadcast a movie. Throughout the 1950s this was always an impossibly young looking John Wayne in Stagecoach, a movie I detested because there was far too much dialogue and no shooting until the very end. As a child, I liked my cowboy movies to have shooting all the way through.

Nowadays it is strange to think that there was once a time when Christmas television did not involve The Sound Of Music or Mary Poppins because the films hadn't even been made yet. The Wizard Of Oz had been made – it was released in 1939, the year the second world war broke out; the two events may not have been unconnected. However in 1950s England The Wizard Of Oz was still doing a roaring trade in the cinema (which is where I first saw it, circa 1958) and it would be many, many years before it eventually appeared on television.

As soon as they decently could, my parents would send me off to bed and my Christmas day would come to an end. Because I'd been up since 4.00am tearing paper off my presents, I was usually ready to go. December 25th was always a very long day for all of us. Every year, my parents made me promise not to wake them up early after Father Christmas had been, and every year I broke that promise. I was always so excited on Christmas eve that I was sure I'd never get to sleep. Periodically my parents would check up on me.

"Has Father Christmas been yet?" I would enquire anxiously.

"No," my father would say severely. "And he won't come while you are still awake."

My parents would force themselves to stay up until about 3.00am to make sure that I was really sound asleep and then they'd put a huge pillow case full of excitingly wrapped presents just inside the door of my bedroom before they went off to bed themselves. In retrospect, I can't help thinking that they brought the full horror of what came next on themselves...

An hour or so after my parents went to bed, I'd wake up, spot the pillow case that Father Christmas had left for me, completely forget my solemn promise of the night before, and start investigating all the parcels.

Often there would be drums to bang, racing cars to vroom, vroom around the bedroom and science kits (batteries included) with which the adventurous boy could make door bells, air raid warning sirens and atomic bombs. One year I got an electric kit which contained an induction coil with two bare metal handles. I connected the batteries, turned the circuit on and grabbed hold of the handles. A massive electric shock threw me out of bed on to the floor, and I screamed.

"Go back to sleep," my father would yell every year. He was a very na´ve man, with no understanding of the ways of children. My mother would put on her red flannelette dressing gown and come into my bedroom. Between jaw breaking yawns she would examine my presents with me and agree that, one and all, they were the best presents ever.

Once my father was finally persuaded that further sleep was simply not going to happen, we'd go downstairs for breakfast. Often it was still dark outside and if I was very lucky there might be swirls of snow, with the promise of a snowball fight later in the day. Perhaps I'd get a chance to throw a snowball at my grandfather.

"I didn't do it, grandpa. It was a boy called Alan."

There would be Christmas Carols on the radio. I'd listen while I ate my toast. What carol do they sing outside German lunatic asylums?

"God rest you jerry mentlemen let nothing you dismay..."

Jack McDevitt Time Travelers Never Die Ace
Michael Chabon The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay Harper
Cherie Priest Four And Twenty Blackbirds Tor
T. Jefferson Parker Little Saigon St. Martins
T. Jefferson Parker California Girl Harper Collins
T. Jefferson Parker Silent Joe Hyperion
T. Jefferson Parker The Fallen Harper
T. Jefferson Parker Storm Runners Harper
T. Jefferson Parker The Blue Hour Hyperion
T. Jefferson Parker Red Light Hyperion
T. Jefferson Parker Black Water Hyperion
T. Jefferson Parker Where Serpents Lie Hyperion
Robert Littell The Stalin Epigram Simon and Schuster
Tom Rob Smith Child 44 Pocket
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