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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (punnus nastissimus)

A Storm In A Teacup

Now, a whole decade after the shocking events of 2010, I can finally look back on that frightening year with perfect 2020 hindsight.

I was standing in a park with my friend Flickr when it all began. "I've just finished my first year at university," he said. "I've got millions of great photos. Would you like to see them?"

"No thanks," I said. "It'll probably involve eating too many cookies. How are you liking university?"

"Oh it's great," Flickr said enthusiastically. "There's so much to do. So many concerts to see, so many clubs to join. The social life is superb."

"But what about your studies?" I asked.

"Oh, I'm not doing very well there. My tutor, a man called William Archibald Spooner, insists that I'm not working hard enough. He told me I'd completely tasted three worms, and he's probably right."

T. Jefferson Parker's second trilogy suffers from the same problems as his first one. Just like the Merci Rayborn trilogy that I reviewed last month, the first book of the Charlie Hood trilogy is excellent, the second is quite good, but the third is very tedious as Parker gets bored with putting his characters through their ever more routine paces.

In the first volume, L. A. Outlaws, we meet Suzanne Jones aka Allison Murrieta. She is the multiple great granddaughter of Joaquin Murrieta, a famous nineteenth century outlaw who was renowned for his deeds of derring do. Eventually he was tracked down and killed and beheaded. For many years his preserved head was exhibited in travelling sideshows. Supposedly it was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. In fact, however, it came back into the possession of the Murrieta family and Allison now keeps it hidden in her house. Every so often, she takes it out and explains her latest escapades to it. Allison is following in her ancestor's footsteps...

By day she is Suzanne Jones, a respectable member of society, a mother of three and a history teacher at a local high school. By night, equipped with a wig to disguise her hair, a mask to disguise her face and a derringer to protect herself (and frighten her victims), she holds up liquor stores and fast food establishments – places which generally do a flourishing cash business and which therefore are particularly suitable for robbing. She is also a petrol head and steals a lot of high end automobiles for sale on the international hot car market.

She has amassed quite a fortune but has disposed of it equally quickly since she always donates a significant part of her ill acquired gains to local charities. This makes her very popular in the community; and she is viewed as a Robin Hood figure.

Allison herself is very egotistical and she sends filmed interviews and statements about her activities and plans to the local media (and, by extension, to the law enforcement organisations as well). Additionally, she often plays up to the security cameras in the places she robs, and is more than happy for her victims (and also the witnesses of her crimes) to take photos of her with their cell phone cameras. The police and the newspapers are not short of clues! Nevertheless she succeeds in eluding them.

Suzanne's games take on a serious aspect when she plans a diamond heist. The plans leak to two rival L.A. gangs, the Asian Boyz and the deadly MS13. When Suzanne arrives at the scene, she finds the gangs have fought it out and seemingly massacred each other. She finds 10 dead bodies, and the diamonds. She leaves the bodies and takes the diamonds, as one does.

Unfortunately for her, as she leaves she is spotted by Lupercio, a machete wielding killer who is the enforcer for a gangland boss called The Bull. He too has got wind of the plot to steal the diamonds and he wants them for himself. Lupercio gets a good look at Suzanne when she is pulled over for speeding as she races away from the scene of the massacre. The cop who pulls her over is sheriff's deputy Charlie Hood. Later, after discovering the grisly massacre, Charlie thinks she may be a witness to the crime (it is much later in the story before he starts to wonder if she might have instigated the crime!)

All the story elements are in place. Charlie and Suzanne engage in a torrid affair, Lupercio closes in on Suzanne in his determined pursuit of the stolen diamonds and she has several narrow escapes. Hood becomes more certain that Suzanne and Allison are the same person and somehow he must find a way to reconcile his passion for Suzanne with his deep sense of ethical behaviour and honour.

A huge attraction of the story is the sheer flamboyance of the Suzanne/Allison character. Once she dies (that's not a spoiler; it is always clear that this will happen) much of the enjoyment of the story dies with her.

The second novel (The Renegades) finds Charlie Hood patrolling the Antelope Valley, a desert region north of Los Angeles. His days feel empty – he hasn't come to terms with the death of Allison Murrieta and he is concerned that Murrieta's eldest son (Bradley Jones) may take an inappropriate revenge for his mother's death.

Hood’s new beat has a breed of criminals all its own. When his partner Terry Laws is gunned down in the passenger seat of their patrol car, Hood once again finds himself involved with the essential amorality of high profile criminal endeavour. It turns out that, despite his nickname of Mr Wonderful, Terry Laws wasn’t such a model cop after all. He was part of a lucrative drug running operation – drugs are being smuggled from Mexico into the western USA and the money from selling them is couriered back into the coffers of the Mexican drug barons. But Laws has developed a conscience and now he is regarded as a weak link in the chain. He has to be disposed of.

The story is just a routine thriller with no surprises. Without Suzanne/Allison Charlie Hood's world feels dull and empty (to be fair, Charlie feels much the same about it) and while Parker maintains the tension adequately, the character of Charlie Hood is just a bit too flat and two dimensional to carry the story. It's not a bad book, and the pace and rhythm never flag. But it isn't outstanding in the way that its predecessor was.

The third volume of the trilogy is called Iron River and it is a very tedious story indeed. Charlie is employed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He is part of a task force charged with intercepting the flow of arms into Mexico. This traffic has increased recently because the gangs are fighting each other for control of the drug traffic (and possibly even attempting a coup to take over the government of Mexico). There's a lot of to-ing and fro-ing across the border; there are kidnappings and gun battles and when the page count is big enough, the novel stops.

T. Jefferson Parker should stick to his strengths – his stand alone novels are generally excellent, as are the first volumes of his trilogies. But he really isn't very good at all at a connected series of stories.

On the other hand, David Downing has written a trilogy which is simply brilliant (see? It can be done). Zoo Station, Silesian Station and Stettin Station are set in Germany just before and during the second world war. John Russell is a journalist. Although he is of British descent he actually holds an American passport as well as his English passport and so can conveniently be regarded as a member of a neutral state. Therefore, even after the war breaks out, he continues to be able to operate in Berlin. Not unnaturally, he is a person of great interest to the various intelligence services and by the end of the third novel it is very unclear (both to John Russell and the reader) exactly where his loyalties lie. The Communists, the Americans, the British, the Gestapo and the Abwher all have reason to believe that he is working for them And maybe he is – but Russell's motivation is more personal than political. He was once married to a German and he has a son by her. He is now divorced, but he remains on friendly terms with his ex-wife and his son is the most important person in the world to him. He also has a German girlfriend, an actress in propaganda movies which neither she nor Russell can take seriously. All Russell's activities are motivated by a desire to keep the people he loves from harm.

The novels paint a convincing picture of life in totalitarian Germany under the fascist regime of Adolf Hitler. Only Eric Ambler and Alan Furst have even come close to describing what life was like for ordinary people in those terrible times. And when I name drop like that, it must be clear that David Downing is leading from strength, for Ambler and Furst have always been considered the masters of the field. Downing's books are brilliant historical thrillers and I recommend them unreservedly.

Just then a saucer flew in low over the trees and landed, quietly and without any fuss, in a small clearing. I had scarcely recovered from the shock, when a teacup swooped across the trees and landed on top of the saucer. There was a definite clink to be heard as it touched down. A small spiral of steam quivered over the top of the teacup. The handle of a silver spoon could be seen jutting up from the rim.

As Flickr and I stared in astonishment, a door opened in the side of the teacup. An ornate staircase slid down from the doorway and thumped into the ground. Three aliens emerged from the teacup and walked down the stairs. One was a large, silver robot who said, "Klaatu barada nicotine," as he puffed on a huge cigar.

Just behind the robot was a gorgeously proportioned lady who looked exactly like Nigella Lawson.

"Cor," said Flickr, "she's built like a chic brithouse."

"You're doing your Spooner impression again, aren't you?" I asked.

"Neigh," said my friend Flickr. "What's that?" He pointed at the third alien that was now scuttling down the staircase.

"It's a weta," I said. "Have you never seen a weta before? It's an insect-like special effect that eats money and excretes movies."

"Oh, I see," he said, looking hard at the aliens as they walked over to us.

Once they got close enough, the Nigella glared at us with her exquisite strabismus and said, "I need butter, cream, and a dozen eggs."

"What for?" I asked.

"Cholesterol inna bun," she said.

"Never mind that," said the robot. "I need a garage with a good workshop. I'm having problems with the tachyon drive in the teacup."

"I'm not sure I can help you with that," I said. "I don't think we know anything about tachyon drives in this part of the world."

"But tachyon drives are simple," said the robot, sounding quite astonished at my ignorance. "Let me explain it to you. Why did the tachyon cross the road?"

"I don't know," I replied. "Why did the tachyon cross the road?"

"Because it was already on the other side," said the robot. "There, now you know how tachyon drives work. I told you it was simple."

The weta scraped its mandibles together and I got the distinct feeling that it was applauding. It excreted a blue meanie with a ring on a gold chain around its neck.

"Wot? Wot?" asked the blue meanie. Then it put the ring on its willy, dissolved into the air and vanished from sight.

"Can't the Nigella or the weta help with the tachyon drive?" I asked.

"Oh no," said the robot. "The weta only forges pictures, it can't forge metal. And the Nigella was expelled from school before she reached that part of the curriculum."

"Why were you expelled?" I asked the Nigella.

"I was caught cheating in a biology exam," she explained. "The invigilator noticed me counting my breasts."

"Oh, I am sorry," I said sympathetically.

"I don't suppose it really matters," said the Nigella. "I'd never have passed the exam. I ran out of fingers."

I raised a quizzical eyebrow at the robot who shrugged and said, "Well, we are aliens after all!"

"Wow!" said my friend Flickr. "Can I take a photograph of you?" He took an impressively complex looking digital camera out of his pocket and began to focus carefully on the Nigella. "Look at the dead birdie!"

The Nigella looked up and anxiously scanned the sky. "Where is it?" she asked.

"Don't be so literal," Flickr said. "Take off your clothes."

"Certainly not!" said the Nigella. "I'm not that sort of alien."

"That's all right," said my friend Flickr. "I'm not that sort of photographer!"

"I'm not taking these clothes off," said the Nigella firmly, "and that's final. I'm far too fond of them. They were an absolute bargain, as indeed they would have to be because I bought them at the Wearhouse."

Joe Haldeman's Starbound is the second volume of a trilogy. It follows on from last year's Marsbound, and the trilogy will be completed with Earthbound which will probably be published early in 2011.

Despite the fact that it is the middle book of a trilogy, Starbound works very well as a stand alone novel. The salient points from the first novel are introduced painlessly, and there is never any feeling that vital data is being withheld. Even the ending (which some have complained is a cliff hanger) is very satisfactory. The situation set up in Starbound is adequately explained and, at the same time, is left sufficiently open ended to make it clear in what directions Earthbound will carry the story.

At the end of the first novel, the Earth had successfully avoided annihilation from the attack launched by the mysterious alien Others. The Other who had been living in the liquid nitrogen seas of Triton, Neptune's largest moon, had set the destruction in progress and then left the solar system to return, presumably, to its home world.

Having avoided destruction, the authorities on Earth decide to send a ship to the Other's home world, though they are uncertain whether a diplomat or a killer will be required. The ship is crewed by Carmen Dula (the major viewpoint character of Marsbound), her husband Paul, two of the pseudo-Martians that Carmen met in the first novel and three commandos from the Earth's military forces. Starbound is narrated in the first person, chapter by chapter, by representatives of each of these three groups and this gives the novel a quirkily interesting structure. The multiple insights into the events and purposes of the mission adds a depth and richness to the story that would otherwise be lacking.

The crew find many surprises when they reach the star system from which the Others came. In some ways these are traditional science fictional tropes that will not take the experienced SF reader by surprise; but nevertheless, Haldeman manages to make even this material fresh and interesting and he has some genuinely insightful and original things to say about alien politics, religion and evolution.

The laws of relativity are such that, when the crew return to Earth, fifty years have passed on the home planet. The rulers of Earth have not been idle during this time. They have built a massive flotilla of space ships to guard themselves against the imagined aggression of the Others. And therein lie the seeds of their downfall and the emergence of a truly desperate problem that will have to be faced up to in the next novel.

I loved the book. Starbound is Joe Haldeman's best novel in years. I am eagerly awaiting Earthbound; I absolutely must find out how the story ends.

Cherie Priest is rapidly becoming an author whose books I just have to have on my shelves. Her latest book, Boneshaker, is perhaps the best "steampunk" novel I have ever read. Everything about it is an utter delight. Even the book design fits perfectly within the steampunk genre – the font is a beautiful shade of sepia which gives a delightfully old-fashioned, almost Victorian, feel to the book.

The story is set in Seattle, late in the nineteenth century. In the early years of the Great Rebellion (aka the American Civil War), rumours of gold in the Klondike inspired a gold rush and the Russian government, anxious not to lose out on the bonanza, commissioned the famous inventor Leviticus Blue to build a machine that could mine gold from the frozen Alaskan wastes. He built Dr. Blue's Incredible Bone Shaking Drill Engine. But on its first test run, the Boneshaker went terribly awry. It destroyed much of downtown Seattle and, boring deep into the Earth's crust, it released a dreadful gas known as the blight. Anyone who breathes the gas turns into a ravening zombie.

The novel opens sixteen years after this catastrophe. A wall has been built around the toxic areas of Seattle. Outside the wall, a poor and shattered community struggles to make a living. Inside the wall ... well, who knows what is happening inside the wall? Leviticus Blue's widow Briar and her son Ezekial live outside the wall. Life is hard, but they are scrimping and saving and scavenging and making ends meet. Then Ezekial, in a quixotically foolish attempt to clear the opprobrium from his father's name, enters the walled off city. Briar follows, to try and rescue him from both himself and from the gruesomely nasty things, both human and inhuman, that ravage and rave behind the wall.

Boneshaker has something for everyone. It has airships and pirates and zombies and deeds of derring do. It has vast perils, degenerates and noble people, it has mysterious steam powered machines, a deadly gas, an evil drug and a mystery that spans the generations.

In short, it's just wonderful. It's a boys own adventure novel in the grand tradition. I loved it to bits and so will you.

Wings To The Kingdom and Not Flesh Nor Feathers are the second and third volumes of the Eden Moore trilogy. (I reviewed the first volume, Four And Twenty Blackbirds, last month).

Wings To The Kingdom is set on and around the old Civil War battlefield of Chickamauga. For many years, visitors to the battlefield have reported seeing an apparition they call Old Green Eyes. But now Old Green Eyes appears to have vanished and the ghosts of the old soldiers are starting to walk the battlefield. They seem to be upset about something...

It's a very satisfying novel and an excellent addition to the Eden Moore story.

Not Flesh Nor Feathers is much weaker. A devastating storm has hugely raised the level of the Tennessee River. It breaks its banks and floods the city. The rising river brings with it a tide of corpses which have been sunk in the river for more than a century. They are animated and organized by a malignant force with an inscrutable purpose. And more and more people are now dying and swelling the ranks of this undead army. Eden realizes that the zombies are converging on Read House, a historic building currently being renovated, much to the distress of the ghost of Caroline Read, who haunts the old building. Perhaps there is a connection between the two apparitions...

The novel is far too "talky" and there are far too many pages of rather tedious descriptions of rising flood water. I think, perhaps, that Cherie Priest was starting to get a bit tired of Eden Moore when she wrote this third instalment.

While we had been talking, a host of grey clouds had gathered and once they reached critical mass, it began to rain. The weta frantically clicked its mandibles as the rain hosed down.

"He's not happy," said the robot. "He's rapidly turning into a wetter weta and he doesn't like it. Perhaps you'd better all come and shelter in the teacup."

I held my face up to the rain and let it splash caressingly all over me. "He really doesn't have anything to worry about," I said. "We have very soft water here. It's quite harmless."

"Soft water?" asked the Nigella.

"Yes," I said. "As opposed to hard water. You know – ice?"

"I'm not sure if that's the real meaning of soft and hard water," said the robot dryly.

We all climbed back up the stairs and went into the teacup. We passed through an archway. Embedded in the pillars was a full body scanner that photographed us, fingerprinted us and projected inside and outside pictures of our naked bodies on to a TV screen for all the world to see. As the weta passed through the archway, I got a glorious view of his inner structure.

"Lovely bones!" I said admiringly.

My friend Flickr took frantic photographs of everything he saw. Unfortunately there wasn't much to see. Grey walls sloped up to a high ceiling and small blue lights glowed at random intervals. There was a teapot on a table, and a dark brown brew was steeping in it.

"Would you care for tea?" asked the robot.

"Yes, please," I said. "Milk and no sugar." Flickr took a photograph of the teapot and nodded his head. The weta tickled one of the glowing blue lights with a mandible and a cupboard opened in the wall. The weta removed some mugs and put them on the table.

"I'll be mother," said the Nigella as she grabbed hold of the pot. But no matter how she struggled and strained, she couldn't pick it up. "You idiot!" she said to the robot. "You brewed the tea with heavy water again!"

"Sorry," said the robot. "Perhaps we'll skip the tea and go straight to the anal probe. Bend over!" he instructed me and my friend Flickr.

Flickr and I looked at each other. "On the count of three," said Flickr, "run for the stair of the headcase."

"OK." I agreed.

"Three!" said Flickr, and we ran, with the robot, the Nigella and the weta in hot pursuit. As I ran, I noticed a darkness in the wall where a blue light was no longer glowing. I thumped it hard, and it started to glow again. The robot screeched to a halt.

"The tachyon drive!" he said. "You've fixed it. How can I ever repay you?"

"You could let us go home," I suggested. "And then you could fly away and never bother us again."

"Of course," said the robot, and the Nigella and the weta concurred.

My friend Flickr and I stood in the park and watched the teacup take off and fly away. Soon afterwards, the saucer set off after it in hot pursuit.

"As my tutor would say," remarked my friend Flickr thoughtfully, "this story needs to end with a good lunch pine."

"Just like that," I agreed.

T. Jefferson Parker L. A. Outlaws Signet
T. Jefferson Parker The Renegades Dutton
T. Jefferson Parker Iron River Dutton
David Downing Zoo Station Old Street
David Downing Silesian Station Old Street
David Downing Stettin Station Old Street
Joe Haldeman Starbound Ace
Cherie Priest Boneshaker Tor
Cherie Priest Wings To The Kingdom Tor
Cherie Priest Not Flesh Nor Feathers Tor
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