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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (nymphicus hollandicus)

The Garden City – So Called

I've been in Christchurch, staying at the So Hotel again. You will be pleased to know that it has lost none of its eccentricity. Indeed, it has gained some. Being clean and green and proud of its image, the hotel now offers free charging for electric cars, and it has an electric car proudly on display in the foyer in order to demonstrate solidarity with the cause. The car itself is painted a delightful shade of pink (perhaps pink is the new green). Some days the car is parked by the lifts and some days it is parked in the entranceway. And doubtless it is always fully charged.

The rooms themselves are still an utter delight. Each evening as I went to bed I was soothed to sleep under the gentle glow of a coloured night light; red, yellow, green, blue, and purple. What a choice to be presented with! I experimented with them all, and all were equally beneficial.

The in-room compendium has been severely edited since last I stayed in the hotel. What used to be nearly 50 pages of new age waffle interspersed with technical instructions about how to use the console beside the bed has now been reduced to a mere 20 pages of new age waffle with very few technical instructions in it at all. Truly, it has become So Brief. As a consequence, the hi-tech control unit beside the bed is now an enormous mystery to each and every guest. It has four buttons engraved with kabbalistic runes, three switches, two rotating control knobs a digital display, a telephone handset, three more buttons that I've only just noticed, a partridge, a pear tree and a Sew Ing Machine. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that given the right combination of twists, pulls and pushes, the console would manufacture an electric car for me which I could then charge for free if only I could work out how to drive it down four flights of stairs to the reception desk. Like daleks, electric cars don't do stairs very well. So Sad.

The compendium also assured me that simulating the passing of an entire day by putting the light over the bed into sun mode would be an enormously therapeutic experience. Unfortunately the only remotely applicable instruction told me simply to press the up arrow key on the console. Since there was no up arrow key on the console, I was left helpless. I never did work out how to put my room into sun mode which is a shame – I'm sure that at the end of a tiring day I would have greatly benefited from a little blast of high energy gamma rays while I bathed in the jets of plasma emitted by the miniature nuclear fusion plant concealed in the bed head light fitting.

One page of the compendium was written in the enigmatic and So Secret alphabet of the planet Rot13. Upon reading this page I discovered that the area outside the hotel was colloquially known as Soho. People were encouraged to walk up and down by themselves so that they could claim they were walking Solo. In a small garden just by the hotel, guests could Sow Seeds. Fb Gurer!

I've been reading a lot of historical fiction recently – mostly potboilers, I admit, but great fun nonetheless. It seems to be fashionable at the moment to write novels set at various interesting times during the Roman Empire (see, for example, the Harry Sidebottom novels I reviewed last March). This month I found yet another example of the genre. Wounds Of Honour by Anthony Riches is the first novel of a series set during the AD 180s. The hero, Marcus Valerius Aquila is under sentence of death because his family has conspired against the Emperor Commodus. Marcus takes refuge in the forces guarding the edge of the Empire at Hadrian's Wall.

It's a fairly routine thud and blunder epic – lots of barbarians to fight, lots of marching and manoeuvring, lots of gritty details about daily life in the Roman army. I thoroughly enjoyed it and even as we speak, the next novel in the series is on its way to me.

One thing that the novels making up this current publishing trend seem to have in common is that they pull no punches when talking about the nasty, brutish and often very short life of their protagonists. Death is handed out casually as both punishment for minor crimes as well as in the course of battle. Cruelty is endemic and, if the novels are to be believed, quite typical of the times. Life is squalid and grim.

At first I thought that this might be because the rather more relaxed modern environment allows contemporary authors far more latitude in what they can talk about than their predecessors had, but I'm starting to think I'm wrong. Historical fiction set in that period is written in that way because life in those times really was like that...

Alfred Duggan was a historical novelist with a huge reputation who published something on the order of 15 novels in the 1950s and early 1960s. He died in 1964 and (unlike many other novelists) immediately stopped writing. I never read any of his books at the time – to be honest they looked rather dull to me when I came across them on the library shelves as I was growing up. I really knew very little (and cared even less) about the sometimes obscure historical times of which he wrote and so I wasn't interested in seeing what he said about them. Duggan's work went out of print after his death and his reputation languished. However he seems to be coming back into fashion and his books are starting to reappear on the shelves. I've recently read Family Favourites a novel about the brief scandal-riven reign of the Roman Emperor Elagabalus (sometimes known as Heliogabalus). It was first published in 1960, but you'd never know that unless you read the small print at the front. It's just as exciting, just as bleak and just as nasty as its modern counterparts.

I was only a few pages into the story when I came across this sentence:

The Germans hung him by one hand from a tree, set him swinging, and used him as a target.

The book is refreshingly blunt in its discussion of violence, sex (both hetero- and homo-), squalor, scandal and general nastiness. The time and the people are brought to life and the characters clamber out of the pages and demand to have their story told. I was enthralled, and it won't be long before more Alfred Duggan novels are gracing my shelves.

Alan Bradley's The Weed That Strings The Hangman's Bag is the second volume of his stories set in the year 1950 about eleven year old Flavia de Luce, the precocious chemistry student with a healthy interest in deadly poisons who solves the terrible crimes that occur in her sleepy village of Bishop's Lacey.

In this instalment, puppeteer Rupert Poyson and his assistant Nialla are marooned in Bisop's Lacey when his van breaks down. The vicar persuades Rupert to put on a puppet show in the village hall, but it all goes horribly wrong when, towards the end of Jack And The Beanstalk, Rupert is killed in a shocking echo of a tragedy that rocked the village several years before. Flavia soon finds herself with a front row seat in the murder investigation and she will need all of her skills to unravel the tangled skeins that tie the various elements together.

It's a delightful book with the added bonus of lots of nice chemistry, for those who are so inclined. (Don't worry, the chemistry never gets in the way of the story). But I wish I'd had a laboratory as well equipped as Flavia's when I was her age and just starting out on my own chemical experiments. Since I shared so many of her enthusiasms when I was her age, I found it very easy to identify with Flavia and I quickly fell under the spell of this wonderful story.

Warriors, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois is a huge anthology of stories about, well, warriors. There's a rather nice conceit behind the idea of the book. The editors are trying (with some degree of success) to emulate the kinds of stories you used to find in the old wire display racks that were ubiquitous when I was growing up. You found these racks full of books in the oddest places; in greengrocers and post offices, in cafes and corner shops. I even remember hunting through one on the Cook Strait ferry many years ago in a desperate search for something to read to while away the dreary hours of the passage over the sea.

The books in these racks were always arranged higgledy-piggledy. New ones that arrived were jammed in wherever there was space. You would find Raymond Chandler cheek by jowl with Charles Dickens and Sax Rohmer, Lois L'Amour and Leslie Charteris sandwiched between Isaac Asimov and Evelyn Waugh. The racks were a treasure trove of unrelated themes, authors and genres. Hidden treasures lurked.

And so we have Warriors; fantasy, science fiction, contemporary stories, thrillers, tales of detection and mystery, historical romances – all are represented within its covers and you never know what will turn up next. Obviously there is a unifying theme, but the definition of the word "warrior" can be very broad and can be taken in many unexpected directions. Not every story thrilled me, as is probably only to be expected. Some were very routine, not to say dull, but the overall standard was sufficiently high that I don't regret buying it, and neither will you.

George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois turn up again as the joint authors (with Daniel Abraham) of a novel called Hunter's Run which I had very low expectations of but which turned out to be a surprisingly enjoyable page turner that I was extremely reluctant to put down.

It's a classical SF story incorporating the twin themes of exploration and exploitation. It questions humanity's place in the universe and, as a bonus, tells a gritty and thrilling adventure story as well. What more could anyone want?

Humanity has reached the stars far too late. All the best planets are already controlled by other races. Human colonists can only occupy marginal worlds, surveying, exploring, living and often dying on planets that are too dangerous or too inconvenient for other races to exploit. Ramon Espejo is one such colonist. He lives on the sparsely settle planet of São Paulo. He prospects for minerals, hoping for the big find that will make him rich and buy him a life off the planet. In his more introspective moments he knows that it will probably never happen.

Then Ramon murders the wrong man in a drunken fight and he has to hide out in the wastelands to avoid the authorities. Once in the outback, he discovers he's not the only one trying to hide. There are other aliens in residence and all is not really as it seems...

It's a grand sense of wonder, thrill a minute story and I loved it.

Another modern publishing phenomenon is the story of supernatural entities living in contemporary society. These creatures are usually vampires, but there's a lot of werewolves, pixies, and goodness only knows what else in the mix as well. Richard Kadrey is tapping this vein in his new novel Sandman Slim and he adds a layer of hard boiled cynicism to the genre that makes a refreshing change from the usual rather twee and sometimes sickly sweet approach of other writers.

James Stark is a hitman. He is hijacked to hell by some of his so-called friends who are deeply involved in the pursuit of the dark arts. He is the only living human who has ever lived in hell and he carves out a unique place for himself as a killer who implements some of the more drastic policies of his hellish masters. After eleven years he has manoeuvred himself into a position of power and some influence which gives him the means to escape back to contemporary Los Angeles. He is armed and dangerous and he wants revenge. Cue an utterly unsurprising tale – but hey, if it was good enough for Alexander Dumas (not to mention Alfred Bester) then it should be good enough for Richard Kadrey, and it is.

Kadrey brings a nicely sarcastic, irreverent and cynical style to his tale. If there is such a thing as hard-boiled supernatural fiction then this is hard-boiled supernatural fiction and it's a perfect example of the genre.

Every day as I walked from the So Hotel to the office, I passed a shop called NOOD. The acronym stands for New Objects Of Desire. There's no doubt at all that the things the shop sells are objects, and I'm perfectly willing to believe that they are new. However they evoked no feelings of desire in my breast; quite the reverse in fact. I found them to be only So So.

NOOD, being trendy, obviously uses its position at the cutting edge of fashion and taste as an excuse to sell tat at exorbitant prices. On display in the window is a chair with a stainless steel frame and two red cushions that form the back and the seat. It is a bargain for only $699. A similar stainless steel chair frame has no cushions on it at all, just an animal pattern fabric stretched tightly over the frame. It looks extremely uncomfortable, and it could be yours for a mere $1199.

You could probably buy them both as kitsets from Ikea or the Warehouse for at least $50 without feeling too ripped off...

During the whole week that I stayed in Christchurch, NOOD remained entirely bereft of customers – or noodists as it So Coyly called its clientele in the advertising leaflets available from a small pouch stuck on the shop window. I found the daily emptiness of NOOD So Unsurprising.

Christchurch is a city of constant surprises. As I walked across the square on Sunday evening I was overtaken by a large striding man with his hair gathered into a pony tail that hung down below his waist. Perched on his shoulder was a cockatiel (Nymphicus Hollandicus) who was admiring the world and being admired in his turn by all the Japanese tourists who were thronging the square. There was much pointing, much camera clicking, much giggling, and a lot of oohing and ahhing. The cockatiel raised his crest and bowed to his subjects, accepting their praise as his just due. The man paid no attention to any of this and strode silently across the square. When he reached the other side he vanished from view down a small and narrow alley. I waved – So Long.

I had a clear view of the square from the window of my office, and on Wednesday the most perfect rainbow I've ever seen arched across the city. The colours were strong and well defined; it looked like all of the night lights in my hotel room had turned themselves on at once and smeared themselves over the sky. Distinct though the colours were, I still couldn't separate indigo from violet – I've never been able to do that; perhaps it's a myth that they both exist, or perhaps Isaac Newton just had funny eyes. Being hit on the head by an apple can do that to you, particularly if it's an iPad with sharp corners. So Juicy.

The rainbow was So Strong and So Perfect that I was absolutely certain I could see the pot of gold at the end of it. I went looking for the gold later, but it wasn't there any more. Obviously somebody else got there before me.

I love Christchurch; it's the oddest city I've ever seen. So To Speak.

Anthony Riches Wounds Of Honour Hodder
Alfred Duggan Family Favourites Phoenix
Alan Bradley The Weed That Strings The Hangman's Bag Orion
George R. R. Martin & Gardner Dozois Warriors Tor
George R. R. Martin, Gardner Dozois & Daniel Abraham Hunter's Run Harper Voyager
Richard Kadrey Sandman Slim Eos
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