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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (calores frigoraque)

Alan And Robin Re-Fuse

Morning rituals chez Robson are as predictable as the sunrise. About an hour before the alarm clock is due to go off, 8.3Kg of anxious fur jumps on the bed and whines worriedly in my ear. Porgy is a cat of low self esteem and he is convinced that unless he constantly reminds me of his presence in the house, I will forget that he exists and will not fill his breakfast bowl with goodies.

If the whining fails to rouse me, he paces up and down on my chest for a few minutes and tries a few experimental jumps, hoping perhaps to elicit an "Ooof!" from me. Sometimes he misjudges his target on purpose and crashes down from a great height, claws fully extended, right on my naughty bits. My "Ooof!" tends towards the soprano, and I begin to contemplate the advantages of felinicide.

Having succeeded in his aim of drawing attention to himself, Porgy then curls himself up around my head and purrs loudly in my ear. Sometimes he rasps his tongue over my nose, which feels rather like being rubbed down with wet sandpaper. Layers of nasal skin flake away as I lie there praying for the alarm to go off so that the day can begin.

Eventually it rings, and Robin screams with fright as she is dragged headlong out of a deep and satisfying slumber. I sooth her with calming soothes and then, yawning and stretching, she heaves herself out of bed. Porgy immediately forgets all about me. Robin is up! She'll do! Harpo and Bess, waiting politely outside the bedroom door, seem to agree with him.

Robin heads into the kitchen trying not to trip over three cats who are winding themselves backwards and forwards between her legs, crying with eagerness to be fed and holding occasional impromptu boxing matches. She puts biscuits in their bowls and then heads for the bathroom where hopefully a shower will bring her fully awake. I lie in bed, relaxed by the distant sounds of running water and companionable crunching. I turn on the radio and listen to the news.

Eventually a cloud of steam with Robin inside it floats into the bedroom.

"Lights!" warns the cloud of steam, and I close my eyes to protect my delicate corneas from the photonic rocks that electric lights always seem to throw out in the mornings. It's a good job that daylight photons out in the real world don't have mass otherwise we'd all be stoned to death every day.

Now it's my turn in the shower and off I go, leaving the cloud of steam to get dressed.

On the particular morning of which I now speak, all began as usual. My shower was a little lukewarm, particularly towards the end when it got decidedly chilly, but I simply assumed that Robin had soaked herself a bit longer than normal and used slightly too much hot water. I dried myself off and trudged back to the bedroom to get dressed. Robin, less steamy than when last I saw her, was now dressed and breakfasted and about to leave for work. I waved goodbye as I clambered into my underpants; a bit of multitasking that is very hard to do without breaking a leg, but nevertheless it is a skill of which I am an internationally acknowledged master. For a small fee, I am willing to give lessons...

When I got home that evening, all the taps marked Hot were producing only Cold water. Oh dear.

"Could it be a fuse?" suggested Robin.

I went to the fusebox. Somewhat to my surprise, I discovered that most of the circuits were protected by old fashioned ceramic fuses. One or two had been upgraded to circuit breakers, but a surprisingly large number were still using the old technology. The water heating circuit was one of these. I removed the ceramic fuse and looked inside it. There was no fuse wire to be seen and streaks of metal on the ceramic base suggested that the fuse had somewhat dramatically self destructed at some point in the not too distant past. I actually had some fuse wire in my tool cupboard (heaven knows why), so I repaired the fuse and put it back. All we could do now was wait.

The next day I turned on a Hot tap. High temperature water gushed forth. Yippee! Problem solved.


That sounded ominous. I went back to the fuse box and pulled the water heating fuse again. The fuse wire had literally exploded under the load and melted itself all over the inside of the ceramic. Somewhat foolishly, I replaced it again. It lasted about five minutes.


Time to call in the professionals.

All Clear continues the story that Connie Willis began in Blackout. It is not a stand alone book and it will make no sense to you at all if you haven't previously read Blackout.

The time travellers marooned in London during the blitz continue to try to come to grips with their situation. Are they really isolated in the past because their actions have altered the course of history? They dash around like headless chickens trying to make sense of things and failing miserably.

First of all, let me say that with Blackout/All Clear Connie Willis has written a tour de force novel which has such a magnificently evoked sense of time and place that it will doubtless win every award going. She has done such a wonderful job that you can truly sense the terror and desperation and frightening helplessness of being bombed night after night after endless night. My father was an Air Raid Warden in the second world war. He celebrated his twenty first birthday watching the Luftwaffe bomb seven kinds of brick dust out of his city. He tried to describe what it was like to me once, but he simply didn't have the words and I really didn't understand. Connie Willis has never been on the receiving end of a bomb, but she most definitely does have the words and perhaps I now have some small understanding of just what my father experienced. In that sense these books will probably never be surpassed.


Why, oh why does Connie Willis persist in peopling her stories with dysfunctional morons who can't even summon enough nous to tie their own shoelaces? Her time travellers barely have two brain cells to rub together. They all, without exception, have the IQ of rocks. And particularly dumb rocks at that. I have a lump of granite in my back garden that is an intellectual giant by comparison.

The books would be half the size (and could have been published as a single volume instead of being split into two separate books) if only the characters could have displayed the slightest sign of having an actual, sensible thought rattling round inside the vast, empty caverns of their skulls. These idiots are so annoying to read about that on more than one occasion I seriously considered putting the book down and never picking it up again. But I didn't do that; I laboured on, and in the end it certainly proved to have been worth while. In retrospect, I definitely don't regret slogging my way through the intensely irritating stupidities that the characters exhibit on nearly every page. In the final analysis the greater good and greater pleasure that was the story itself won out over the inanities of the characterisation. But it was a close run thing and at times reading the book was very hard work indeed because of it.

And what is this anglophilia that Connie Willis exhibits in so many of her stories? She is American through and through and yet she persists in setting her stories in England. In some ways this is an artistic mistake for she demonstrates no understanding whatsoever of English society. She claims to have done a lot of research -- well, perhaps so; let's give her the benefit of the doubt. But she has a complete tin ear for the language and no appreciation at all of the subtleties of the social relationships that drive the English class system. Again and again and again she puts American words into the mouths of her English characters and American attitudes into their relationships. It simply doesn't work; the spell is broken, the story stops.

Would it have been too hard to ask an English person to cast an eye over the manuscript prior to publication in order to remove some of the more egregious Americanisms? Obviously it would be far too hard, and so we have to put up with English children playing parchesi instead of ludo, for example. Humph!

Blackout/All Clear are (very) flawed masterpieces. You have been warned.

Full Dark, No Stars is a new collection from Stephen King. It is rather slim by his standards, consisting of only three average length novellas and one short story. But every single one of them is top notch, an absolute gem of a story. The master has lost none of his skills and he can still write everybody else into a cocked hat whenever he feels like it.

1922 is the story of a murder told from the point of view of the murderer. He is haunted by what he has done (literally, perhaps and certainly metaphorically). The story is the tale of his gradual disintegration under the stress of his conscience.

Big Driver concerns the rape and attempted murder of Tess, a novelist (of course) and tells of the dark and terrible revenge that she takes on her attackers.

Fair Extension is a traditional "deal with the devil" story.

A Good Marriage tells what happens to an ideal marriage when the wife stumbles over the souvenirs of her husband's gruesome hobby in the garage.

These are very dark and often squirmy stories that held me absolutely riveted to the page. For many years I've been claiming that the novella is Stephen King's ideal story length. His novels tend to ramble, but the tight discipline imposed by the shorter lengths really play to his considerable strengths. Full Dark, No Stars is living proof of that thesis. This is a superb collection.

John Boyne's Mutiny On The Bounty tells the story that all of us think we know because we've seen the movies starring Charles Laughton and Mel Gibson. But we're wrong, we don't know the story at all. The real story is both more subtle and more complicated than the movies would have us believe and this book adds a welcome new shade of grey to a story that has always been presented in black and white in the past. We see the events from the point of view of one Jacob Turnstile, Captain Bligh's servant. Bligh treats him well and Turnstile admires him (though he is not blind to the captain's flaws). Fletcher Christian is presented as the main villain of the piece, he's a snobbish man and a bully to boot. I raced through this book; it was utterly enthralling.

In The House Of Special Purposes John Boyne tells of the 1917 Russian revolution from the point of view of Georgy Jachmenev, a farmer's son who foils an assassination attempt on a senior member of the Tsar's family. As a result of this he is inducted into the Tsar's household. His duties are to guard and protect Alexei, the Tsar's haemophiliac son and the heir to the Russian throne. The times are turbulent and revolution is in the air.

The central thesis of the book is the relationship between Georgy and one of the Tsar's daughters. It is obvious what the denouement of the novel will be and, given the genetic researches conducted on the exhumed remains of the Tsar's family in recent years, it is equally obvious that the denouement is a physical impossibility. This makes it very hard to suspend disbelief in the essential unreality of the plot. Nevertheless Boyne invokes such a sense of deep involvement in the events he describes that I managed to put my scepticism to one side and just revelled in the joys of the story. And make no mistake, it's a damn good story, thrilling, romantic and ultimately very, very satisfying.

Game Of Cages is the second volume in Harry Connolly's Twenty Palaces series. I don't know if there are any more novels to come, but if there are, I definitely won't be reading them. I gave up on this one after 150 pages of pointless thud and blunder that did not advance the plot one jot or tittle. All that "happened" in those 150 pages was that the hero kept encountering bad guys who he fought. No sooner was one set of baddies disposed of than another set appeared. Cue a bit more violence and salivating descriptions of military/weapon porn. Avoid this book at all costs; it's a complete waste of time and money.

I've long been a fan of Sara Paretsky's novels about private eye V. I Warshawski. They've been getting decidedly more odd as the series has progressed and Body Master is the weirdest one yet. I loved it to bits.

There's a night club called Gouge where a woman known as the body artist displays her naked body covered with pictures. Not only that, she encourages the audience to draw on her body and the drawings are projected on to giant TV screens for the entertainment of all. The club attracts a lot of odd people -- war veterans, mobsters, and frustrated painters who use the body artist as a virgin canvas. Warshawski's niece Petra is an enthusiast, and she drags her aunt along.

One person paints an odd design on the body artist. The picture seems to infuriate one of the war veterans. Later the artist who painted that picture is shot and she dies in Warshawski's arms. It seems clear that the war veteran finally went completely off the rails and killed the painter. He is duly charged with the crime, but not everyone is convinced of his guilt and Warshawski is hired dig deeper into things.

And so the stage is set for a chain of ugly truths involving art, politics and an awful lot of guilty secrets.

Sara Paretsky goes from strength to strength. This is one of her best books yet.

Zombies: The Recent Dead is a collection of short stories about zombies. It starts with a pompously dull pseudo-intellectual introduction by somebody called David J. Schow who appears to have no sense of humour and no sense of aesthetics either. And the stories, to be honest, aren't much better. Joe Lansdale gives us another story about Reverend Jebediah Rains (who we first met many years ago in the novella Dead In The West) and Neil Gaiman tells a zombie tale in the first person. Strangely it works quite well. But these are the highlights; overall the standard of story telling is very low.

Alex Bellos' book Alex's Adventures In Numberland consists of a series of light hearted essays about serious mathematical subjects. When I tell you that in America the book was called Here's Looking At Euclid you will get a very good idea of just how Bellos' sense of humour works. I thoroughly enjoyed the book though I have to confess that I learned nothing new from it -- anybody who has studied mathematics in any reasonable depth will find most of it quite familiar. However Bellos' idiosyncratic approach to the ideas is utterly delightful and does, to a certain extent, shed a new light on them. For that alone he deserves great praise

Ken the electrician came armed with impressive gadgets that had digital displays. He poked probes into dark places on the water heater and looked at the numbers on his dials.

"Hmmm," he said thoughtfully. "I know the fuse is out," he said, "and therefore there is no current going through the circuit at the moment, but nevertheless I think I'll turn the switch to the water heater off, just in case I accidentally short circuit something."

He pressed the switch with his thumb.

"That's rather stiff," he said in surprise, and he pressed it again, using two thumbs this time. The switch refused to change position. "Aha!," said Ken. "A clue!"

He got down on his knees and examined the switch more closely. He sniffed it. He rubbed his finger over the top of the plastic box in which the switch was housed. "Feel that," he said to me.

I felt it -- the plastic under my fingers was slightly rough and bubbly.

"That's got quite hot at some point in the not too distant past," said Ken. "Hot enough to start melting the plastic. I'm surprised you didn't smell it; it reeks of rat piss as it melts."

"Oh we'd never have noticed that," said Robin. "Neither Alan nor I have much of a sense of smell. That's the secret of a truly happy marriage, you know -- when neither partner can smell anything."

Ken considered this solemnly. "You have a good point there," he said. "I always get on much better with my wife when we both have colds." He produced a screwdriver and began to dismantle the plastic box.

The inside of the box looked like a battlefield in miniature. The wires leading into the switch were black and burned and the switch mechanism itself was a solid, distorted lump where the plastic had melted and flowed into surrealistic deformities.

"No wonder I couldn't close the switch," said Ken. "That's never going to move again."

He clipped the wires and removed what was left of the switch. He examined it closely and broke away some bits of plastic. "Look at that," he said, pointing at a particularly interesting bit. "That got so hot it's partially melted the brass of the terminal. You're lucky the fuse blew when it did. If this got much hotter, it could have started a fire, and that would have done your house no good at all!"

He scraped away the burned insulation from the wires, fitted new rubber sleeves and wired in a new switch. He remantled the plastic box and replaced the ceramic fuse with a circuit breaker.

"I don't trust the fuse any more," he said. "It obviously exploded quite violently, so goodness knows what stresses that put on the ceramic. We don't want it disintegrating some dark and stormy night."

He turned everything on and poked his probes into dark corners again. The numbers obviously satisfied him for he began to pack away his tools.

"There you are," he said. "That should do the trick."

The next morning, the usual 8.3Kg of anxious fur jumped up on the bed. The daily ritual had begun and my shower, when I got to it, was satisfyingly hot.

Connie Willis All Clear Ballantine
Stephen King Full Dark, No Stars Scribner
John Boyne Mutiny On The Bounty Black Swan
John Boyne The House Of Special Purposes Black Swan
Harry Connolly Game Of Cages Del Rey
Sara Paretsky Body Master Hodder and Stoughton
Paula Guran (Editor) Zombies: The Recent Dead Prime
Alex Bellos Alex's Adventures In Numberland Bloomsbury
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