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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (felis dominus)


Porgy the Cat is dead. He was nine years old, which is no great age for a cat. But Porgy had a life full of illness and injury, and his last illness was just too much for him.

However in between the times of pain and fear, he was a happy cat. He didn't ask much from life; just a warm lap, lots of cuddles, yummy food and constant reassurance that his bottom was pretty.

"How does it look this morning?" he would ask anxiously, thrusting his bottom into my face for its daily inspection.

"It looks fine, Porgy. Just perfect."

"Are you sure? I had a feeling that perhaps it was just a little bit asymmetrical today."

"No, no. There's nothing to worry about. It's everything a bottom ought to be."

"Good," said Porgy in tones of deep satisfaction. "Is it breakfast time now?"

"Yes, Porgy. It's breakfast time."

Porgy had one major talent. He was extraordinarily good at identifying the best seat in the house and then sitting in it. The best seat in the house was the seat that I was sitting in. His logic was irrefutable. Alan is in charge of the universe and his choices are always the best. Alan is sitting in that seat. Therefore that is the best seat in the house. Porgy was a very Aristotelian cat who always thought in syllogisms. None of this new fangled Null-A first order predicate logic for him, thank you very much!

If ever I got up to make a cup of coffee or visit the loo, Porgy would invariably be curled up in the seat I had just vacated when I returned. He would look at me through half closed eyes, pretending to be asleep.



"You're in my seat again."

"It's the best seat in the house. And it's particularly good today. You had a little fart just before you got up didn't you?"

"Well, what if I did?"

"It adds a comfortable fragrance. I'm going to sleep now." The eyes would now be fully closed.

I had been out-manoeuvred again! And so I reconciled myself to an evening of watching television from the second best seat in the house; the one that Porgy had just vacated.

I have a habit of stretching out on the sofa when I'm reading a book. I hold the book in my left hand and prop my left arm on the arm of the sofa. This leaves my right hand free to turn the pages and to pick up my glass of beer. Porgy always regarded this as a perfect opportunity for a bottom inspection. He would plonk himself down on my left arm and tickle my nostrils tactically with his tail while he checked out my book.

"Why are you reading this tripe?"

"It's a good book!"

"No it's not." Porgy could be quite scathing in his disapproval of my reading material. He felt that books should be about important and significant things and he was constantly disappointed to discover just how few people wrote stories about mouse hunts and breakfast biscuits and crackly toy snakes with catnip inside them.

Eventually Porgy's 8.5 kilos of furry book criticism would cut off the circulation in my left arm. All feeling would vanish and my book would fall to the floor as my nerveless fingers failed to retain their hold on it. When this happened, I was left with no choice -- I had to slide my arm out from underneath Porgy and then massage the life back into it. Sometimes I would scream with the pain of returning circulation. Porgy was usually a bit indignant when I did that.

"Why are you moving your arm and making all that noise?"

"My arm's gone to sleep."

"I'd go to sleep as well, if only you'd lick my bottom. That's what a proper mum would do."

"I'm not your mother, Porgy. I don't want to lick your bottom. Why don't you do it yourself?"

"Oh all right."

And then, after a thorough bottom lick, he would fall asleep.

He was always quite choosy about where he slept. When he was just a little kitten, his favourite place to sleep was a kitten sized basket with a fur lining. He could curl up in its warm softness and just drift away. He never lost his fondness for that basket, even though he couldn't fit into it any more. No matter how tightly he curled himself up, he could only ever get the tip of his tummy in. The rest of him overflowed its tiny boundaries in every direction. Nevertheless it remained a favourite. He knew what he was sleeping in even if the rest of the world couldn't tell that it was there at all once he'd plonked himself down on it and covered it up completely.

Porgy didn't have many domestic chores, but one duty that he took very seriously involved him supervising my morning shower to make sure I did it right. He would wait outside the bathroom door until the sound of running water stopped and then, while I was briskly towelling my naughty bits, he would push the door open and wander casually in.

"Morning, Alan," he would say. "How was the shower today?"

"Pretty good, thank you Porgy. Warm, wet, soapy. Just like it's supposed to be."

"I still need to check it out and confirm that you did it properly."

Then he would go into the shower cabinet and lick up the soapy residue with the air of a wine connoisseur tasting a vintage unoaked Chardonnay. Except he never spat it out.

"Yes, a definite hint of sweat with an overtone of soap and a finish of unmentionable bodily fluids in the back of the throat. Tastes like you really did clean all the nasties off yourself. I'll let you go to work now."

"Thank you Porgy."

He hated Sundays. I don't shower on Sundays because it's a day of rest. On the other hand, Sundays often found me chopping raw meat for a casserole. This invariably attracted an audience of adoring cats. Porgy always made sure that he got his unfair share of the leftovers. Perhaps there were compensations for the lack of showers that day.

Porgy didn't move around much; that's one reason why he weighed 8.5 kilos. When he was a young cat he broke his back legs and had to have both hip joints surgically removed. This meant that he had to learn to walk all over again and my heart went out to him as I watched him struggle with this.

But he was a courageous cat. He had the heart of a lion, and he never gave up. Slowly, painfully slowly, he learned to support himself again and to put one foot in front of the other. He never re-developed much muscular strength at the back of his body after this, and his rear legs remained very weak for the rest of his life. He compensated (some might say he over-compensated) by developing enormous muscles in his front legs and chest. He used his massive front legs to haul himself along and to pull himself up trees, fences and furniture and on to laps. Both Robin and I have permanent scars on our thighs where Porgy dug in the pitons that he used for front claws so that he could heave the rest of himself up into a comfortable sleeping position. And the mattress on our bed leaks stuffing from the holes he left when he joined us each evening so that he could wrap himself around our heads and purr loudly in our ears all night, thus preventing us from sleeping and leaving us tetchy and bad tempered all the next day. Porgy enjoyed that a lot -- it was his major hobby.

Because he was so hugely strong and wide-bodied at the front and so comparatively thin and weak at the back, he looked a little lopsided and deformed. It was easy to understand and sympathise with his obsessive worry about the symmetry of his bottom.

One of his favourite places in all the world was a hydrangea bush by the side of the house. He could hide inside it and absolutely nobody except me knew that he was there. From this place of safety he could watch the world go by. Unfortunately not a lot of the world went by since the hydrangea was well inside our garden, far away from the street where the action was. But all the things that really mattered to Porgy were always there for him to watch. There were blades of grass moving in the wind and sometimes a bee would bumble by. However the highlight of his hydrangea day was when he noticed legs walking past. If he recognised them (in other words, when they were my legs) he would always chirrup "Hello", so that I would stop and pat him.

And if he kept ever so, ever so still (not a hardship for Porgy; stillness was his default state) he might catch a butterfly or possibly even a mentally defective lizard which he could bring inside the house and boast about.

Once I saw him staring at a hedgehog. It stared back.

"What do I do now?" asked Porgy. "It's got too many pointy bits."

"I don't know," I said. "I'm not well versed in cat and hedgehog etiquette. Whatever you do, don't show it your bottom. Why not just run away?'

"Good idea," said Porgy. And that's just what he did.

We have buried his ashes under the hydrangea bush where he spent so many contemplative hours. The silence when I walk past is deafening; but there is some comfort in knowing that he is still there, still watching over all the important and interesting parts of his world.

In one sense, Jo Walton's new novel Among Others is a traditional teenage school novel. Take away the magic, the fairies and the contemporary references and it could almost have been written by Angela Brazil. If you wanted to be crass, you could also say that Among Others is Harry Potter done properly. All of these statements are true, but none of them properly describes the sheer brilliant genius of this book. It completely transcends its influences and becomes something utterly wonderful and unique. It's only February as I write this, but I have no doubt at all in my mind that Among Others is the best book I will read this year.

Morwenna (who thinks of herself as Mor or Mori) is a fifteen year old girl from Wales. She has been sent to boarding school, and this book is her journal. It soon becomes clear that, in some initially unspecified way, Mori has recently been involved in a fantasy adventure during which she saved the world from a great evil, her twin sister died and she herself was badly injured. She has been sent to the school to keep her away from the evil influences that still remain at home, as well as, to a certain extent, to recover from her injuries and the trauma induced by the things that she witnessed.

However Jo Walton is not at all interested in telling us the tale of the high fantasy adventure that Mori survived. It remains simply a back story; influential and important but not intrinsically very interesting in itself. Instead, Jo (through Mori) explores aftermaths and consequences. Life goes on even though your sister is dead, your leg is painful and your mother is mad. How do you cope?

Mori feels very alone. Not only is her twin, her other half, dead, but she knows nobody at the school. She cannot break into their cliques or understand their jokes and their rituals. And because of the injury to her leg, neither can she redeem herself by taking part in organised sport. She is a classical outsider and she spends games lessons in the library. Books have always been important to her. She is very widely read (she wants to be a poet and T. S. Eliot looms large in her life). But her first love is science fiction and fantasy and the journal entries presented in Among Others are rich with Mori's opinions on the novels she is reading; novels that you and I have also read -- Le Guin, Tiptree, Silverberg, Vonnegut, Cherryh et. al. In some ways, Among Others is a primer on modern SF. You may or may not agree with Mori's opinions, but they are always interesting and cleverly argued.

But Mori also lives in the real world and her growing awareness of it and interpretation of her place in it adds yet another layer to this already deeply clever story.

Mori sees fairies and she can do magic. But the fairies that she sees and the magic that she performs are like no other that you have ever read about. The essence of magic is its deniability. When you examine it closely it might not even be there at all. As Mori herself observes, magic is very analogous to the British class system in which she is immersed at the boarding school. There's nothing concrete about the system that you can point to, and it evaporates into thin air if you try to analyse it and pin it down with definitions. But nevertheless it is a very real thing which has a truly profound effect on people's behaviour. It makes things happen.

This understanding and acute observation is quite typical of Mori's very deep view of the world; a view that becomes increasingly more sophisticated as her reading and her thinking give her more and more insight into her own condition.

And then, perhaps out of loneliness and isolation, Mori does magic, which leaves her with a dilemma. Was it magic that created the science fiction book discussion group that she joins, or did it already exist? And what about the handsome boy that she falls a little bit in love with? Did she create him as well?

Much to her surprise and gratification, the people in the book discussion group take her (and her opinions) seriously. They do not necessarily always agree with her (and neither will you) but they are always prepared to argue pro or con (and so will you). Books are not an escape mechanism for Mori -- rather they are tools that she uses to explore for explanations about the way she sees the world working. Perhaps that is magic as well. Or perhaps it's just part of growing up. Mori does a lot of growing up as this novel progresses.

Among Others is tremendously understated. It sneaks up on you when you aren't looking. It is a tale that is beautifully told. It is an immersive book, a clever book, possibly even a subversive book. And it speaks directly to whatever it is that makes us want to fit into the world. It's about everything really.

And it's bloody good fun to read!

Donald Kingsbury's novel Courtship Rite is set on a planet called Geta that has been colonised by humans. The ship that brought them to the planet many hundreds of years ago is still in orbit, but by the time the novel opens its purpose has largely been forgotten.

Geta is quite inimcal to humans -- the native plant and animal life is poisonous and there are very few Earth species that can be cultivated. The only Earth life forms surviving on the planet are humans, bees, and the "Eight Sacred Plants" (which include wheat, soya beans, barley and potatoes). Because the native life is not sacred, it must obviously be profane. Parts of certain profane species can be eaten (in small quantities) if prepared correctly. As a result of this largely toxic environment, food is a precious commodity, and a significant source of protein for the colonists is the ritual cannibalism that they indulge in. Furthermore, because of a deep seated need to make their bodies attractive (so that people will want to eat them) everyone covers themselves with elaborate tattoos and scars. Their skin, when tanned, makes useful and highly decorative leather.

The colony is very old and at some time in the past it lost all knowledge of its history and of the science and technology that once sustained it.

As the novel opens, a scientific renaissance is taking place. The Getans have always been masters of genetic engineering (that's a survival skill) but now they are making advances in physics and mechanical engineering. Bicycles are popular and one clan has even developed a form of radio which gives them a distinct advantage over their rivals.

Kingsbury uses his novel to examine the consequences, both social and political, of scientific and technical discoveries and how they fit (sometimes awkwardly) within a religious and philosophical framework that is often inherently conservative. To that extent the book can be read as an allegory propped up with special effects designed to shock (cannibalism).

While it's certainly not a bad book, and while it is often quite entertaining in its own way, it doesn't really say anything that hasn't been said a million times before. And of course the game is rigged simply because of the initial choices that Kingsbury has made about the way Geta works. So while the story has lots of nice touches, ultimately it is unsatisfying. The strings on the puppets are a bit too obvious.

Elizabeth George is a very prolific and very popular writer of detective novels featuring Inspector Thomas Lynley of Scotland Yard and his sidekick Sergeant Barbara Havers. Oddly, Elizabeth George is American, and I am a little unclear as to exactly why she has chosen to set all her novels in the UK. However by and large, she does an extremely good job with her characters and settings; unlike that other anglophilic American writer Connie Willis who researches her subject to death and yet still manages to get almost everything wrong. To my surprise, Elizabeth George even manages to use the word "momentarily" properly, something which I was quite sure that no American born would ever manage to do. Her only fault (if it is a fault) is that she has the usual American obsession with the British aristocracy -- Lynley, his best friend St James and sundry sexy females with which they surround themselves are all members of the upper crust. They are rich, influential and mildly decadent. None of that (with the possible exception of the decadence) bears any relation at all to reality and it definitely strikes a false note. On the other hand, one of her novels is set in a minor public school, that breeding ground of the British aristocracy, and she gets all the social and historical aspects of that exactly right. So who can tell?

She is also perfectly well aware of just what kind of opinions the rest of the world has about Americans, and she is not averse to having some fun with it. Her first novel has a delightfully barbed and pointed sketch of the cliché that is the obnoxious, insensitive and ignorant American tourist abroad. I think it is very healthy (and also very British, of course) that she can laugh at her own culture like that.

Her plots, at least in the early books, have a tendency towards a Christie-like complexity which makes them a little unconvincing. Having glanced at the blurbs, I suspect that the later books will concentrate much more on the social and political realities which, if true, will give them an added strength. There are hints of this development in the early books and Elizabeth George is certainly very capable of taking the series in this direction. I am quite looking forward to following her on her journey.

Alex Rutherford's Raiders From The North and Brothers At War are the first two books in a projected quintet that is a novelization of the history of the Moghul Empire. Until I read the books, I knew nothing at all about this period of history. I'd heard of the Moghuls, but I had no idea at all about their place in history. I was even a little unclear as to which part of the world the Moghuls ruled over. I vaguely thought it was India (interestingly it turns out that I was both right and wrong in this assumption) but I really wasn't sure.

The books are an obvious attempt to cash in on the popularity of Conn Iggulden's popular historical blockbusters about Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan. There's no great shame in that -- plenty of other people have also followed the trail that Iggulden blazed and many of the stories have been equally as thrilling as those written by the master.

Rutherford has nothing to be ashamed of in his tales of blood and thunder. Don't go looking for historical or psychological insights in these books; you won't find them. But you will find a rip-roaring yarn that sticks roughly to the facts as we know them. The books are Boys Own stories for grown ups (you can tell they are for grown ups, there's some sex mixed in with the violence). And what's wrong with that?

Jo Walton Among Others Tor
Donald Kingsbury Courtship Rite Timescape
Elizabeth George A Great Deliverance Hodder
Elizabeth George Payment In Blood Hodder
Elizabeth George Well-Schooled In Murder Hodder
Elizabeth George A Suitable Vengeance Hodder
Alex Rutherford Raiders From The North Headline
Alex Rutherford Brothers At War Headline
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