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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (animadversio)


It is Easter and therefore the shops are closed for two days. Along with everyone else in the country, I developed a fear of starvation and so I went to the supermarket in order to stock up.

It was, of course, seething with people. I drove round the car park three times before a shopper with a boot full of goodies finally finished packing their car and drove away. I pulled into the space before anyone else noticed it and then ran the gauntlet of cruising cars, all desperately looking for a parking slot before arriving safely at the supermarket doors. I grabbed a trolley and went inside. The shelves were getting quite bare. Stocks, particularly fresh food stocks, were not being replenished as the supermarket itself wound down for the holiday.

I wandered round, buying the things I normally buy. Fresh vegetables, bread, avocado oil. I found that I was completely unable to buy caviare, stuffed vine leaves, Dijon mustard, sesame oil and venison brains. Fortunately I had no immediate need for any of them, but I did wonder what on Earth the people who had stripped the shelves bare of these items were going to be doing with themselves over Easter.

As a special Easter treat I also bought some rather nice pork which I intend to turn into a huge pot of curry over the weekend. And, just in case I ran out, I made sure to buy lots and lots of onions. I have a theory about cooking: first fry your onions and then decide what you are going to cook. Everything starts with onions. Probably that's why I don't make desserts -- people get quite horrified when I serve them Black Forest Gateau on a base of fried onions.

Whenever I go shopping for groceries, I enjoy observing the contents of other people's trolleys. Why is that lady buying 15 two-litre bottles of coke? Will she buy another 15 next week? I wonder if she (and, presumably, her children) have any teeth left? That man over there probably lives alone and doesn't know how to look after himself. He has nothing but tins and packages of pre-prepared frozen dinners in his trolley. I feel quite sorry for him. That lady is owned by at least 10 very hungry cats. Look at the huge pile of gourmet cat food cans in her trolley! Tucked in one corner, hiding behind all the cans, is a small packet of mince, a leek and a carrot. She won't be eating very much today, but her cats will be happy.

Easter trolleys are twice as entertaining as ordinary weekend trolleys. That man is having a barbecue and everyone in the country is invited. I didn't know there were that many sausages in the world! How did he manage to squeeze them all in to his trolley? I wonder if he has heard the weather forecast. Does he know it is going to rain all over Easter? That man has the right idea -- he has 5 dozen bottles of beer and a packet of peanuts in his trolley. I suspect that he bought the peanuts because that was all that he could fit into the trolley after he put 5 dozen bottles of beer into it. In my opinion, he doesn't have nearly enough peanuts to go with the beer, but after the first dozen, I doubt if he will care. Why has that extraordinarily slim young lady crammed her trolley full of pork chops that appear to be all fat and almost no pork? How does she stay so slim? Perhaps they aren't for her own consumption; she obviously hates her husband and is trying to kill him with a heart attack. That young couple's trolley has a bottle of champagne, some smoked salmon, a cream cake and a packet of K-Y Brand His and Hers lubricant. Happy Easter!

Colin Cotterill has written a series of not quite detective novels set in Laos in the 1970s. They concern the adventures and investigations of 73 year old Dr. Siri Paiboun who, much against his wishes, has been appointed as the national coroner after the communist takeover. Siri has been a member of the Pathet Lao revolutionaries since his early teens and in one sense his appointment could be seen as a reward for years of faithful service to the cause. But Siri doesn't see it like that. He's an old man, he just wants to retire and enjoy the rest of his life. He long ago lost whatever commitment he may have had to communism. These days he just pays lip service to the ideals. But so do many of the wheelers and dealers in the Pathet Lao hierarchy. There's a refreshing cynicism, not say humour about the world view of Dr. Siri and his friends.

Although the books are marketed as detective stories, I think they are probably best described as fantasy novels with detective overtones. In the first book of the series, Dr. Siri learns that his body is host to the spirit of Yeh Ming, an ancient Lao shaman. Through the mediation of Yeh Ming he foils the machinations of some spirits who are annoyed at the devastation being wreaked on the Laotian forests which are rapidly dwindling as they are felled for their timber. As a result of this insight into the spirit world, SIri has an extra string to his bow, as it were, when investigating the more mundane cases that arise as he carries out his coronial duties; though sometimes these too overlap with the spirit world. Siri is not the only shaman in Laos.

I know very little about Laos. I was well aware of the existence of the Pathet Lao and of their alliance with the North Vietnamese -- during the Vietnam war, the Americans conducted a bombing campaign against Laos and also sent in combat troops in an effort to prevent the North Vietnamese using the country as a staging post along the Ho Chi Minh trail that was used to supply their troops in the south. But despite their best efforts, the Americans never succeeded in their efforts to cut this supply line. After the Americans withdrew from Vietnam, I knew that the Pathet Lao had taken over the government of Laos. But I knew no more than that. After the communist takeover, Laos pretty much vanished from the international scene; there were no news reports from Laos and nothing much seemed to be happening. Unlike the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Pathet Lao seemed to have the best interests of their country at heart. There were no atrocities, no mass killings. Life went on.

Colin Cotterill's novels are full of humour. Siri and his friends are attractive people with a jaundiced view of life and politics. The Lao culture and history is vividly portrayed. In many ways these are novels of character rather than simply being genre novels. They remind me very much of Alexander McCall Smith's novels about the Number One Ladies' Detective agency, though the cases that Siri deals with are much grimmer and much more important than the relatively trivial cases that occupy the thoughts of Precious Ramotswe. But just as Precious gives us some insight into the trials and tribulations of life in Botswana, so too does Siri bring Laotian culture alive.

These are warm, insightful and often very funny books. But at the same time there is a darkness about them. Life under the communist government is definitely not all sweetness and light. And human nature doesn't change. The motives for murder remain the same as they always were and the methods of murder are sometimes very ingenious indeed.

I've read the first three books in the series (the first was published in 2004) and I enjoyed them so much that I've ordered the four books that follow on from them.

Janet Evanovich also seems to have started writing fantasies that masquerade as detective novels. In Wicked Appetite she continues the story of Diesel and his nemesis Wulf Grimoire who we first met in the "between the numbers" Stephanie Plum novel Plum Spooky. The new novel seems to be the start of a series. Diesel (and Wulf) are looking for the seven stones of power. Each represents one of the seven deadly sins. If the stones are reunited, lots of vaguely defined but doubtless quite wonderful things will happen. Wicked Appetite concerns the search for the stone of gluttony. Presumably there will be six more novels, each dealing with another stone and another sin.

The story is thin and silly and only occasionally amusing. If the quality doesn't improve in later instalments, then this series will sink like seven stones.

And then we have A Red Herring Without Mustard, the third instalment of Alan Bradley's magnificent stories about eleven year old Flavia de Luce, chemistry whizz kid, mistress of all that is poisonous in the world, amateur detective and rider of a bicycle called Gladys, who is an adventurous female with Dunlop tyres, three speeds and a forgiving disposition. Flavia has long conversations with Gladys, sharing her ideas. Gladys does her best to help out, and never complains as she carries Flavia around the village.

Flavia goes to have her fortune told at the village fair. Unfortunately she accidentally burns down the tent of the gypsy fortune teller. Flavia does her best to make amends by providing the gypsy lady with a safe place to park her caravan while she recovers from the effects of smoke inhalation. There's a perfect place on the grounds of her family's estate. But unknown to Flavia, the gypsies have camped here before -- it didn't end well then and it doesn't end well now. The gypsy fortune teller is attacked in her caravan and severely injured.

Investigating this attack sends Flavia down all kinds of interesting highways and byways. There's the mystery of a kidnapped child. Everyone knows that gypsies kidnap children, but Flavia is not so sure about it. There seems to be some sort of connection between the disappearance of the child and an ancient heretical religious sect which might still be active in the village. Also, there's the mystery surrounding some valuable antiques that have been stolen and then seemingly replaced. Where's the sense in that? And finally there is the very gruesome murder of a local eccentric whose body is found impaled on the trident of an ornamental statue. Both Flavia and the local police have their hands full.

And why does every vital clue seem to smell (quite literally and very strongly) of fish?

Alan Bradley (and Flavia) go from strength to strength. This is a charmingly delightful book.

I have 877 ebooks on my iPad. I haven't paid for any of them because they are all, quite legitimately, available as free downloads. Soon I will have 878 ebooks on my iPad because I have actually bought and paid for my first ever commercially produced ebook. I had to pre-order it; it won't be published for another couple of weeks or so. But I'll download it as soon as it becomes available.

Will I ever read all 878 books? Probably not. It's more a case of just wanting to own them all, simply because I can. And of course there's also the very science fictional thrill that I get from carrying a whole library around with me.

In 1989, Ben Bova wrote a satirical (and very prescient) novel called Cyberbooks in which he accurately predicted pretty much everything that has actually come to pass in the ebook world, together with quite a lot that hasn't happened (yet). The novel is about an MIT software engineer called Carl Lewis, the inventor of the first electronic book. He is absolutely certain that his invention will revolutionize the publishing industry and bring enormous benefits to everybody. The coming of ebooks will make books inexpensive and therefore available to everybody everywhere. Unfortunately the publishers do not agree with this viewpoint. Much mayhem ensues. Ironically, Cyberbooks is now itself available as an ebook.

The Strange Affair Of Springheel Jack by Mark Hodder is a steampunk novel set in a nineteenth century that never was. Queen Victoria was assassinated very early in her reign and the development of English society has taken directions never dreamed of in our world. The great engineers have produced marvels, and the study of biology has progressed by leaps and bounds under the genius of Charles Darwin. Steam driven horseless carriages drive through the streets and giant swans carry passengers swiftly through the air. Genetically modified cats (broomcats) sweep the floors of the rich and then lick themselves clean, and verbally abusive trained parrots deliver telegrams.

The events of the novel take place in 1861, in London. Werewolves with an alarming tendency to spontaneously burst into flames and burn themselves to a crisp are stalking the country, and Spring Heeled Jack, a notorious and possibly mythical creature, appears out of nowhere to accost young women. Strangely, all he seems to do is pull off their clothes, examine them closely, and then vanish again into thin air. There is no suggestion at all of sexual molestation. What could he be looking for?

The prime minister appoints Sir Richard Francis Burton, the noted explorer, and linguist as a special agent with extraordinary authority and power to investigate these odd happenings. With the help of his friend, the poet and part time masochist Algernon Swinburne, Burton quickly uncovers a frightening conspiracy...

A major strength of this wildly inventive novel is the way that Hodder presents us with famous people from the era who, while still recognisable to us, are quite different from their avatars in our own history. The novel’s many supporting characters include Oscar Wilde, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Francis Galton, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel and all are subtly twisted in sometimes quite evil ways.

Springheel Jack himself is, of course, the thread that binds all these strange things together, though it isn't until the end of the book that the reader finds out what is really going on. Suffice it to say that the plot is one of the most ingenious I have come across and the clever way that Hodder ties up all the loose ends that he scatters through the first three quarters of the book is truly inspired.

This is, without a doubt, the best steampunk novel I've read. Hodder is incredibly ambitious with what he tries to achieve in this book, and he succeeds magnificently.

Frederik Pohl is ninety years old, but he is still writing great books. All The Lives He Led is his new novel and I recommend it highly. Of course I'm biased -- Pohl has long been one of my favourite writers. But nevertheless, I still think this is one of his better novels.

The story takes place in 2079. It is the two thousandth anniversary of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the subsequent destruction of Pompeii. These days Pompeii itself is a massive theme park, getting ready to stage a huge celebration of the anniversary. Brad Sheridan, the viewpoint character, is an indentured servant (almost a slave) who is working in Pompeii. Brad is an American, but in this world, America has been devastated by the massive eruption of Yellowstone Park which has all but obliterated American society, and the country is no longer a power in the world. There are eerie parallels here with the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii, of course. Brad and his family are refugees living on the poverty line, and hiring himself out as an indentured servant is Brad's only means of making a living, meagre though it is.

Tourists flock to Pompeii to take part in the celebrations. The visitors enjoy both real and virtual entertainments (the city is full of contemporary citizens living the life of two thousand years ago, but almost all of them are virtual reality constructs). Brad makes a living from his pittance of a wage and also by swindling some of the more naive tourists. But he quickly finds himself faced with more trouble than he can handle; there are problems with the woman he loves, and also he comes across frightening information about a terrorist attack that will use the Pompeii celebrations to potentially wipe out most of the human race.

Pohl has lost none of his acerbic, cynical wit. His comments on the nature of terrorism and the reactions of governments to its threat are spot on. This very clever novel is at one and the same time a fable of our future and a fable for our times. And it's a rattling good yarn to boot!

Fifty years ago Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space. He wasn't the first living thing to leave the Earth That honour belongs to Laika, a Russian dog, who was blasted into orbit in Sputnik 2 on November 3rd 1957. She died in orbit -- she was always intended to die in orbit, Sputnik was not designed to re-enter the atmosphere and return to Earth. Nobody had figured out how to do that yet. There is a statue of Laika and a plaque commemorating her at Star City, the Russian cosmonaut training facility.

I grew up knowing that space travel was real. The newspapers were full of space stories. After some initial setbacks, America was soon orbiting animals of its own -- chimpanzees, all of whom returned safely to Earth. Then, in a blaze of publicity, seven astronauts were chosen for manned missions. Presumably the Russians were also busy doing the same thing, but they weren't telling anyone what they were up to. So it came as quite a surprise, to me at least, when Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth.

I was amazed at the wonder and excitement of it all. I wanted to be an astronaut. I knew I could never be a cosmonaut because I didn't speak Russian. But surely I could be an astronaut?

Alan Shepard was the first American in space. He was my hero. He had the same first name as me! Almost a month after Gagarin orbited the Earth, Shepard flew his spacecraft (Freedom 7) on a suborbital, ballistic trajectory. Because of delays in the countdown, Shepard had to lie there in his capsule for hour after hour after unending hour as technical problems were discovered and overcome. By the time his rocket eventually blasted off, Shepard was very relieved in every sense of the word. He made his flight lying in a puddle of cold urine.

Space flight suddenly didn't seem quite as romantic as once it had. Perhaps I should be a computer programmer instead? The only problem with that ambition was that there was no such thing as a computer programmer yet. Never mind -- I could wait, and I did.

Colin Cotterill The Coroner's Lunch Soho Crime
Colin Cotterill Thirty-Three Teeth Soho Crime
Colin Cotterill Disco For The Departed Soho Crime
Janet Evanovich Wicked Appetite Headline
Alan Bradley A Red Herring Without Mustard Orion
Mark Hodder The Strange Affair Of Springheel Jack Pyr
Frederik Pohl All The Lives He Led Tor
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