Previous Contents Next

wot i read on my hols by alan robson (dentatus mellitus)

Beer And Just Desserts

So there we were, sitting in the hotel at the SF convention and thinking about food, as you do.

"Let's go to Galbraiths," said Simon. Galbraiths serves beer brewed on the premises to traditional recipes. To accompany the beer, it serves hearty grub. Simon's suggestion was received with universal cries of appreciation and one very important question.

"How do we get to Galbraiths?" I asked.

"I'll consult a native guide," said Simon and he shot off to find one. Soon he returned, full of information. "It's fifteen minutes walk in that direction," he declared.

We gathered our hats and our coats and walked in that direction. An hour later, a certain amount of disquiet began to make itself felt.

"Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?" asked Robin.

"It's raining, and there's a hole in my shoe, dear Lisa, dear Lisa," I said.

"I recognise this street," said Simon. "Galbraiths is fifteen minutes walk in that direction."

Eventually this statement turned out to be true, and Galbraiths loomed large before us. Cold and wet and tired, we staggered gratefully into its welcoming warmth. I ordered a pint of Bitter and Twisted, a classic ESB style beer. Simon had a Grafton Porter, a pitch black ale, thick and hearty, one of the basic food groups, best drunk with a knife and fork. Robin had a Bohemian Pilsner, a full bodied lager tasting faintly of Czechoslovakia.

"How about some food?"

I ordered Bangers and Mash, sausages laced with Galbraiths Bellringers Best Bitter and served with savoy cabbage and creamy mashed spud. Simon had Fish and Chips, fresh fish fried in Galbraiths Bohemian Pilsner batter served with tartare sauce and hand cut chips. Robin had Black Treacle Sponge Pudding.

"Why are you starting with dessert?" I asked.

"In case there's an earthquake before we finish the meal," Robin explained, giving me a don't be an idiot look. "I don't want to miss out on dessert."

"This part of the country doesn't have earthquakes," Simon pointed out. "It has volcanoes instead."

"All the more reason to start with pudding," said Robin. "Think how silly I'd feel if a volcano erupted through the floor and I hadn't had anything sweet yet."

Galbraiths used to be a public library. It's a beautiful old building with polished wooden floors and timbered walls. On cold wet days a hearty fire roars in the fireplace. I confess that I'm torn. In my opinion, libraries should stay as libraries. Books are precious. But on the other hand Galbraiths serves wonderful beer. In the days when I lived in Auckland, I sometimes visited Galbraiths alone and drank my beer while reading a book.

With my food I drank an Antipodean Pale Ale, much like the famous IPA but perhaps hoppier. The first mouthful is hugely bitter, requiring sausages to cleanse the palate. But after that the maltiness seeps through and leads to a dry, hoppy finish. Definitely a beer for the hop fanatic. Robin drank a Bellringers Bitter, claiming that the copper colour and fruity finish offset her treacle sponge perfectly. Simon had a Bob Hudson bitter, named in honour of the man who taught Mr Galbraith to brew beer. It is a tangy, refreshing bitter ideal for session drinking. I knew a man who drank a pint of this every day of his life. It killed him in the end.

Of course, he was 102 years old at the time.

Now it was time for dessert. I had black treacle sponge pudding, Simon had bread and butter pudding and Robin had the Fish Of The Day.

Then it was time to return to the hotel. There was universal agreement that walking back was not an option and so we called a taxi. The taxi driver was a Johnny Cash fanatic and he played "Ring Of Fire" at full volume throughout the journey.

"Oh listen," I said, "he's playing the vindaloo curry song."

Matthew Hughes first came to my attention as the author of some stories that were written in the style of Jack Vance. He caught Vance's peculiar quirkiness perfectly and yet somehow he managed to avoid being simply a pale imitation of the master by retaining his own distinctive voice. I was very impressed, particularly since I couldn't work out how he did it. His new novel, The Damned Busters (the first of a trilogy, <sigh>) represents quite a departure from his previous works. It is set in the present day rather than the far future, and because of this Hughes has had to tone down the extreme Vancian vocabulary and dialogue in favour of a more mundane style. Nevertheless he retains the Vancian wit that has always been his hallmark and the book is a pure delight.

Chesney Arnstruther is a border-line autistic actuary whose only relaxations are playing poker and reading super hero comics. Having had a very strict upbringing, Chesney never swears. In moments of stress he simply yells gobbledegook. One day, while constructing a five-sided poker table, he bangs his finger, bleeds all over the felt, and blathers nonsense. Naturally this summons a demon who offers the traditional deal for his soul. Chesney, however, is in no mood to take up the offer and insists that the whole thing was a mistake.

Unfortunately the demon won't take no for an answer and he passes the problem on to his supervisor, a bureaucrat called Xaphan, who has carved out a nice sinecure for himself in the hierarchy of Hell and who hasn't appeared on earth since the 1920s. Xaphan's vocabulary makes him sound like a cross between Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney on a bad day, and he refuses to update himself. Bureaucrats don't like change.

Xaphan quickly informs Chesney that "they" do not make mistakes and starts to up the ante on the bargain for Chesney's soul. But Chesney refuses the temptation, still insisting that it was all a misunderstanding. The ramifications spread throughout the Hellish bureaucracy and eventually the demons go on strike. This means that nothing bad ever happens in the world and that turns out to be a very bad thing indeed, far too terrible to contemplate. The world proves to be terribly bland without some sinning to spice it up. And so, with the help of an influential minister, Chesney reaches a compromise with the minions of Hell and becomes a crime fighter just like his comic-book heroes. Xaphan is his trusty sidekick, though being a demon he isn't really all that trusty at all...

For the last decade or so Allen Steele has been writing a series of novels set in and around the colonisation of a planet called Coyote. His new novel Hex is billed as the last of the Coyote novels and is the final book in a spin off series that also includes Spindrift and Galaxy Blues. However Hex is a completely stand alone novel.

Hex is a good old fashioned sense of wonder story of exploration and discovery. A spaceship's captain takes her crew and an exploration team to discover what an alien race is offering the inhabitants of Coyote. They are expecting to find a planet suitable for colonization, but instead they find a Dyson sphere built of interlocking hexagons, trillions of them, each hexagon being a self-contained environment for various alien races. The story is simply an exploration of this enormous structure.

In one sense the novel is an exciting adventure story and if you don't think too deeply about what is going on, it can be enjoyed purely on that level.

Unfortunately, if you do start to think about it, serious flaws develop. My major criticism concerns the exploration team. They are specially trained to explore "new life and new civilisations" and their whole raison d'etre is "to boldly go where no man has gone before". And yet whenever they come upon alien beings whose social habits are quite different from those of twentieth century middle America they are overcome with disgust and simply don't know how to cope. They are judgemental and prone to taking action based on instinct rather than reason, which constantly gets them into trouble of course. Somehow I feel that that their training as an exploration team was either very, very bad or else they've forgotten everything they learned on the course.

The novel is also littered with characters who don't listen to the advice given to them by experts and who then blunder their way into catastrophic situations that could easily have been avoided if only they had been paying attention.

The big dumb object is very big, not really dumb and of endless interest. The characters are prejudiced fools. The plot is an idiot plot; in other words it is the kind of story that can only take place when everyone involved in it is an idiot.

Tales for Canterbury is a short story anthology loosely themed around stories of survival, hope and the future. All profits from the sale of the anthology are being donated to the Christchurch Red Cross Earthquake Appeal.

This anthology was put together very quickly as a response to the Christchurch earthquake. Nevertheless the standard of the stories in it is very high indeed, though one story is so stylistically annoying that I'm seriously considering deleting it from my ebook version. I'm quite happy to accept the neologisms "cock" as a verb and "cocking" as an adjective, but not when the cocking word is used qualify almost every cocking noun in the whole cocking story! It becomes particularly annoying when you realise that the action is taking place in the cockpit of an aeroplane. I don't think the author ever quite said that there was a cocking cock up in the cocking cockpit, but the implication was very cocking clear. The repetition was so infuriating and the word itself was so ugly on the eyeballs that I jumped to the next story so as to sooth my savage breast.

And I was quickly soothed. I highly recommend this anthology.

I have indulged myself in a new technological toy. It is a dedicated ebook reader manufactured by Sony.

My first foray into the ebook world was a Kobo device with which I was less than pleased. My second was an iPad with which I am still hugely thrilled. In many ways, the iPad is an ideal ebook reader with its large screen, clear fonts and pretty colours. However it does have some drawbacks. I have about 1350 books installed on it and the eReading software is now decidedly sluggish. I suspect I am very close to the limit of what it will support. Furthermore, the iPad screen cannot be read outdoors in bright light; the display disappears into the glare and all the squinting in the world won't bring it back again.

The Sony reader uses e-ink technology. Therefore, unlike the iPad, the display is limited to black and white only. The screen is not back lit -- indeed it requires an external source of light in order to read it. Sunshine is a good light source and the screen is easy to read out of doors. My 1350 ebooks use less than half the available storage space and the response is not at all sluggish. I'm looking forward to a grand total of about 2700 ebooks. Then I'll have to buy another reader...

The Sony screen is, perhaps, a little too small for comfortable reading. Pages need to be turned too frequently which tends to interrupt the flow of the story. But the display is crisp and clear and the support for PDF documents is much better than on the iPad. On balance, I'm very pleased indeed with it.

The Sony reader claims that you have to install some proprietary software on your computer in order to manage your library properly. This turns out not to be the case. When you plug it into the USB port on the computer, it manifests itself as an external disk drive. Simply copy the books into the database/media/books directory and then unplug it from the computer. It will think carefully for a few minutes as it tries to figure out what new goodies you have given it and then Bob's your avuncular relative. The database, such as it is, is simply a rather large, but very simply constructed, XML file. So if you are at all unhappy about any aspect of the stored books, tweaking things like the title and the author is simply a matter of editing the XML file. Easy, peasy.

I like this aspect of the reader a lot. Much as I love my iPad, I find it very irritating that I need to use iTunes (that monumental piece of electronic excrescence) to manage the beast.

The first book I read on my new toy was Tales For Canterbury. Somehow it seemed like the right thing to do.

Matthew Hughes The Damned Busters Angry Robot
Allen Steele Hex Ace
Cassie Hart and Anna Caro (Editors) Tales For Canterbury Random Static
Previous Contents Next