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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (felix horridus horridus)

One Cat, Two Cats, Black Cat, Tabby Cat

Harpo The Stealth Cat is the master of a minimalist feline martial art called delayogami. When you approach him in order to give him a pat he will, if he is in a bad mood (which he always is), lash out with one lightning fast, razor tipped paw. The rest of his body doesn't move a muscle. Harpo does not believe in unnecessary effort. You withdraw your hand immediately, of course.

"Ha, ha! Missed me again," you chortle triumphantly and you go about your business. Harpo returns happily to sleep. He knows something that you don't, and five minutes later, just when you are least expecting it, the pain hits you like a hammer blow and the blood begins to flow, dripping redly onto the pages of your book and obscuring vital sentences. Stealth cat wins again! Cursing, you head off to the bathroom in search of antiseptic cream and sticking plaster. Harpo grins malevolently in his sleep.

He's lived with us now for about seven years. He's big, black, sleek, powerful and vicious; the lord of all he surveys. There's no trace left at all of the cold, wet, starving, flea-ridden bundle of desperate fur that turned up so pathetically on our doorstep all those years ago. He knows that he is in charge of the world and he isn't scared of anything in it except visitors and vacuum cleaners. Since the lady who comes once a fortnight to clean our house is a visitor with a vacuum cleaner he finds her doubly scary and she has never seen anything of him except his fluffy tail racing desperately for the undergrowth. She treats my sticking plastered fingers with scorn. "He's a scaredy cat, he'd never hurt you!"

Since Harpo is demonstrably scared of visitors and vacuum cleaners, I suspect that he may also be scared of violins, vibrators, volcanoes, Visigoths, vintage volutes and vegetarian vindaloo. Fortunately for his peace of mind he has not yet come across any of these. Once a year he definitely proves himself to be frightened of both vaccinations and vets. I shudder to think what might happen should he ever encounter a vampire or a Volkswagen. I have no explanation for his monomaniacal alphabetic neurosis. I asked him about it once.

"I find it valuable for ventilating voles when I'm hunting," he told me, leaving me none the wiser.

Sometimes, late at night when he is sure that nobody is looking and when there is a 'q' in the month, he turns into Harpo The Cuddle Cat. The claws retract, the red gleam in his eyes dies away and he climbs on to a lap, his motor revving loudly in top gear. He snuggles and wriggles, demanding to be patted. Because we are too scared of him to disobey, we stop whatever we are doing and do as we are told. He radiates bliss from every molecule. Occasionally he dribbles.

Harpo is a long haired cat. Long haired cats need regular brushing in order to keep their fur sleek. However Harpo hates having his fur brushed. People who try and brush him are immediately terminated with extreme prejudice. As a result of this policy, his fur is generally matted and tangled and full of dags. Every so often we have to take him to the vet to be de-dagged.

"Hello Harpo," says the vet. "How are you today?"

"Kill, kill!" says Harpo. The subtleties of delayogami are put to one side. Flesh is going to be shredded.

"I'll let the nurse do this," says the vet as his mangled fingers drip blood. "It's just routine."

The nurse is already dressed in a suit of armour. She is equipped with electric shears. The magic sword Excalibur, sometimes called the Scourge of Felines, is sheathed in a scabbard on her back. The hilt peeks coyly over her left shoulder. She carries Harpo off into the back room. The spitting and swearing dies away into the distance. Eventually the nurse and Harpo return. He is now a short haired cat with bald spots and a bad mood. The nurse's armour hangs in shreds. Both she and Harpo are exhausted. Harpo glares at me.

"Just wait till I get you home," he threatens.

"I'm cooking a casserole tonight," I tell him. "How about I give you some raw beef?"

"I might forgive you eventually."

Moon Over Soho is the second volume in Ben Aaronovitch's urbane fantasy sequence about the secret history of London. In the first volume (Rivers Of London aka Midnight Riot), Detective Constable Peter Grant is recruited into the Metropolitan Police's "Economic and Specialist Crime Unit", thus doubling the number of staff in the unit at a stroke. Grant's mentor, DCI Nightingale, is much older than he appears and infinitely more knowledgeable. He's a wizard and privy to many secrets. Grant is also a wizard - well, a wizard in posse rather than in esse. Wizarding is very hard, and he's not very good at Latin. But nevertheless, he is making progress.

In this novel, it soon becomes clear that someone out in the big city is doing something nasty, magical and lethal to jazz musicians. Grant's father is one of the best jazz musicians in the business; he has a huge reputation and enormous respect among the cognoscenti, of whom Grant is not one. Grant doesn't like jazz very much. But he does like his dad, and is keen to protect him from whatever it is that is cutting such a swathe through the scene. Basking in the glow of his father's reputation, he quickly makes friends with the musicians in the scene, contacts that prove very valuable as he snoops about in the dark and spicy Soho underworld...

Much of the humour and liveliness of the book comes from the mordant juxtaposition of real world concerns with the more traditional magical requirements. For example Grant has to run his broadband internet connection out of the garage in order to prevent the cabling from interfering with his home's magical protections. The book is full of such delightful touches.

Aaronovitch, through his mouthpiece Grant, observes both the mundane and the magical worlds in a very detached way - the narrative voice lends itself well to dry humour and cynical observation. It's not quite Raymond Chandler with spells, but it isn't very far removed from it. This is a very funny and very absorbing book. I am eagerly awaiting the next instalment.

The Madness Of Hallen is the first book of a four volume epic fantasy by Russell Meek. It's a fairly typical plot-coupon quest fantasy. This time the quest objects are harmonic stones which contain the mind of Husam Al-Din, the man who united the tribal warriors half a millennium ago. Or, as the blurb would have it, half a millennia. Who says blurb writers have to be literate?

Ohrl and his brother Faerl have a special relationship with the stones. This is their story.

I find it amusing that the names of the brothers are homonyms of "All" and "Fail" -- I wonder if that was intentional?

The novel is 443 pages long. The story itself is about 200 pages long, if that. The rest of the page count is made up of interminable descriptions, largely irrelevant back stories attached to far too many characters, inappropriate adjectives (what on earth is "ethereal hair"?) and weird similes ("In the sea of dancing, she glided like a bird inches from the waves..."). The book is overwritten almost to the point of parody and it desperately needs a copy editor to trim the fat.

There's actually quite a reasonable story hiding inside the excessive verbiage. It's just that sometimes it is rather hard to find.

The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett is a social and political essay disguised as a novel. Nothing wrong with that -- it's a grand old tradition that stretches back at least to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist and probably even further. But it's odd to see a such novel told from a right wing point of view.

The setting is a steampunk alternate early twentieth century. The eponymous company is McNaughton Western Foundry Corp. which, by 1919 (when the novel takes place) has become the world leader in technology -- and hence, by implication, it is a powerful force in the economic and political arena as well. Indeed, it is so powerful that it averted World War I by threatening to cut off the production of military hardware.

McNaughton's innovative technological breakthroughs came from the work of Lawrence Kulahee, an eccentric inventor who died in 1904. The company continued to grow despite his death, and by 1919 his home in the former fishing village of Evesden has become a large city full of industrial smokestacks and slums. It is a raw, cruel place; there are dozens of murders each month. One of the murders prompts the police to contact Cyril Hayes, a man who plays a strangely undefined role in McNaughton's security force. As Hayes tries to determine whether the nameless corpse is affiliated with McNaughton, he is also assigned to investigate the union movement, which is suspected of sabotaging the corporation's factories.

Hayes has an unusual talent: he can establish a telepathic connection with people; a connection that grows stronger the longer he's in contact with them.

His dual investigations of both the murder and the union violence eventually converge once he begins to believe the stories told by the workers who claim that McNaughton's mysterious machinery is trying to talk to them...

Depending on your place in the political spectrum, you will either love or loath this book. To its credit, it does blur the lines of conflict a lot, but nevertheless at rock bottom it does tend to rely on the rather simplistic "big business good, unions bad" equation that drives far too much capitalistic entrepreneurship. The characters are walking, talking clichés and the strings being pulled by the puppetmaster author are sometimes rather uncomfortably visible.

Matthew Klein's novel Conned concerns one Kip Largo, a con man who has just been released from jail after serving a sentence for security fraud. One of his (many) con tricks had finally caught up with him. Now, penniless but with prison behind him, he is trying to go straight. He works behind the counter in a dry cleaners and sells vitamin pills over the internet. Neither business seems likely to make him rich.

But then Lauren Napier, the wife of a big Las Vegas businessman, comes to him with a proposition to steal $20 million from her husband. Kip is sure he's being set up and turns her down. But then his son comes to him, desperate for money. He owes large sums to some very shady mob-connected hard men. In order to pay off his son's debts and keep him alive, Kip reluctantly goes along with Lauren Napier's plan. He sets the wheels of an artful con in motion. He recruits some friends to help him -- Jessica, an ex-stripper who now makes porn movies, Peter, a brilliant college computer hacker and Toby, his own wayward son who is himself keen to learn how a big con works. Together they convince Napier that they've developed software that can predict the rise and fall of stocks and shares on the market. With the smell of so much potential money in in his nostrils, Napier can't wait to invest.

The thrill of this book comes from watching the machinations of the con trick unfold. Nobody except Kip knows all the details of the plan and events that, to the other characters, seem to threaten the success of the plan are eventually revealed to be subtle threads that actually tie the whole thing neatly together. I was reminded irresistibly of the movie The Sting which had a similar theme. I vividly remember that the first time I saw The Sting everything dropped into place inside my head about ten seconds before the final, delightful twist explained the whole bag of tricks. I remember leaving the cinema with a huge grin all over my face, so proud of myself that I'd figured it all out by myself. I've seen the movie at least a dozen times since then, and it never fails to thrill; there are always new little tid-bits of detail to tease out of the plot.

Matthew Klein's novel has the same structure as that movie, and again everything came together in my head a couple of pages before the final twist revealed the whole, utterly glorious cleverness of the plot. I'm sure I missed many subtleties, and this is definitely a book I intend to re-read with the 20-20 vision of hindsight so that I can pick up the sly hints that passed me by the first time.

In case you can't tell; I loved the book to bits.

Harry Sidebottom is back with the fourth book of his ongoing historical fiction series about Ballista, a general in the army of third century Rome. The Caspian Gates is the weakest of the series so far, with very little in the way of plot. It is far too full of obscure politics and even more obscure politicians. It has more than its fair share of intellectual academic jokes and, just to keep the scales in balance, some non-academic bawdy humour (there's a Greek eunuch called Mastabates). Sidebottom obviously had a lot of fun writing the book, but I had much less fun reading it. It rambled and had little point to it -- lots of good padding but very little story.

James Church, according to the blurb on A Corpse In The Koroyo, is an American intelligence officer (i.e. a spook). Well maybe he is and maybe he isn't, but he certainly knows how to tell a story. This book is the first of a series about Inspector O, a policeman in North Korea.

It's very easy to think of this book as a science fiction novel. It isn't, of course -- it is set firmly on Earth in the present day, in a very real place and a very real time. But North Korea is such an unknown, alien and downright weird environment that there is a definite SF feel to the whole thing. Everything (and I do mean everything) is completely unfamiliar.

The plotting is rather oblique, and the story is told in a very fragmented style. For most of the book neither the reader nor the protagonist have any idea what is going on.

The novel opens with Inspector O on a rather routine stakeout. He has been told to observe (and take a photograph of) a car as it travels along the road. He duly observes the car, though it is late and he is just about to pack up and leave when it arrives. However he fails to take a photograph. The battery in his camera is flat. This, it seems, is not an unusual occurrence.

He reports to his direct superior Pak and to the mysterious intelligence operative named Kang. Without explanation, they send him off on a wild goose chase all over the country. Nobody tells him anything other than "go there, wait here". Inspector O and the reader are equally bewildered.

The structure reminded me very much of Len Deighton's early novels. We get the same feeling of political machinations and paranoid inter-departmental rivalry. Everybody has a secret agenda and nobody really knows what is going on until the very end (and sometimes not even then). Inspector O is also a very similar character to Deighton's anonymous narrator; he is cynical and rebellious, much given to sardonic observations about people and politics. Since this is North Korea it's rather hard to understand why he hasn't been shot or at least sent off to labour in the gulag. Perhaps he knows where the bodies are buried -- also he is the grandson of a war hero, which probably helps.

Eventually it becomes clear that the factional rivalry which is the overt reason for Inspector O being sent hither and yon around the country is partly caused by a scheme to smuggle cars from South Korea to China, but mainly with diplomatic moves to "right old wrongs" between North Korea and Japan. North Korea is trying to build a relationship with Japan which it views as a mover and shaker in the region. However in the 1970s, Japan (along with most of the rest of the world) had been regarded by the people in power as an implacable enemy and North Korea had an active policy of kidnapping and interrogating Japanese citizens. These are the "wrongs" that need to be "righted" before negotiations can proceed.

The whole book is claustrophobic and just plain weird. Len Deighton crossed with Franz Kafka (it's probably not a coincidence that the inspector is called O; I'm certain that K would have felt very much at home in this story). I'm not at all sure whether or not I enjoyed the book, but I definitely found it fascinating.

M. C. Beaton is an alarmingly prolific writer. Probably her most famous fictional creation is the dour Scottish policeman Hamish Macbeth, who was recently turned into a very successful television series. However she is also the author of a huge number of books about Agatha Raisin, a retired public relations executive who lives in a village in the Cotswolds where, to relieve the boredom of retirement, she solves the murders that are constantly taking place.

The first novel, Agatha Raisin And The Quiche Of Death sets the scene and introduces the characters that we will meet again and again in the rest of the novels.

In an effort to make her mark on the village that is her new home (and also, let it be admitted, in order to add some interest to her life), she plots to win the village quiche baking contest. Her plan is simple - she will buy a quiche from her favourite top-class London delicatessen and enter it as her own work. Unfortunately for Agatha her plan backfires when her quiche proves to be laced with poison and the judge dies shortly after eating it. Agatha's deception is quickly uncovered and she finds herself being held responsible for his death. It's quite obvious what has to happen next...

In Agatha Raisin And The Vicious Vet, Agatha returns to the village from a Caribbean holiday to discover that a dishy new vet has set up shop there. Perhaps he'll prove an easier catch than James, her next door neighbour, a man who is proving to be far too sexually elusive. But then the vet dies in mysterious circumstances that may or may not be murder...

In Agatha Raisin And The Potted Gardener, a pretty young blonde called Mary has moved into the village. She is a keen gardener and James is smitten. Jealous, Agatha determines to take up gardening for herself. Some how or another Mary and Agatha end up being great friends. Then one night when Mary fails to show up at the local pub James and Agatha make a grisly discovery when they go to check on her...

While Agatha Raisin is obviously a direct linear descendent of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple (well, just look at her christian name), she is nevertheless a wholly original, very clever and very funny creation. She is much less sweet and twee than Miss Marple was. She is abrasive, and sexually predatory (though on occasion she has cause to regret this side of her nature as the men she pursues flee screaming towards the horizon). She likes her food, she likes her booze, and she likes her cats. She's bright and resourceful and quite likeable, and she's also utterly useless as a detective. But she doesn't let that stop her and, more by good luck than good management, she generally manages to unmask the criminal in the final scene.

The series is written with genuine humour and charm - and the plots are clever and intriguing, with plenty of suspects to choose from and lots and lots of very smelly red herrings to sort through. The deus ex machina unravelling of the mystery sometimes feels a bit weak but the humour and insightful characterisation more than make up for this. If you like classical Christie-like mysteries structured for more modern sensibilities you'll find the Agatha Raisin stories to be a thorough delight.

Now that Porgy is dead, Harpo is top cat. His Hairy Majesty takes this duty very seriously and he spends much more time at home than once he did. He sleeps on guard, one ear poised to listen for Bess who must periodically be reminded that she is bottom cat. Harpo is not currently aware that I have photographs of him and Bess curled up asleep together on the sofa, radiating peace and perfect harmony. One day, when the occasion demands it, I will embarrass him with these pictures and blackmail him into not ripping me apart.

Bess seems to know that something fundamental has changed in her life now that Porgy has vanished. It is hard to say whether or not she misses him (she paid very little attention to him when he was around, though she did bring him get well soon rats when he was sick). She has definitely grown more needy of late, constantly requiring laps and cuddles and reassurance. "Please don't send me to wherever you sent Porgy. I don't want to go. Please keep me here at home with you."

She follows us from room to room. She hates to lose sight of us. If I didn't shut the toilet door she'd even keep me company in there. Sometimes as I sit on the throne reading a book and contemplating the infinite, there are scratches at the door and pathetic whimperings from outside.

She insists on sleeping on the bed with us at night. Of course, it is winter at the moment and very cold, and the bed is very warm. Even Harpo, who is hard and tough and totally impervious to the extremes of wind, rain, sleet, snow and temperature, sometimes sleeps on the bed these days. It's easy to be cynical when you are owned by cats.

Both Bess and Harpo continue to supplement their diet with rats, mice, lizards and the occasional bird. Bess invariably brings her prey into the lounge so that we can properly admire her skills as a hunter. Robin, who is in charge of corpses, semi-corpses and vomit (all of which are closely connected to each other), has enormous fun chasing the semi-corpses round the room. There are an amazing number of hiding places in the average lounge and Robin is intimately familiar with all of them.

"Bess, Bess -- take it outside!"

Bess looks puzzled. "But it's yours now. I don't want it any more. Look! Quick! It has run underneath the stereo. Oh! You are hopeless!"

Robin arms herself with a long pokey thing and sweeps it back and forth beneath the stereo. The semi-corpse runs out and hides underneath the sofa. It's going to be a long night...

Harpo is a much more pragmatic hunter and all his trophies are immediately taken into the bath where he carefully dismantles them and arranges the bits and pieces artistically across the porcelain. This makes it very easy for us to clean up the mess, of course, though it does have a negative impact on our enthusiasm for taking baths. We have been careful not to tell Harpo how much we appreciate his hunting habits in case he stops doing it out of sheer feline perversity.

One cat, two cats, black cat, tabby cat. These are the cats today.

Ben Aaronovitch Moon Over Soho Gollancz
Russell Meek The Madness Of Hallen Russell Meek
Robert Jackson Bennett The Company Man Orbit
Matthew Klein Conned Orion
Harry Sidebottom The Caspian Gates Michael Joseph
James Church A Corpse In The Koroyo St. Martin's Press
M. C. Beaton Agatha Raisin And The Quiche Of Death Robinson Publishing
M. C. Beaton Agatha Raisin And The Vicious Vet Robinson Publishing
M. C. Beaton Agatha Raisin And The Potted Gardener Robinson Publishing
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