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

Alan And The Bag Ladies

I was five hours early for my flight back to Wellington because my business in Auckland had finished sooner than expected. So I went to the Air New Zealand check in desk and said, "Can you transfer me to an earlier flight, please?"

The nice lady clicked keys on her keyboard and then frowned. "No, I'm sorry," she said, "but the ticket you have is not transferable." Then she brightened. "But I can check you in now and you can drop your bags off and go to the Koru Club lounge where strange and sybaritic pleasures await."

I was dubious. "Will my bag be safe if I check it in so early?" I asked.

"Of course it will," she said firmly. "They have a well organised system in the baggage handling room and there's a waiting area set aside for each flight. Your bag will be perfectly safe."

"Can you guarantee that?" I asked. "You've lost my baggage before under these circumstances. Once I flew from Wellington to Auckland and my bags flew to Sydney and we weren't reunited for many days. I ran out of underpants, a terrible fate."

"You've got nothing to worry about," she reassured me. "The luggage has a bar code on the label which gives the flight details and the bar code reader automatically assigns the bags to the proper pick up point. The luggage never gets lost these days. Trust me -- I used to work in baggage handling."

"OK," I said, convinced by her positive attitude. "Check me in and I will spend the time until my flight debauching myself in the lounge."

"You won't regret it," she said as she printed out my boarding card and baggage tag. "I hear that they have a new batch of chrome-plated dancing girls." The bar code on the baggage tag looked very authoritative. I dropped my bag on the conveyor belt and watched it move off into the baggage handling area. It would have a lonely time of it for the next few hours as it waited for more bags for its flight to arrive. I hoped it wouldn't get bored.

I made my way to the security farce checkpoint. I put my laptop, phone, coins, hat and coat into plastic trays and sent them through the X-ray machine along with my backpack. Then I walked through the metal detector gates. No alarms went off, which mildly surprised me because I was still wearing my watch and my Medic-Alert bracelet. I had a gold chain around my neck, rings on my fingers and a big metal belt buckle. No bells on my toes though, luckily. All of these items tend to set the alarms ringing in more paranoid countries, and I'm constantly getting wanded when I travel overseas...

I reclaimed my laptop, phone, coins, hat and coat and watched, bewildered, as my backpack came out of the X-Ray machine, stopped and then reversed direction and went back in again. A gaggle of guards gathered round the monitor, pointing at it and whispering to each other. Eventually the bag reappeared again along with a big, beefy, shaven-headed, cloven hoofed security man.

"Is this your bag, sir?" he asked.

"Yes," I said. "Is there a problem?"

"No, not really," said the security man. "All the stuff in it has fallen down to the bottom and is just sitting there in a great big lump. The X-rays won't go through and all we can see on the screen is an amorphous blob. Can I take a look inside?"

"Feel free," I said. Not that I had any choice.

He opened the backpack and rummaged around in the collection of miscellaneous computer clutter that comprised the amorphous blob.

"Thank you, sir," he said as he handed the bag to me. "That's all fine." I headed off to the Koru Club lounge. I felt an urgent need to debauch myself with forbidden pleasures.

The lounge was seething with people. Most of the free food had been eaten, though I noticed that the monkey-brain salad remained largely untouched. However the containers of curried huhu grubs had been scraped clean. I helped myself to cheese and biscuits. The cheese had a curious flavour.

A harassed looking lady bustled past with a trolley full of spaghetti invercargillia. "Excuse me," I said, "what kind of cheese is this?"

"It's made from giraffe milk," she said. "Have you never seen the Air New Zealand cheese factory at the back of the giraffe enclosure at the Auckland Zoo?"

"Oh yes," I said. "I remember now."

I helped myself to a pair of dormice stuffed with lark tongues and wandered over to the bar. I chose a glass of wine fermented from grapes fertilised with the dung of unicorns and the blood and bone of yetis. The Koru Club lounge was living up to its exotic reputation.

Nibbling a dormouse, I wandered over to the stage. The dancing girls were preparing themselves and struggling hard to fit their breasts into chromium plated brass bras. They all looked like extras from the cover of a 1938 edition of Astounding Stories Of Super Science. Immediately I felt right at home.

Hellbent is the second volume in Cherie Priest's series about Cheshire Red, a vampire who specialises in recovering (read stealing) precious artefacts. In this novel she is commissioned to find a set of bacula. When she asks what they are she is informed that a baculum is the penis bone of an animal. The particular set of penis bones that she is being asked to seek out are from all kinds of animals, some of them mythical, and the bones have great magical powers. She is sceptical, but she goes along with it, if only so she can spend the whole novel making dick jokes, much to the exasperation of her friends.

I enjoyed the book, but I am not hopeful about the future of the series. One of the attractions of Cheshire Red is that she is her own person, living and working quite independently of any other supernatural entities. However in Hellbent she starts getting closely involved in vampire politics and organisations and I can easily see the series degenerating in much the same way that Charlaine Harris' series about Sookie Stackhouse has degenerated as this kind of convoluted nonsense starts to take over the plotting. I hope that Cherie Priest manages to avoid taking her stories in this direction, but I won't be holding my breath.

And talking of Charlaine Harris, I also stumbled across The Sookie Stackhouse Companion, a completely unnecessary fan fest replete with articles about life in Bon Temps, Sookie Stackhouse trivia, a question and answer session about the minutiae of vampire life, plot summaries of the various novels and an "All-New Sookie Stackhouse Novella". Presumably "All-New" (as opposed to just "New") means that every single word in the novella is a word that Charlaine Harris has never used before in any of her other stories. Curious as to exactly how she had managed this feat, I opened it eagerly at the first page. Imagine my disappointment when I found that the first word was "It", a word I distinctly remember reading in almost every Charlaine Harris novel, including the ones that aren't about vampires. From there it was downhill all the way. I recognised every word. Even the order in which they were arranged wasn't altogether new. Humph!

As a cynical exercise in extracting money from the pockets of gullible fans, The Sookie Stackhouse Companion is a great success. But it has no other merits.

If you have ever read a book called Pets In Prospect by Michael D. Welshman, don't bother reading Pets In A Pickle by Michael D. Welshman because they are the same book. Quite why the publisher felt the need to change the title between editions is a mystery. Surely they couldn't have been hoping that the punters would think it was a new book in the series and buy it all over again. Could they? No, of course not...

Pets In Prospect / A Pickle is a collection of anecdotes about life as a vet. It's a mildly entertaining story. However Michael Welshman is no James Herriot, and there are no laugh out loud moments as there were with Herriot's books. Furthermore, in my opinion, Welshman is far too fond of puns. But if you can forgive him this mild peccadillo, his book is a pleasant way of passing an hour or two.

Robert Rankin's novel The Japanese Devil Fish Girl And Other Unnatural Attractions is a very unusual novel from a writer known for producing very unusual novels. To begin with it actually has a plot, a relatively recent innovation for Rankin's books. What's more the plot actually makes a twisted kind of sense, something that is almost unheard of from Robert Rankin. Could the lad be maturing (in a literary sense, I hasten to add)?

The novel begins in the year 1895. Ten years have passed since the Martians invaded the Earth. The British Empire, 'back-engineering' (sic) recovered Martian technology, has triumphantly conquered Mars and is now negotiating with the inhabitants of Venus and Jupiter on an equal footing. A great spaceport has been built in London and a vast airship known as the Empress of Mars is touring the world and showing the British flag.

Professor Coffin, an itinerant showman, is making a lot of money displaying his pickled Martian in a jar, a souvenir of the original invasion. However he himself is left in a pretty pickle when his assistant George Fox is informed that it is his destiny to find the mythical Japanese Devil Fish Girl. Coffin and Fox sell their worldly possessions in order to fund an exciting and dangerous round-the-world trip to find fame and fortune.

Thus begins Robert Rankin's epic steampunk sequel to H. G. Wells' War Of The Worlds.

Rankin plays fast and loose with established history (he never did care too much about the facts of the matter). Charles Babbage and Charles Darwin have large roles to play in the story despite having died (in "real life") in 1871 and 1882 respectively. Adolf Hitler has a cameo role as a young man though having been born in 1889 he was only six years old at the time.

Other than that, it's the mixture as before. Rankin trots out all the usual running gags and makes a few sharp remarks about British imperialism which at times almost achieve satire. Could Rankin actually have had a serious purpose behind the nonsense? No, I don't think so. It was probably just an accident.

George Pelecanos has had a long career as a writer of hard boiled and sometimes very noir crime novels. He was also a scriptwriter on the magnificent HBO series The Wire. His new novel is called The Cut and it is a little bit of a departure for him, though some of the elements are familiar.

Spero Lucas is the adopted son of a Greek-American family. He is a veteran soldier who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now he is back home in Washington working as an investigator for a lawyer. One of the lawyer's clients, a crime boss, hires him to find out who has been stealing from his operation. Unfortunately things are not what they seem (are they ever?) and it isn't long before Spero finds his life in danger.

There's nothing new here in terms of plot. What makes The Cut a cut above the average (sorry) is Pelecanos' extraordinary sensitivity to time and place and character. The seedy streets of Washington are beautifully sketched and Spero Lucas jumps fully formed and alive from the page. His family and friends are fascinating people. I found I cared about them and wanted to know more about their flaws and foibles and their lives.

Peter Robinson's new novel Before The Poison is, unusually, a stand alone book which is not part of his "Inspector Banks" series. It concerns a composer of film soundtracks (the music nobody hears) called Chris Lowndes. Following the death of his wife after a long illness, he has moved from California back to his native Yorkshire where he has bought a large, rambling house in the back of beyond. It has been virtually unoccupied for the last fifty years, and the previous owner of the house, Grace Fox was hanged after being convicted of poisoning her husband. Chris becomes intrigued by this story and much of the novel consists of his search for the truth of Grace Fox's life.

Chris buys a book about famous murder trials and several extracts from the article about Grace's trial are quoted as chapter headings. Later in the book, the chapter headings turn into quotes from Grace's private journal. Initially the provenance of this journal is unclear. The revelations exposed by the journal and the means by which Chris acquires it are really the denouement of the story.

The extracts from Grace's journal tell the tale of her life during the Second World War and, while quite fascinating in themselves, they also explain a lot about Grace's motives for her actions after the war. Slowly Chris begins to put the pieces of her life together.

This is an utterly fascinating, multi-layered novel. In my opinion it is his best book yet.

John Maddox Roberts has written a series of mystery novels set in the dying days of the Roman republic. The first of these novels is called The King's Gambit. The narrative voice belongs to Decius Caecilius Metellus, the Younger. He is an elderly statesman in the days of Augustus who is looking back on his life and recounting tales of his his hazardous youth when he was a very junior official with a talent for snooping. In this first episode, everyone tells him not to look too carefully into a murder in his district, but he pays them no mind. He has a duty to the Senate and the People of Rome -- Senatus Populusque Romanus -- SPQR, the generic title of the series.

Detective novels set in Rome are thick upon the bookshelves these days and it takes an exceptional talent to stand out from the field. Roberts manages the trick beautifully. He wears his erudition lightly, but it is always there, illuminating every scene. This man knows his Roman history and the Roman character, and he brings the brawling, sprawling city alive.

Furthermore the conceit of telling the tale from the point of view of an old man looking back on his life is a particularly effective one. Much of the narrative history can therefore be legitimately placed in the context of later events. This gives a delicious sense of irony when, for example, we met a young man called Julius Caesar who is as yet unaware of his destiny, though his fate is well known to the narrator, who can't resist commenting upon it.

This may be a tired old genre, but it isn't dead yet. John Maddox Roberts is a writer well worth tracking down.

Five hours passed in the blink of an eye. Replete with wine and cheese and with a souvenir bra in my pocket, I boarded my flight to Wellington. We took off and, an hour later, we landed. I made my way to the baggage carousel.

Because I am a Koru Club member I am entitled to priority baggage handling. This means that my bags are always the very last to be unloaded from the aeroplane. So I wasn't too upset when my bag failed to appear on the carousel. However when there was still no sign of my bag after I had waited for almost as long as the flight itself had taken, I began to worry a little.

I made my way to the baggage enquiry office. I presented my receipt to the nice lady behind the counter.

"Oh yes," she said. "I remember this one. It flew down three hours ago and it's been waiting here for you ever since. I've been feeding it biscuits and playing tag with it to stop it from pining for you."

She took my receipt and handed my bag to me. It seemed slightly chubbier than when I first checked it in. Perhaps the lady had fed it too many biscuits.

"So it travelled down here all by itself on an earlier flight?" I asked.

"Yes," said the lady.

"Doesn't that violate every security regulation under the sun?" I asked. "I thought unaccompanied bags weren't allowed on aeroplanes any more."

"That's right," she said. She didn't sound at all worried. "It's so cute with its little fluffy zips! Can I feed it another biscuit?"

"No," I said, "I think it's had enough."

My luggage was harmless. There was nothing dangerous in it apart from a week's supply of dirty underpants, so it really didn't matter that the baggage handlers sent it unaccompanied on an earlier flight. But I wonder how often they screw up like this?

I wonder if I've found a weak link in the security chain?

Cherie Priest Hellbent Spectra
Charlaine Harris The Sookie Stackhouse Companion Ace
Michael D. Welshman Pets In A Pickle Metro
Robert Rankin The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions Gollancz
George Pelecanos The Cut Reagan Arthur
Peter Robinson Before The Poison Hodder & Stoughton
John Maddox Roberts The King's Gambit Minotaur Books
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