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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (Coprolithicus)


Four people in New Zealand own a tagine. The editor of Phoenixine is one, I am another and I have no idea who the other two people might be.

It all began when I went to have dinner with Laurie and Annette and Kath as is my occasional wont. "I’ve got a new gadget," said Laurie, exuding pride from every pore. "Tonight I will cook you a tagine dinner."

I was puzzled, but polite. "Wha’?"

A tagine, Laurie explained, is a Moroccan cooking device. Apparently the originals are completely ceramic and are used in a fire, but his, manufactured in Europe, had a cast-iron base thus making it easier to use on the top of the stove. The meal to be cooked is prepared in the normal manner in the cast-iron base, then the heat is turned down to very low and a funnel shaped ceramic top is placed over the base. The dish simmers very slowly for a couple of hours. The steam condenses inside the ceramic funnel and runs back down into the dish. All the goodness is trapped inside, nothing evaporates and the long slow cooking produces an incredibly tender and flavourful meal.

All this was explained as Laurie chopped and sautéed and simmered. Beer was consumed and much praised. Cats were stroked, books were discussed, geeky tales of computer one-upmanship were swapped. Several aeons came and went. At last the meal was ready. The tagine base was brought to the table. Chicken breasts swam in a savoury sauce.

"Help yourself."

I helped myself, and took a bite.

Instant orgasm! Seldom has anything quite so breathtakingly delicious slithered down my throat. When the moans of pleasure finally subsided, I had reached a decision. I needed a tagine of my own.

The odd thing about the new Stephen King novel and the new Stephen Baxter novel is that not only do both authors share the christian name Stephen, but major characters in both their novels share the surname Malenfant (literally bad child but perhaps better rendered idiomatically as bad boy). It is a name I had never heard until I read the books, and frankly I don’t care if I never hear it again, for not only is the word ugly, I find it intensely annoying to have a character named directly for the role he plays in the book. It is almost as though each Stephen has said to me "Hey – let me manipulate your feelings overtly!". Well – no thank you.

The Baxter book begins mundanely enough – Reid Malenfant, failed astronaut, is an entrepreneur who is single handedly re-inventing the American space program by building Big Dumb Boosters to mine near-Earth orbit asteroids. But one of his ships, piloted by a genetically enhanced squid, chances upon an alien artefact on one asteroid. This taken together with messages from a future trying to avoid a near-extinction catastrophe that is threatening the Earth sets the scene for a vast physical (and metaphysical) exploration of a myriad universes in various stages of being. The novel culminates with the destruction of our universe, so sequels would appear to be difficult to write. Even as we speak, Baxter is working on them.

The book deals with big ideas and perhaps has too short a space to focus on them successfully. When your theme is the nature of existence, I suspect that no novel could ever contain enough pages to do it justice. But to be fair to Baxter, he takes a good stab at it, and by and large he succeeds brilliantly. If you like your SF hard, and your speculations on the very boundaries of knowledge and philosophy then this is the book for you.

The Stephen King novel consists of five thematically linked novelettes which taken together add up to a novel, though each is a stand-alone episode in a larger canvas. (Sometimes books structured in this manner are called "fix ups" and they have a venerable and respectable history in the SF world, though they seem to be relatively rare outside the genre). The theme is about growing up in the sixties (so I found it quite nostalgic of course, and I think there is more than a hint of rose-coloured spectacles in the way that King treats his subject, so perhaps there is a certain nostalgia there as well). As his protagonists come of age, the spectre of Vietnam grows ever larger and despite the incidents ranging in time from 1960 to 1999, that sad and sorry war continues to motivate and dominate the book.

The opening (and longest) story introduces us to Bobby Garfield. He is eleven years old, and the year is 1960. His father is dead and he lives with his mother, a bitter, bad-tempered lady who takes an immediate dislike to Ted Brautigan, an old man who moves into the apartment upstairs and who befriends Bobby and his friends Carol and Sully John.

Ted’s impact on the lives of all three resonates throughout the remaining stories. We see each of them grow to political and social awareness and we see how the fall out from the incidents of that childhood 1960 summer shapes their growth and their responses to the times. The climax in the last tale (when Bobby returns to his home town for the first time in forty years) is truly moving. This book is one that will live on, long after the rest are forgotten.

The new Kurt Vonnegut book is an anthology of previously uncollected short fiction first published in the "slick" magazines in the 1950s. After reading them, one can understand why they have remained uncollected. In an afterword, Vonnegut confesses that he found some of them so bad that he has re-written several of the endings to try and make them less embarrassing. I’m not sure he has succeeded. This one is for completists only.

Lee Stringer was down and out, homeless in New York. He was a crack head and a drunk, who slept in the tunnels below Grand Central Station. Grand Central Winter is his story. Somehow he pulled himself up by his bootstraps, somehow he wrote it all down, somehow he got it all published. The blurb compares Stringer to Jack London and in the early episodes in the book there is an undeniable resonance. Both writers graphically portrayed the grim realism that they lived through and both approached it from a similar political stance. But about three quarters through the book, Stringer moves away from autobiography and into political and social polemic and at that point he lost me. I didn’t need my nose rubbing in it – it was all plain from what had gone before. Like too many writers before him, Lee Stringer didn’t know where to stop.

Across the road from our office in Auckland is a kitchen shop rejoicing in the name of Milly’s. I went in and looked around. They had lots of sexy kitchen stuff, but no tagine. I enquired at the counter.

"I’m looking for a tagine," I said. "It’s a …"

"Ooohh! I know what that is," said the bouncy lady. "We had one of those in a few weeks ago. It looked fascinating. I was tempted to buy it myself."

"Can you get another one?"

"I’ll ring the agents and ask." She picked up the phone and held a long, muttered conversation. Eventually she came back to me. "They imported four on spec about six months ago," she said. "They’ve got one left. It’s $250. Do you want it?"

The price rocked me a little, but memories of Laurie’s cooking stiffened my resolve. "Yes please."

The lady went back to the phone, and the deal was done. Delivery would take about four days. She gave me a docket.

"I’m away on business for the next couple of weeks," I explained. "Can you hang on to it for me when it arrives, and I’ll pick it up when I get back?"

"No problem," she reassured me, little realising how wrong she was…

Eric Idle wrote a very self-indulgent and remarkably unfunny novel called Hello Sailor in 1975. Since then he has concentrated exclusively on scripts and has written (and acted in) a lot of films, some with the Python team, some without. Now he has returned to the novel form with The Road to Mars. Carlton is an android who works for Alex and Lewis, two stand up comedians. As the book opens they are auditioning for a show that will take them touring through the solar system on a three year cruise. Carlton is interested in the philosophy of comedy and is using his time with Alex and Lewis (and their friends who drift in and out) to try and formulate a theory of comedy.

To an extent, The Road to Mars is just as self-indulgent as the earlier work, for it is very introspective. It isn’t at all funny (though to be fair, I don’t think it is meant to be funny). Also I’m not sure that it serves its intended purpose. It pokes and prods the definitions of comedy (perhaps it could best be described as a meta-comedic novel rather than the post-modern novel it proclaims itself to be on the cover) but I remain unconvinced that it says anything very much at the end of it all. The smokescreen is marvellous (Idle has always been very clever with words) but when it blows away there are only ashes left behind.

In Monty Python Speaks, the surviving members of the eponymous comedy team discuss the phenomenon that was Monty Python in their own words (interspersed with interjections by some of the people who worked with them – producers etc). For me the most telling remarks came from Barry Took, an early producer and supporter of the show. He fought fiercely for the Pythons because he was sure that they would be the most influential and inspirational comics of their generation, though the show was so outlandish that he never really expected it to be very popular. In retrospect, he confesses, he got it completely wrong. The show was wildly popular, but had no discernible influence whatsoever on the comedy shows (and stars) that came after it.

The Pythons themselves come across as remarkably well-balanced, sane and sensible people, except of course for Graham Chapman who often acted as insanely off the screen as he did on it. They had a comedic vision which they explored in a remarkably disciplined manner (the anarchy was only skin deep), though in retrospect they (particularly John Cleese) regret some of the more extreme manifestations, which seemed startlingly funny at the time but which are much less so now. Time has not been kind to the original show, though all the members of it went on to have remarkably successful post-Python careers. I suspect it is these later manifestations of their comedy which will last the longest.

But in the meantime, Monty Python Speaks, being straight from the mouths of the original horses, remains the best (as well as the most definitive) treatment I have ever read of that very odd show and those very odd people.

In 1975 a young Neil Schulman managed to wangle an interview with Robert Heinlein, then probably at the height of his popularity. It was a very long interview – probably the longest that Heinlein ever gave. Over the years it has circulated in samizdat and Schulman has even made it available on occasion on the web. But now it is finally available as a book, packaged together with various other Heinlein-derived essays that Schulman has put together over the years. It makes a disappointing read. Schulman uses Heinlein as a sounding board for Libertarian propaganda. The name of Ayn Rand is scattered liberally through the pages. We learn a lot about Libertarianism, but not much about Heinlein. Perhaps there’s a reason it was never previously published.

I found the Paul Johnston novels on the crime shelves rather than the science fiction shelves, which only goes to show that you need to cast your net widely these days. They are crime novels, that is undeniable, but they are set in Edinburgh in the mid years of the 21st century, and that makes them science fiction as well.

In the years between now and 2020, political, economic and social catastrophes have reduced Europe to a Balkanised set of independent city-states. Edinburgh governs itself using a political model based largely on the Platonic ideal (the study of Plato is compulsory in the schools). Life is in general nasty and brutish. The society reminded me a lot of the cold misery of Orwell’s 1984, though the politics have different motivation.

Each novel is narrated in the first person by Quintilian Dalrymple, a disgraced ex-member of the governing elite who makes a precarious living as a sort of private detective. His old contacts still stand him in good stead, and although he skates on very thin ice, he usually manages to keep one step ahead of the political enemies who are out to get him. Generally he knows where the (metaphorical, usually) bodies are buried. It provides protection of a kind.

In both books he is called in to investigate horribly brutal murders that are striking too close to home for comfort. The details of these murders make up the plot of the books, Quintilian’s uneasy relationship with the political reality of the city makes up the theme. As always in these kinds of novels, Quintilian is cynical, subversive and manipulative. The plots themselves are nothing special, but the characters and the characterisation raises them above the norm. A third novel in the series is promised shortly. I will definitely be buying it.

The same crime shelves that gave me Paul Johnston’s books also gave me Cops and Robbers by I. K. Watson. It’s a nasty book about a nasty subject. A paedophile has killed one of his victims. Another child is missing. Can the police find him before this one too is murdered? This is a raw and nasty story and the writer pulls no punches. No details are omitted, no veil is drawn over the brutality. It is no secret that I like gory, gruesome books; but this one was a bit too much even for me.

Two weeks later I went back to Milly’s.

"I’ve come for my tagine."

Blank looks all round. Tagine? Everybody had forgotten me and my order. I produced the docket with the details. Oh yes. That. Someone went to look in the delivery room. No tagine. There was much scratching of heads. Where could it be?

"Why don’t you ring the agents again?" I suggested. Faces brightened. What a good idea. The phone was produced, a number was dialled and another long, muttered conversation was held. The lady came back looking solemn.

"They’ve sent it off to a craft show," she said. "They are trying to encourage orders so that they can import some more. You can’t have it for another two weeks."

I began to get annoyed. "Two weeks ago," I pointed out, "they confirmed the order and said I could have it in four days. It is MY tagine. What right have they to whisk it off to a craft show to try and drum up business without asking me first? I am distinctly unimpressed with their business ethics and their customer relations."

Again the phone was invoked.

"They are very sorry, and they apologise," said the lady. "They really do want it for the show. Without it they will find it difficult to take orders, so they probably won’t bother importing any more since it took so long to sell the last batch."

"That’s not my problem," I said.

"They say you can have it now," she continued, "since it was promised to you. But if you’ll let them keep it for two weeks, you can have a 15% discount."

"I’ll have it now, please," I said. "They have annoyed and inconvenienced me with their actions. So I’ll pay full price and have it straight away, just to be awkward"

She look flabbergasted, but the next day I had my tagine, the last of the original four.

And oh! the food! Next time you come for dinner, I’ll do you this wonderful Jamaican Lamb dish I’ve found. You’ll love it, I promise. But don’t go looking to buy a tagine of your own. There aren’t any, and it’s all my fault…

I have decided to give up on Ben Elton. As a stand up comic and scriptwriter he cannot be beaten and his work sends me into peals of uncontrollable laughter. As a comic novelist he has been less than successful and Blast From the Past is just dire.

Polly wakes up at 2.15am. The phone is ringing. She is afraid – she has been having lots of trouble with a stalker and he has also taken to ringing her at odd hours. Perhaps this is him. But it isn’t – instead of the stalker, it is a voice from the past, an American army officer with whom she had an affair many years ago when he was stationed in England. Now he is back again on a brief visit and he wants to see her. Can he come round?

Polly’s past and present weave a complicated fugue around her stalker and her ex-lover and both have a part to play in her future. It is a bleak, cynical and ultimately manipulative novel. Elton sets up a very artificial (and unbelievable) scenario and explores it to a not entirely unexpected conclusion. It is dark and very unfunny and also, it must be said, trite. I didn’t like it at all.

Elizabeth Peters is a writer who is new to me. I picked up The Ape Who Guards the Balance because I simply couldn’t resist the blurb. The book is set in 1907 and concerns one Amelia Peabody. Together with her husband and her sons she spends most summers in Egypt conducting archaeological digs. Along the way she generally manages to get involved in mayhem (and occasionally murder). Investigating these mysteries with true British aplomb she always manages to triumph against her enemies, and generally solves some deep archaeological mystery as well. The blurb claims that in a contest between Amelia and Indiana Jones, it’s Amelia (in wit and daring) by a landslide. I cannot argue with that conclusion, and my one regret is that I enjoyed this book so hugely that I may have to read all the others in the series and I think there are currently about twenty of them, for I have come to them very late and that is a most depressing state of affairs.

Sorry – We’re Going to Have to Let You Go concerns a corporate take-over. The new boss is a hatchet man and soon redundant executives are fleeing the building, personal belongings in plastic bags clutched to their chests. One such is Peter Hallam – at one moment a successful businessman with a loving wife, a nice house and an expensive car; at the next moment a man with no job, no house, no car and no wife. He determines to take revenge and embarks on a Machiavellian plot to get his own back.

Perhaps his plot succeeds, perhaps it doesn’t. I will never know for I failed to finish the book. The powers behind the corporate take-over are portrayed as sly, unprincipled cockney wide boys. I have no problem with that – but for reasons best known to himself, Graham Lord has chosen to report their speech excessively phonetically and I just got completely sick to death of seeing the word "people" written as "peepoo", "irreplaceable" written as "irreplaceaboo", "Pete" as "Pee", "excellent" as "ex’lent" and the list goes on and on. It’s silly to let things like that annoy me, but the fact remains that it did annoy me and I simply didn’t want to read any more.

So I didn’t.

John Whitbourn’s new novel Downs-Lord Dawn is set in the late seventeenth century. Thomas Blades, a young curate, discovers a gateway to an alternate Earth. The land is dominated by the Null – semi-intelligent beasts who prey on small isolated pockets of primitive humanity. Blades returns to his own world and uses the gateway to import weapons. Slowly he carves an empire for himself. There are military reversals (and on more than one occasion Blades has to return home to recuperate), but generally under his guidance humanity begins to beat the Null back. Blades becomes the first of the Downs-Lords, and founds a dynasty of God-Kings.

In less talented hands this would have been a ho-hum novel. We’ve all read this kind of thing a million times. Whitbourn’s genius lies in the manner with which he treats this hackneyed subject. Blades is all too human a character with all too recognisable human foibles and failures. He is not the mighty-thewed super hero of far too many empire building novels. Furthermore his path to power is not an unalloyed success; he suffers many reversals and catastrophes along the way. There are times when it seems his fledgling kingdom will be overwhelmed by the Null and there are hints at the end that just such a catastrophe is likely to strike again. There are great tragedies here as well as occasional triumphs.

The book is billed as the first of a trilogy. These days I almost NEVER buy anything that proclaims itself to be part of a series. That I bought this one (and enjoyed it immensely) speaks volumes, I think.

Lately my cat has taken to coming into the bathroom of an evening in order to supervise my bedtime ablutions. The other night she climbed up onto the wash basin and solemnly watched me floss my teeth. She observed with silent approval as I squeezed toothpaste onto my brush and she purred with contentment as I brushed my teeth. She nodded with satisfaction as I spat into the basin.

Then she ducked her head and licked up the saliva and toothpaste from the bowl.

Stephen King Hearts in Atlantis Scribners
Stephen Baxter Time Voyager
Kurt Vonnegut Bagombo Snuff Box Putnam
Lee Stringer Grand Central Winter Seven Stories
Eric Idle The Road to Mars Boxtree
David Morgan Monty Python Speaks Fourth Estate
J. Neil Schulman The Robert Heinlein Interview
Paul Johnston Body Politic NEL
Paul Johnston The Bone Yard NEL
I. K. Watson Cops and Robbers Fourth Estate
Ben Elton Blast From the Past Black Swan
Elizabeth Peters The Ape Who Guards the Balance Avon
Graham Lord Sorry – We’re Going to Have to Let You Go Warner
John Whitbourn Downs-Lord Dawn Earthlight

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