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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (solus bolus)

Alan Alone

Robin was away in Australia visiting her family and the cats and I were considering how best to take advantage of the situation.

"Why don't we stay up after midnight and fall asleep watching the television?" suggested Bess.

"That's a good idea," I said, "and it sounds like a lot of fun. But we usually do that anyway. There's no novelty in it."

"Perhaps not," said Bess. "But we could do it together, just for a change. Normally I ignore the television by sleeping on the sofa where Robin sits. But this time I could sleep on the sofa where you sit and we could both lick our bottoms and snore through the second world war on the History Channel. How does that sound?"

"That's an excellent suggestion, Bess. Now Harpo, have you got any ideas as to what we should do?"

"I could rip your leg off and beat you to death with the soggy end," said Harpo. "That's always good for a laugh."

"You've done that far too often in the past," I protested. "It's getting boring. And anyway, I'm not a fan of pain."

"Aren't you?" Harpo sounded surprised. "I am! Particularly when it takes place in other people."

"But you're a long haired cat," I said. "Long hair means you're a hippy. You're supposed to get all mellow on catnip and espouse peace and love."

"Catnip is good," said Harpo reflectively. "Have you got any in the cupboard?"

"I think so," I said. "Why don't you go and have a look?"

"I can't open cupboards," said Harpo gloomily. "My fingers are all in favour and my thumbs aren't opposed. But nevertheless I can't manage the doors. You'll have to do it."

"Say please," I suggested.

"Just do it," said Harpo, "or I'll rip your leg off and..."

"...and beat me to death with the soggy end." I finished the familiar sentence and got up off the couch to investigate the cupboard where the cat treats live. "Here you are, Harpo. Here's the catnip."

"Thanks. You can keep your leg a bit longer." He rolled himself an enormous spliff and hid himself away in the bright orange tunnel that we got as a free gift from the vet when we bought entirely too many cat biscuits. It's his favourite place. He always goes there when he is doing, has done or is about to do something against the rules. He took a toke on his catnip. "Groovy...".

I turned the television on and switched to the History Channel. Explosions roared, Bess snored. Time for a rhyme. Thyme for a rime...

We fell asleep to the peaceful sounds of murder and mayhem.

Over the next few days, it became abundantly clear to Bess and to me that the very best way to celebrate Robin not being here was to carry on living just as we normally did, doing all the things that we normally do. After all, we enjoyed doing them; that's why we did them. What possible reason could we have to try doing other things?

Even Harpo eventually agreed that we were probably right though he himself isn't all that fond of the History Channel. He prefers the much more cerebral Arts Channel. Despite his addiction to violence and blood (preferably mine) he has intellectual pretensions and he enjoys shredding my flesh and committing mayhem with Mahler raving in the foreground.

And so our time without Robin passed agreeably. We cooked and we cleaned and we did the washing up. This was our only departure from normality. Robin is in charge of corpses, semi-corpses, vomit and washing up. I found I wasn't really enjoying taking over her duties and I wasn't very good at them. But I persevered.

"These cat biscuits taste soapy," said Harpo. "You used far too much washing up liquid when you cleaned my bowl, didn't you?"

"I might have done," I said casually. I never plead guilty to Harpo's accusations. He punishes me if I do. but if I refuse to admit to my crimes, he punishes me for lying.

According to an article in The Guardian, Terry Pratchett is now dictating his books to some rather sophisticated voice recognition software. Pterry's early onset Alzheimer's disease has robbed him of the ability to type. Consequently his new novel Snuff has been produced without a single Pratchettian finger touching the keyboard. It's probably quantum...

The story is another episode in the life of Sir Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morepork City Watch. Persuaded, much against his will, to take a holiday in the country with his wife, Sam is at something of a loose end. He doesn't understand the country. It smells funny and it doesn't have cobbled streets.

However the City Watch is ever vigilant and it soon becomes clear to Sam that evil is afoot. A goblin has been murdered. Investigation is required, and that is something that Sam is particularly good at.

Like many of Pterry's novels, the book is rather more than the sum of its parts. It is a rollicking good murder mystery, it has lots of Pratchetty jokes and it has a deeply serious sub-text about racial prejudice, racial stereotyping and the evil that men do.

But it isn't quite right. It is almost but not quite a Discworld novel. It is almost but not quite a story of the City Watch. It is almost, but not quite a Terry Pratchett book.

I've done enough writing and enough public speaking to know that the words and the rhythms you use in each situation are very different. The way you speak never quite matches the way that you write. The discipline of writing keeps you focussed on the task in hand. Words appear slowly on the screen and often each word has to be thought about very carefully and put in its proper place in the sentence. But by its very nature, speaking is much more discursive, more rambling and more prone to digression. Words tumble from the mouth and by the time the brain catches up it is too late to call them back and rearrange them. You are already two sentences ahead and there's a joke coming up. Hurry! Hurry! You have to get there as quickly as possible.

Snuff could have used some heavy editing and revision. It certainly has its moments, but they are few and far between.

These days Lawrence Block is well known as the author of some very smooth and sophisticated crime novels. But his younger, leaner, meaner days he earned a crust by writing pornography under a variety of pseudonyms. One of these alter egos was called Jill Emerson and she specialised in lesbian romances. Block's latest novel is called Getting Off and the front cover proudly proclaims that it is by "Lawrence Block writing as Jill Emerson".

I suspect that the reason for this is that the subject matter is much closer to the Jill Emerson model than it is to the Lawrence Block model (at least, the Lawrence Block model of today); but a novel with only Jill Emerson's name on the cover is unlikely to sell as well as a novel with Lawrence Block's name proudly and prominently displayed. Please pardon my cynicism.

The novel is a fix-up built from a series of short stories that have appeared in several anthologies over the years. Block has smoothed off the rough edges so that you can't see the join. The story concerns a rather troubled young lady who makes a living by taking men to bed with her, making mad, passionate love to them and then killing and robbing them. However, for various reasons, five of her lovers have escaped that grisly fate. The plot of Getting Off concerns her attempts to hunt them down and kill them after the fact. Once they are all dead she feels that she will be, symbolically at least, a virgin again. However plot complications arise when she has a lesbian affair with her landlady. Initially she is reluctant to enter into a physical relationship because she is scared that she might still have to kill her lover, even though the lover in question is female rather than male. She is quite comfortable with her role as a killer of men but she feels uncomfortable at the thought of killing a woman and the fear that she might be compelled to do so makes her keep the relationship at arms length, at least to begin with.

The whole story is, of course, very black and very dark. It is quite clear from the beginning that not everybody can live happily ever after. But even psychopaths have a need to be loved.

Down These Strange Streets is an anthology of urban fantasy edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. Unfortunately most of the stories are set in fantasy worlds that are part of various interminable series; consequently the stories themselves, considered in isolation, are largely incomprehensible unless you happen to have read the series in question. Since I seldom bother reading any of the never ending turgid tomes that dominate the bookshelves these days, I didn't get a lot out of most of the stories in the anthology. However there are some non-series stories in the collection and, by and large, they stand head and shoulders above the rest. Joe Lansdale has a particularly fine tale to tell which gives a new twist to the old legend of the blues singer who sold his soul to the devil so that he could sing the blues as they were meant to be sung. And Bradley Denton's story about the young Dashiel Hammett is also well worth the price of the book all by itself. But overall the quality is so low and the stories are so obscure that I can't honestly recommend the anthology unless you are already familiar with the worlds in which the stories take place.

Mike Resnick has won a multitude of well-deserved awards. Many of his award winning stories use African themes. Resnick knows the country and its people well and the Kirinyaga stories, for example, are particularly moving myths of the future that derive very much from their African past. He tries to do the same with the novella Shaka II but unfortunately he is much less successful.

In the early years of the nineteenth century the Zulu tribe was small and insignificant and largely dominated by the Matabele. However a Zulu prince called Shaka brought the tribe to prominence, destroyed the Matabele overlords and even at one time threatened to overcome the might of the immigrant Boers and British. However Shaka was very much a one-off. After his death the tribe's influence dwindled again.

Resnick envisages a future where one Robert Buthelezi who, it is hinted, may be a reincarnation of Shaka, takes the Zulu tribe to the stars and rekindles the glory days of his ancestor.

It's a fun read, I suppose, but Buthelezi is far too much like the real historical Shaka to be convincing. Resnick uses too many incidents from Shaka's life, so much so that the story seems to turn into a thinly fictionalised biography with added spaceships and ray guns to give it spice. Henry Rider Haggard did it much better...

Ever since Ian Rankin stopped writing about Rebus, he has seemed to be just noodling around with no real sense of direction at all. His last few books have been rather disappointing. However he seems to have embarked on a new series with a new hero. The Impossible Dead is the second novel to feature Inspector Malcolm Fox of the Complaints and Conduct Division; the branch of the police force which investigates other police officers. Naturally members of the complaints division are less than popular with serving officers...

In this novel, Fox is initially called upon to look into the conduct of a policeman who has been accused of extorting sexual favours from female suspects in return for dropping the charges against them. Interestingly his conduct was first reported to the authorities by his uncle, himself an ex-policeman. So much for family solidarity.

At first the case seems routine, but Fox soon discovers connections to the death of a prominent Scottish Nationalist back in the 1980s when, for a brief time, it appeared that the Nationalist movment was heading in the direction of terrorism. And now, in the twenty-first century, terrorism is a subject in which the authorities take a great deal of interest. Some establishment figures prove to have had dubious pasts.

The Impossible Dead is a satisfyingly complex novel which deals with uncomfortable issues. The social and political ramifications are never trivialised and the characterisation is rock-solid and convincing. I have high hopes for the future of Inspector Malcolm Fox.

The time went very quickly and, almost before we knew it, Robin was due back home. Her plane was scheduled to land at midnight. However I checked the arrivals website and discovered that the plane had a downhill wind and would therefore arrive twenty minutes early. I made sure I arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. The plane landed exactly on time, twenty minutes early. But it was ages before any passengers appeared. Eventually Robin came through the doors with her suitcase following obediently behind her.

"Sorry you had to wait so long," she said. "But the plane was half empty, there were no other planes scheduled and the customs people were bored. So we all got searched. The drug dogs sniffed every case and the customs men poked around inside my dirty underwear."

"I hope they enjoyed themselves," I said.

"Oh yes," said Robin. "They were quite taken with the solar powered cockroach I brought as a present for the cats."

"A solar powered cockroach?" I was puzzled.

"Yes," explained Robin. "It's a life size plastic cockroach with a solar cell embedded in its back. And when the sun shines, it scuttles. The cats will love it."

"You didn't really buy it for the cats, did you?" I asked. "I know you. You bought it for yourself."

"Well, yes," she said. "But I couldn't tell that to the customs man. He'd think I was strange."

"But Robin," I said, you are strange."

"Oh yes. That's right. I forgot."

We walked out of the airport to the car and I began the short drive home.

"I got a solar powered praying mantis as well," said Robin.

Terry Pratchett Snuff Doubleday
Lawrence Block with Jill Emerson Getting Off Hardcase Crime
George R. R. Martin & Gardner Dozois Down These Mean Streets Ace
Mike Resnick Shaka II PS Publishing
Ian Rankin The Impossible Dead Orion
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