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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (nasutus scintillo)


Are you a fan of Twilight? Have you ever wondered why the vampires sparkle? I know why. I stumbled upon the secret quite by chance. I was reading Harlan Ellison's massive anthology Again Dangerous Visions. And then I sneezed. Suddenly everything became clear to me...

I suffer from what the doctors call chronic non-specific rhinitis. For a long time I thought that meant that I had a rhinoceros stuck high up inside my nasal passages, but even though that is exactly what the symptoms feel like, actually the phrase just means that I sneeze a lot and nobody really knows why. It's obviously an allergy, but I've had all the standard allergy tests and they were quite inconclusive. So I sneeze and I drip and I sneeze some more. Now that the doctors have given a name to my condition, they feel that their job is done. The rest of it is up to me.

It's not a seasonal thing. Attacks come upon me out of the blue at irregular intervals throughout the year. There is no warning and no obvious cause. I just feel a gradually increasing sense of discomfort high inside my nose as the rhinoceros wakes up and starts to stomp around in there. I find that I am blowing my nose more and more frequently as the rhinoceros gets more and more lively. It pees and poos enthusiastically just behind my eyeballs. Obnoxious substances increase in volume and flood my sinuses. Soon I am sneezing uncontrollably and leaking foul fluids like a high pressure rancid hosepipe. Soggy tissues accumulate in the waste bins and I feel more and more exhausted.

A very bad attack can see me use five or more boxes of tissues in a day (I think my all time record was seven boxes) and it leaves me so tired and wiped out that I need to sleep for fifteen or more hours to recover from it. It can be unbelievably debilitating. I get an attack of this severity once or maybe twice a year. But less severe attacks happen every month or two, always right out of left field when I'm not looking.

Returning now to the book I was reading -- in the introduction to Again Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison admits that there were some visions that were far too dangerous even for him to publish. He rejected a story from a writer called Barry Weissman because it was about a snot vampire, a concept that even Ellison found too vomitous for comfort.

Combining my recent rhinitis attack with Ellison's editorial prejudices gave me a great insight. It is quite obvious to me that Stephanie Meyer's sparkly vampires are actually snot vampires straight out of that unpublished Barry Weissman story, and they sparkle because they are covered from head to toe with a silvery film of dried snot that they've sucked up from the nostrils of their unsuspecting victims, all of whom, presumably, had a rhinoceros just like mine up their noses.

Trust me on this; the life I lead has made me an expert on all things mucous related. And keep this picture of snot-soaked vampires firmly in your head the next time you read the Twilight books or watch the movies; you'll enjoy them so much more now that you know the secret.

Kim Newman has a new fix up novel called The Hound Of The D'Urbevilles; a title with so many jokes in it that I scarcely know where to begin. As you can probably guess, it is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche with a difference. The stories all concern the adventures of Sherlock's nemesis Professor Moriarty and his Watsonian sidekick and amanuensis, Colonel Sebastian Moran. The book is full of erudite Sherlockian scholarship and literary jokes (Thomas Hardy is spinning like a top, and I imagine Zane Grey is probably twirling a little). It is at one and the same time a very clever, very funny, and very, very enjoyable book.

Stephen King also has a new novel on the stands. It is called 11/22/63 which is the date of John Kennedy's assassination if you are an American and the 11th day of a purely mythical month if you aren't. I predict much confusion.

The plot is very simple -- a twenty-first century man goes back in time to try and prevent the assassination As always the devil is in the details and King is very good indeed at details. The bulk of the story takes place between 1958 and 1963 and King does a brilliant job of bringing the times alive. What is sad is just how little has changed since 1958 -- the same narrow minded, hypocritical, intolerant and ignorant attitudes that are the despair of modern America were exactly the same back then. Doesn't anybody learn from history? Apparently not.

The book is absorbing; probably the best thing that King has ever written. It held me absolutely enthralled from beginning to end and I was angry when it finished. I wanted more. And that's the mark of greatness.

Crimes By Moonlight is an anthology mystery stories with a supernatural twist to them. It is edited by Charlaine Harris and quite frankly I can't think of anybody better qualified to edit such an anthology than Charlaine Harris. These days she is perhaps best known for her Sookie Stackhouse novels (the basis of the TV Series True Blood). But before she shot to the top of the vampire best seller lists, she wrote quite a lot of very respectable straightforward mystery novels with not a trace of woo-woo in them at all.

This anthology has been produced by the Mystery Writers Of America. The contributors are all mystery writers with little or no experience of writing supernatural stories. Given such a lack of familiarity with the conventions of the genre you might logically expect that the collection would consist of clichés, but nothing could be further from the truth. Charlaine Harris has exercised firm control over her writers, ruthlessly plucking out and discarding clichés wherever she could find them and the end result is an anthology of surprising originality. I think that the very lack of genre familiarity has brought a freshness to the stories that is often lacking in the more jaded stories of those who do this kind of thing for a living. Perversely Charlaine Harris' own story is probably the weakest in the collection!

In short, this anthology is a very strong collection of first rate stories. Charlaine Harris has done a superb editing job.

Hal Clement was one of the golden age writers, well known for writing the hardest of hard science fiction. Probably the most archetypal and certainly the most famous of his novels was Mission Of Gravity which concerns the planet Mesklin which has a variable gravitational force of 3G at the equator and 700G at the poles. Nevertheless the planet is inhabited and the adventures of Barlennan as he sails his ship the Bree across thousands of miles of uncharted waters have become one of the classic tales of SF. What is less well known is that Clement wrote several other stories about the Mesklinites and even several articles which described the curious physics of the planet. Heavy Planet brings all these stories and articles together in one very handsome volume. It deserves pride of place on your shelves.

David Lodge's early novels are some of my very favourite books. However I cannot say the same about his later works. He seems to have embarked on a project to thinly fictionalise the lives of famous writers. A few years ago he did it for Henry James and now, with A Man Of Parts he has done it for H. G. Wells. Henry James was a very dull man who wrote very boring books and Lodge's novel of his life was equally dull and boring (how could it be anything else?). Wells is a much more interesting character; apart from anything else he had lots of sex during his life and if Lodge is to play fair with his subject he has to involve himself with this -- and indeed he does, with lots and lots of prurient detail. But even salaciousness cannot rescue this semi-novel from dullness. There is little drama, and far too much of the book is taken up with dialogues between Wells and his subconscious wherein he tries to justify his philosophy (and his sexuality of course). It all makes for rather boring reading.

There was a time when David Lodge's novels, serious though they were, had lots of jokes in them. He seems to have forgotten how to do that. The element mercury is obtained from Hg wells. That's a joke that Wells himself, because of his early scientific training, would have loved. I can easily imagine him laughing uproariously at it. I doubt if David Lodge even knows what it means.

While we are talking about the source of the element mercury, allow me to recommend a book called The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Keane. In it he examines all the elements in the periodic table and tells the story of their discovery. That sounds like it might be rather dull, but in fact Keane brings the subject brilliantly to life. He has a light, Bill Bryson-like touch and this, combined with some of the raving eccentrics who were actually involved in investigating the properties of the elements, makes for a somewhat uproarious read. I must confess that because I have a degree in chemistry I was already familiar with many of the stories that Sam Keane tells. But nevertheless he tells them so well that I simply couldn't resist reading them again. This is a wonderful book about a potentially rather dull subject and I recommend it unreservedly.

Anthony Neil Smith is a new author to me. I'm really not sure what made me pick up his novel All The Young Warriors. Perhaps it was the suggestion in the blurb that the subject matter might be more than a little controversial, particularly given the intolerance towards non-mainstream, non-Christian religious opinion in America at the moment.

An American-Somali gang-banger and his friend decide to travel to Somalia to join the civil war there and "figure out what it's like to be Somalian". In essence they are looking for their Islamic roots and they feel a need to justify their faith and fight in support of it. On the way to the airport, they get involved in an altercation with the police and end up shooting two police officers.

Nevertheless, they still manage to make their way to Somalia where the gang-banger soon finds his true calling in the war. However his rather innocent and naive friend quickly finds himself out of his depth. He is quite unprepared for the violent cynicism of the civil war and his own rather moderate interpretation of Islam sits uneasily with the more hard line approach taken by the combatants.

Meanwhile, the lover of one of the dead police officers and the father of the innocent friend are hot on the trail of the pair. They follow them through the criminal underworld of Minnesota and all the way to Somalia itself where every one of them has to confront his own devil.

This is a dark and very violent book. Smith doesn't pull any punches in his depiction of the cruel necessities of war. Somehow this adds to the book rather than detracting from it. The story moves fast, and the suspense ratchets up and up. There is an amazing feeling of verisimilitude and authenticity to this book -- I have no idea whether or not Smith actually visited Somalia but the book certainly reads as if he did.

In the end it is both disturbing and moving, as all great books tend to be.

Prague Fatale is the eighth novel in Philip Kerr's series about Bernie Gunther, the Berlin policeman. It's completely stand alone and it doesn't follow on chronologically from the others. It is set in 1941. Bernie is trying to track down a knife-wielding killer when he meets a prostitute, who he rescues from an attempted rape. It isn't long before they end up in bed together and shortly thereafter they move in together. Then Reinhard Heydrich enlists Bernie to help him in his new post in Czechoslovakia. Bernie and his paramour move to Nazi-occupied Prague. Various murders happen and Bernie is told by Heydrich to investigate them. Meanwhile, waiting in the wings, is the ever-present threat by Czech nationalists to disrupt the German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia. Not only does Bernie have to solve a murder, he has to tread warily on the thin ice of politics. Philip Kerr knows his history and he knows how to spin an exciting yarn. This one really is edge of the seat stuff.

I Am Half Sick Of Shadows is Alan Bradley's fourth novel starring Flavia de Luce, the eleven year old chemist with a penchant for poisons who is also a part time sleuth.

It's getting close to Christmas and Flavia has an ingenious plan to trap Father Christmas with Bird Lime. The de Luce family finances are still in a perilous state so Flavia's father rents the house out to a film crew. The star of the film, the glamorous Phyllis Wyvern agrees to perform the balcony scene from Romeo And Juliet in order to raise funds for the church roof. However the weather closes in and blizzards keep the audience captive overnight. Then a body is discovered -- Phyllis Wyvern has been strangled with a roll of film. There are so many suspects that Inspector Hewitt needs all the help he can get to find the killer. Flavia steps into the breach and, along the way, uses her knowledge of chemistry to concoct a most splendiferous firework display.

The Flavia de Luce mysteries are, quite simply, brilliant. What more needs to be said?

The Drop might be Michael Connelly's seventeenth novel about Detective Harry Bosch. Or it might not, it's hard to tell. Bosch pops up in Connelly's other series and characters from those other series pop up in the Bosch novels. So counting is difficult. But whatever number it is, it is (currently anyway) the latest Harry Bosch novel. It's one of the better ones.

Bosch is heading for retirement and to while away the months until they take the office keys away from him, he is working in the cold case unit investigating the murder of a woman which took place in 1989. Advances in DNA technology have made it possible to identify the person who left his DNA at the murder scene. He is a man with a history of sexual assaults and he fits the profile of the murderer perfectly. Unfortunately he was only eight years old at the time of the murder. What a conundrum!

Before the investigation really gets going, Bosch is called away to investigate the apparent suicide of the son of Irvin Irving. These days Irving is a city councillor but once, when he was in charge of the police department, he and Bosch had a major falling out and Irving has tried hard to sabotage Bosch's career ever since. So it seems strange that he is very insistent that Bosch is the only detective he wants on the case. Bosch is suspicious of Irving's motives, and probably he has good reason to be...

The story is an enthralling page turner. Connelly's last few (non-Bosch) novels have perhaps been a little weak, but The Drop represents a true return to form.

Conn Iggulden's last few novels have been about the rise of the Mongol Empire. Unfortunately for the novelist, there were really only two interesting Mongol Emperors, Genghis Khan who founded the dynasty, and Kublai Khan, of "pleasure dome" and Marco Polo fame. All the others were rather dull (and often short lived) non-entities. Genghis died at the end of Volume 3 of Iggulden's opus. Volume 4 was, almost of necessity, rather anti-climactic, dealing as it did with the dynastic squabbles of the temporary rulers who came after him. But now with Volume 5, Conqueror we have reached the life and times of Kublai Khan and the series has taken off to the stratosphere again.

In many ways Kublai was an untypical Mongol which probably accounts for his success in consolidating and expanding the Empire that Genghis created out of nothing at all. Kublai was much influenced by Chinese philosophy and scholarship, things which most Mongols regarded as impractical airy-fairy nonsense. That Kublai succeeded so well despite this contempt says a lot about the force of his personality.

Conqueror is just magnificent -- Conn Iggulden's novels have always been exciting things to read, but with this one he has excelled himself.

Kim Newman The Hound Of The D'Urbevilles Titan
Stephen King 11/22/63 Hodder & Stoughton
Charlaine Harris Crimes by Moonlight Gollancz
Hal Clement Heavy Planet Tor
David Lodge A Man Of Parts Harvill Secker
Sam Keane The Disappearing Spoon Black Swan
Anthony Neil Smith All The Young Warriors Blasted Heath
Philip Kerr Prague Fatale Quercus
Alan Bradley I Am Half Sick Of Shadows Orion
Michael Connelly The Drop Orion
Conn Iggulden Conqueror HarperCollins
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