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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (saturnalia immodica)

Eat, Drink, Be Merry And Watch TV.

Christmas Day was a lazy day chez nous. We spent the entire day doing our world famous couch potato impression as we watched all ten hours or so of the extended edition DVDs of The Lord Of The Rings. Despite the fact that we hadn't opened the DVD cases for at least two years, I was very impressed to find that the actors hadn't forgotten their lines. And they hadn't aged a day either. Quite astonishing.

We had awoken very early that morning. How early I cannot really tell because the clock in my bedroom is an undetermined number of minutes fast. The value of this number changes on an almost daily basis no matter how often I reset it. Electronic clocks are not supposed to gain or lose and I strongly suspect that my clock must have been assembled with cheap, possibly second hand, electrons in its components.

I turned the radio on. It was playing Christmas Carols.

While shepherds washed their socks by night
All seated round the tub
The angel of the lord came down
And they began to scrub

We three men of Orient are
One in a taxi
One in a car
One in a scooter
Papping his hooter
Following yonder star

I turned the radio off again,

"Bah Humbug!" said Harpo. "Where's my breakfast?" Then he bit me.

"I like Christmas Carols," said Bess. "Why did you turn it off? Oh, and where's my breakfast?" And she bit me.

"What time is it?" mumbled Robin.

"I don't know," I said. And so she bit me.

Bloody but unbowed, I made breakfast. A can of luxury cat food for each cat which, predictably, they hated because it was new, and smoked salmon, strawberries and champagne for Robin. Dry bread and water for me as punishment for doing something wrong. The weather was all my fault. The sky was blue, the sun shone warmly. Where was the snow, deep and crisp and even?

Good King Wences
Last looked out
On the Feast Of Stephen...

Probably his windows were extremely dirty so he didn't get to look out very often. Perhaps the last time was when Stephen, his next door neighbour, was having a barbecue and the Good King wanted to check out the guests in case the Bad King turned up. A quick spit and polish with the old windolene might be called for...

Distracted by such thoughts, I completely forgot that it was time to open the presents.

"Let's do it now," said Robin eagerly.

"Hurry up," said Bess. "I want to play with the ribbons."

"Do it immediately," said Harpo, "or I won't be answerable for the consequences. Remember that you aren't wearing any socks. Your toes are dangerously exposed."

And so there was a great unwrapping of paper and much untangling of ribbons.

"Oh darling," said Robin ecstatically. "That's just what I always wanted. Two front tyres for the car. How romantic!"

"And they are filled with nitrogen instead of compressed air," I pointed out.

"What does that do?" Robin asked.

"Absolutely nothing," I said, "but it costs an extra $20 and you get sexy, flouorescent green valve tops. Can I open my presents now?"

"Of course you can," said Robin and she watched in eager anticipation as I tore the paper from my strangely shaped parcels.

"Wow!" I said, in happy astonishment. "Two rear tyres for the car. I couldn't have asked for anything better. What a lovely surprise."

"They too are filled with nitrogen rather than compressed air," Robin pointed out.

"Look at the really, really cute green valve tops." I said. "If we brake too hard when we've been travelling at Mach one there's absolutely no chance at all of the excess friction causing the tyres to burst into flames now that we've got an inert gas in them. It makes me feel so much safer than I felt in the old days when we filled the tyres with compressed air which is only about eighty percent nitrogen."

"Yes," agreed Robin. "I also feel a lot safer now than I used to. Is it time to start watching Lord Of the Rings yet?"

With Earthbound Joe Haldeman concludes the trilogy he's been working on for the last few years. I found it a rather disappointing book; the grand scope of the previous two novels is missing and the alien menace is mostly off stage and never really resolved.

The aliens have destroyed the moon, creating so much debris that space travel is, for all practical purposes, impossible. And just to rub salt in the wound, electricity doesn't work any more except for a brief period when, for inscrutable reasons (i.e. because the plot requires it) the aliens let it work again.

And so the grand, sweeping scale of the previous two books turns into a small scale 'after the apocalypse' survival story. This is a story which been told a thousand times before and Haldeman does nothing original with it. It's just SF by numbers and it's sad to watch him going through the motions with only half his attention on the task before him.

At the other end of the literary spectrum is Lisa Lutz who writes funny books about a dysfunctional family of private detectives called the Spellmans. The books are hard to classify. Stylistically they are an odd mixture of Kurt Vonnegut crossed with Joseph Heller with a sprinkling of Terry Pratchett thrown in for spice. The novels have very little plot but they are absolutely stuffed with delightful bits of business that keep the story moving along at a cracking pace.

Lisa Lutz will, inevitably I think, be compared with Janet Evanovich. Both writers tell their tales from the first person point of view of a rather mixed up narrator. But Lisa Lutz's books are funny in the way that Janet Evanovich's books aren't any more. These days the typical Evanovich novel is a pale, extruded product, tasteless and flavourless and very predictable. Lisa Lutz's books, on the other hand, are still very fresh and very funny and anything but predictable. There's another novel due in February 2012 and I am eagerly anticipating it.

With Liquor, Poppy Z. Brite has embarked on a whole new literary career. Gone are the rather creepy horror stories of the past. Instead we have a novel about the trials and tribulation of running a restaurant in New Orleans.

John Rickey and Gary "G-Man" Stubbs, have drifted from job to job in the kitchens of various New Orleans restaurants. They live from day to day with little thought for the future. But then, following their sacking from yet another failing restaurant, they console themselves with liquor. One thing leads to another and they conceive of a restaurant where the alcohol is not only served at the bar but is a major component of all of the dishes as well. All they have to do now is persuade someone to back their vision...

There aren't a lot of twists and turns, in the plot and it contains no great surprises but that's not important. What is important is the way that the characters spring alive from the page and the way that the whole foodie scene is captured in all its seedy glory. If you love food and if you love reading, this book is ideal for you. I found it completely enthralling.

V is for Vengeance is the latest alphabet soup novel from Sue Grafton. This one was a long time in coming -- the letter U was dealt with two years ago. But it has been well worth the wait. The series just gets better and better (unlike some other series that I could name) and this is definitely one of the best ones so far.

It's a little bit of a stylistic departure from the other novels as well. The main Kinsey Millhone sections are told, as usual, in the first person. But there are many other third person scenes concerning events about which Kinsey knows nothing at all. These flesh out the plot for the reader, of course, and it soon becomes clear that things are far more complicated and with far wider ramifications than Kinsey suspects. She is only involved on the periphery of great events; indeed there are many aspects of the case that she never really comes to grips with at all.

As far as Kinsey is concerned, it all starts when she spots a shop lifter in an up-market department store. She reports her observation to the staff and the shop lifter is duly arrested. After her release on bail, the shop lifter is found dead at the base of a bridge and it is generally assumed that she has committed suicide by jumping from it. Kinsey is hired by the dead woman's fiancee to find the truth of the matter.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes as it were, we learn that the mobster Lorenzo Dante has his fingers in a lot of pies, one of which is a shop lifting racket which is a very nice little earner indeed. One of the key figures in the operation was the woman whose life Kinsey is investigating. She hadn't committed suicide at all, she had been thrown from the bridge by Lorenzo's sociopathic brother. It's not the first time he has done something like this but this time he has derailed a very important operation and Lorenzo is at his wits end as to how to deal with the situation.

After that things get very complicated but Sue Grafton is a past master at juggling all the balls of her plot and keeping them all in the air at once. She never drops one and the final working out of all the complex details is fascinating to watch.

But there is much more to this than just a satisfying story. The book asks serious questions about morality. By many measures, Lorenzo Dante is a good and moral man who is nevertheless deeply involved in many dirty rackets. He has unquestionably been involved in many tragedies and is responsible both directly and indirectly for many deaths. Can this be reconciled with his kind and thoughtful nature? Does the one cancel out the other? And what effect does his family background have? His father and his uncle were both traditional gangsters with very bloody hands. Is Lorenzo reacting against the family tradition? And how much leeway does that give him in the morality stakes? These are hard questions and exploring them adds a lot of depth and flavour to the story.

V is for Vengeance is a brilliant book on every level and I loved it.

Jonathan Coe is a new writer to me and The Rotters Club is the first of his novels that I've read. I will definitely be tracking down his other books. The Rotters Club is simply brilliant, a laugh out loud coming of age story which examines the political and social life of Britain in the 1970s. The events, both real and fictional, are seen through the eyes of some teenagers (and sometimes their parents) and Coe captures exactly the attitudes and atmosphere of middle class lives lived out against a background of industrial unrest and political change. These were the days of strikes and power cuts, the three day week and some very ugly riots.

The characters and the events spoke directly to me and to my memories of the time. I was completely submerged in the lives of the characters. And then, about half way through the book Lois and Malcolm go to a pub called The Tavern In The Town. It's a big evening for both of them; they both know that tonight Malcolm will propose. He has just taken the ring out of his pocket when an IRA bomb explodes.

And at that point I suddenly found myself almost in tears and I had to put the book down and go and make a cup of coffee before I could return to it. You see, I've been to The Tavern In The Town. I was there just three days before that IRA bomb exploded. I missed death or serious injury by a very narrow margin. I hadn't thought about it in years until the novel brought it all back in a rush, and I was so closely involved with Lois and Malcolm that my grief was, for a moment, completely real and overwhelming. That's how powerful and how true to life this book is.

But the book isn't all about tragedy; far from it. It has moments of sheer comic brilliance running the gamut from farce to satire. The wit and the attention to detail brings the times and the people and the places alive. Jonathan Coe is a wonderful writer and this is a wonderful book.

Boxing Day was a repeat of Christmas Day except that we watched Season Five of Dexter. Harpo stared at it entranced -- he loves stories about serial killers and he was particularly taken with the scene where a cat was lapping up the blood of a gruesomely murdered corpse.

"I'd like to try that," he said to me. "Just lie down here for a moment while I tear your throat out."

One of the delights of Dexter is that while it is gruesome and horrible and dark it is also very, very funny in a sick sort of way. I admit to a certain guilty pleasure as I watch it, which makes it perfect for the Christmas season of course for the Christmas season itself is nothing but twelve days of indulgence in guilty pleasures.

And champagne.

Joe Haldeman Earthbound Ace
Lisa Lutz The Spellman Files Simon & Schuster
Lisa Lutz Curse Of The Spellmans Simon & Schuster
Lisa Lutz The Spellmans Strike Again Simon & Schuster
Lisa Lutz Revenge Of The Spellmans Simon & Schuster
Poppy Z. Brite Liquor Three Rivers Press
Sue Grafton V is for Vengeance Putnam
Jonathan Coe The Rotters Club Penguin
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