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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (caupona malefica)

Alan Stays In A Hotel

The first hotel I ever stayed in was The Bay Hotel in the small seaside village of Cullercoats, which is on the Northumberland coast in the far North of England. For most of the 1950s, my family went to Cullercoats every July for our annual summer holidays. We'd spend the time visiting relatives and playing on the beach. Merchant ships with cargoes of coal flowed out of the port of Newcastle. On their return journey they would wash out their empty holds just off the coast and consequently the beach at Cullercoats was always black with the coal dust that the tide brought ashore. All the sandcastles that I built there were speckled black and yellow, and I would return to the hotel at the end of the day, tired and triumphant, looking rather like a coal miner who had just emerged from a hard shift in the pit.

By modern standards, The Bay Hotel was rather primitive. None of the bedrooms had washing or toilet facilities; we all had to use the communal bathroom at the end of the corridor and it was furnished and equipped with the grim post-war austerity that typified 1950s England. But I had nothing to compare it with. The Bay Hotel was my first hotel, and I thought it was absolutely wonderful. Every year I looked forward to re-visiting its shabby, greasy furniture and its frayed carpets. I have very fond memories of our summer holidays in Cullercoats.

Since then I have stayed in hotels large and small, both luxurious and slummy, all over the world. I have learned many things about hotel cultures and I have found that it isn't the condition of the building that matters, it's the ambience that is important and that ambience is a combination of many things, most of them quite intangible.

The So Hotel in Christchurch had ambience down to a fine art. Run by unregenerate post modern hippies, it was the practical personification of new age philosophy. It had homeopathic mood lighting in every room and meditative visual mantras on the television. It was so laid back that it lost its balance in the earthquakes and sadly it no longer exists. That is So upsetting.

Another very ambient hotel, and one of my very favourite hotels ever, now also sadly demolished, was in Suva, the capital city of Fiji. The hotel was an old colonial building and the bar and restaurant area were decorated like a stage set from a 1920s play. I kept expecting Somerset Maugham to wander casually into the bar and order a pink gin. The chef was truly inspired and the meals, full of fresh local produce, were mouth-wateringly delicious.

My bedroom was old and shabby but the sheets on the bed were spotlessly clean and the ladies who did were all terribly proud of their high standards. Every bit of crumbling chrome in the bathroom shone, every stain in the shower was polished to perfection. I would lie in bed at night soothed by the rustling sounds of cockroaches scurrying hither and yon across the floor. Sometimes I'd turn the light on just to watch them run away and hide. Most mornings there were several cockroaches trapped in the toilet. I quickly learned that cockroaches are flush-resistant and I never felt truly comfortable lowering my bottom onto the seat while the cockroaches waited beneath me, eagerly anticipating the treat to come.

It wasn't long before the cockroaches and I were on first name terms. Like all the hotel staff, they were friendly and obliging creatures. One morning, about 4.00am, I was nudged awake by Derek, the largest of the cockroaches. He had huge antennae and was the best scuttler I'd ever met.

“Alan,” said Derek urgently, “something's going on.”

Outside the hotel, there was a lot of raucous shouting and rhythmic chanting. These sounds are not commonly heard at 4.00am in Suva and Derek was worried.

“Do you think it might be a coup?” he asked. Fiji is famous for its coups. They are a national sport. When there's nothing worth watching on the TV, they have a coup. And there's never anything worth watching on the TV...

“No,” I said. “It isn't a coup. There's an important rugby match this weekend and the team are out training on the rugby pitch next door to the hotel. When I had dinner last night, the waiter warned me that this would happen. He's on the team. I'm sorry – I forgot to pass the message on to you.”

“That's all right,” said Derek. “But why are they training at 4.00am?”

“Because the temperature hasn't got uncomfortably hot yet,” I explained. “It's still lovely and cool outside, just perfect for chasing a rugby ball. And anyway, they've all got jobs to go to during the day so they'll be too tired to train in the evening after working hard all day in the sun.”

“I see,” said Derek thoughtfully.

The cockroaches and I opened the curtains and peered outside. On the rugby field, golden moonlight shone on massive men built like tree-trunks who chased and tackled each other with enormous enthusiasm. Crowds of excited spectators urged them on.

“This is fun,” said Derek, and all the cockroaches nodded their heads in agreement. And so did I.

The recent death of Harry Harrison sent me scuttling to my bookshelves in search of Harrisonia. I decided to re-read a couple of my favourite novels. They are not his most famous, they may not even be his best, but I have a soft spot for them, and I enjoyed them both all over again.

The Technicolour Time Machine is, at one and the same time, a very funny book, a traditional time travel novel and a satire on Hollywood. It crams an awful lot into its 190 pages. What more could anyone want?

The story concerns one Barney Hendrickson, a mediocre film director who has run out of money and run out of time on his latest epic. The solution to both problems is really quite simple – he enlists a mad scientist and a time machine with which he travels into the past to make a movie called Viking Columbus about the Norse discovery of America. The movie stars the original Norse discoverers of America (they work very cheaply). Paradoxes abound and the jokes come thick and fast. They don't write books like this any more and that's a pity – they really should.

A Transatlantic Tunnel. Hurrah! is an alternate history novel. The jokes are more subtle here, and the book is richer for it. In this world, America lost the revolutionary war against England. George Washington was shot as a traitor and his name is vilified. In 1973 (when the novel opens) America is still a British colony. Captain Augustine (“Gus”) Washington, a direct descendent of the traitorous rebel general and tainted by association with his name, is the engineer in charge of building a tunnel to connect England with its far flung Atlantic colony. Gus is in love with Iris, the daughter of Sir Isambard Brassey-Brunel, the original designer of the tunnel. However Gus and Sir Isambard have a falling out over the implementation of the design and Gus is barred from visiting Sir Isambard's house and from seeing Iris. But after many trials and tribulations, the bridge is built, Gus and Sir Isambard are reconciled and the lovers finally get to marry.

The novel is a steampunk tour-de-force although I don't think the word “steampunk” had been invented when Harrison was writing the book. He has enormous fun with grotesque engineering (I particularly liked the coal powered aeroplanes). Harrison also scatters the novel with in-jokes for those who have ears to hear them. The Reverend Aldiss makes a brief appearance on stage, as do both Lord Amis and a talented detective called Richard Tracy who owns a most peculiar watch...

Harry Harrison understood science fiction in a way that few other writers have ever understood it. He is one of my favourite writers.

I've never heard of Wayne Wightman but the blurb on Selection Event sounded interesting. It's an “after the catastrophe” novel, the kind of thing written by George R. Stewart in Earth Abides or John Wyndham in Day Of The Triffids. Once this was a popular sub-genre of science fiction, but it seems to have fallen into disrepute and nobody seems to writing books like this any more. That's a shame. Perhaps it is ripe for a revival (...after the ice caps melt?). I enjoyed the novel immensely. It can certainly hold up its head proudly in the earlier company.

The story follows the fortunes of Martin Lake who has been taking part in an isolation experiment, He's been underground in a sterile environment for fourteen months before he finally gives up and releases himself. That's when he discovers that during his incarceration, a flu pandemic has wiped out most of the world. Survivors are few and far between and most of them are psychotic. The story beautifully exemplifies one of the great pleasures of this sub-genre – building the world back up according to your own prejudices after completely smashing it down. And Wightman's prejudices are my prejudices. Therefore this is a great book!

The Doctor And The Kid is the second novel in a series of weird westerns written by Mike Resnick. It follows on directly from The Buntline Special. Thomas Edison and Ned Buntline are still seeking to develop a weapon that can defeat the magic that Geronimo is using to stop the westwards expansion of the white people. Doc Holliday, still suffering from the tuberculosis that will eventually kill him, has lost his life savings in a poker game and can no longer afford to die in luxury. In an attempt to regain some wealth, he becomes a bounty hunter on the trail of the notorious outlaw known as Billy The Kid. Edison provides Doc with technological protection against the Kid's deadly gunslinging skills and Geronimo, for mysterious occult reasons of his own, provides Doc with magical protection as well. Could this be the breakthrough that Edison needs in his studies of Geronimo's magic?

This is a rollicking yarn, full of outrageous set pieces and delicious tongue in cheek humour. I loved it to bits.

The Folklore Of Discworld has its origins in Pterry's observation that “'s amazing how few people know the things that everyone knows...”. It explores the parallels between the folklore of our world (which everybody knows, of course) and its manifestations on the Discworld. Pterry's observation is spot on. I thought I knew a lot about folklore and superstition (and indeed, it turns out that I do) but nevertheless many of the details and implications had escaped my attention and the obsessive i-dotting and t-crossing of this book opened my eyes to a lot of things that I'd missed. And it certainly added depth and colour to my reading of the Discworld novels themselves.

Loren D. Estleman has written a series of novels chronicling the history of Detroit from the prohibition era through to the present day. They are violent novels exploring themes of racial prejudice, greed and political corruption. I am constantly astonished at the casual acceptance in so many American crime novels by so many different authors, that policemen and politicians are invariably corrupt. I wonder how closely this resembles reality? It is so ubiquitous that I suspect that it contains more then a kernel of truth...

Anyway, Estleman's Detroit novels are fascinatingly detailed and unputdownable stories that perfectly capture an era. He has a historian's eye for the telling detail. These are dark, though strangely optimistic books, and I enjoyed them.

Sometimes the children of writers follow in their parent's footsteps and become writers themselves. Almost always they are pale shadows of their parent even when they do eventually gain a reputation of their own. I'm thinking particularly here of Kingsley and Martin Amis. I can read and re-read Kingsley's novels with enormous pleasure, but I have yet to even finish a novel by his son. Dull, dull, dull. In some ways the comparison is unfair – Martin and Kingsley write in different genres and have very different styles. Nevertheless I still have my preferences...

Alafair Burke is the daughter of James Lee Burke and she has chosen to follow him as a writer of detective/thriller novels so perhaps it is valid to compare them both in the way that it is not really valid to compare Amis pere et fils.

I find Alafair's books to be competently written (he says, damning with faint praise straight away) but they lack a certain panache and they are very straightforwardly plotted and often quite predictable. Like her father, she tends to address contemporary concerns (Dead Connection, for example, concentrates of identity theft and the scams that arise from the internet dating scene) but the prose never fizzes and she lacks her father's strong sense of place and time. Perhaps that will come later – certainly her father's early work is sometimes less than distinguished. But once he found his voice, he turned his chosen genre into art. Creole Belle is the nineteenth novel in his series about Dave Robicheaux, a Louisiana detective.

As Dave lies in hospital recovering from a bullet wound and deeply into a heavy morphine habit, he is visited by Tee Jolie Melton, a young woman with a troubled past. She leaves him an ipod loaded with old country blues numbers (particularly “My Creole Belle”).

Later Dave learns that Tee Jolie disappeared weeks ago and nobody believes that she would have visited him in hospital. And, strangely, nobody but Dave can hear the songs that she loaded on his ipod...

Dave becomes obsessed by her disappearance and when her sister turns up dead, frozen into a block of ice and left floating in the gulf he becomes convinced that he has a duty to search out the mystery of Tee Jolie Melton.

Meanwhile an oil spill in the gulf is killing the wildlife and ruining lives and businesses all along the Louisiana coast. The oil companies have no conscience in their rapacious pursuit of wealth and power, and Dave begins to see links between them and the Melton sisters, even though no one else shares his suspicions. Solving this mystery will take him down long, lonely and dangerous roads.

Many of the later Robicheaux novels have a touch of mysticism to them which always adds to their strength. They deal firmly with contemporary concerns and they are not blind to the faults and foibles on both sides of the problem. Dave Robicheaux himself is no knight in shining armour. Creole Belle is complex and thoughtful and I think it is James Le Burke's best novel to date.

Some hotels go out of their way to make you feel unwelcome. There is a hotel in Auckland which has this down to a fine art. The reception desk is officially closed during normal check-in and check-out times. If you are ever unlucky enough to find someone at reception during the weird hours when it is actually open, they are invariably surly and uncooperative. Every room has a compendium describing the hotel facilities. Every sentence in the compendium begins with the words “You will not...” and goes on to describe the dire consequences that will ensue should you dare to commit any of the enumerated sins. Crucifixion is strongly hinted at and impalement is implied. Guests at this hotel suffer permanent scars to the psyche. The ambience is negative.

Most rooms look out over a building site where large yellow machinery makes loud industrial noises at all hours of the day and night. Ear plugs are an extra charge on the room.

After all that it comes as something of an anti-climax to find that the rooms are the size of broom cupboards (but that's all right – there's a rule against cat swinging, those caught indulging in the practice are condemned to be nibbled to death by mice).

It is also less than surprising to find that the shower fitting is pulling away from the wall and that it leaks through so many orifices that there is barely any pressure in the shower head itself. But this, being the fault of the hotel rather than the fault of the guest, is not subject to any punishment at all.

Somewhat to my surprise, I found a person sitting in reception.

“The shower leaks,” I said, “and the soap tray is broken and hanging by a thread. Can I move to a room where the fixtures and fittings actually work?”

“No,” he said, and then he nailed my feet to the floor as punishment for my temerity in asking for another room. “Anyway, all the rooms are the same. Moving won't change anything. None of the showers work.”

I haven't stayed in a hotel since then. It's hard to go anywhere else when your feet are nailed to the floor.

Harry Harrison The Technicolour Time Machine NEL
Harry Harrison A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! NEL
Wayne Wightman Selection Event Wayne Wightman
Mike Resnick The Doctor And The Kid Pyr
Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson The Folklore Of Discworld Doubleday
Lauren D. Estleman Whiskey River Crimeline
Lauren D. Estleman Motown Crimeline
Lauren D. Estleman King Of The Corner Crimeline
Lauren D. Estleman Edsel Crimeline
Alafair Burke Dead Connection Henry Holt
Alafair Burke Angels Tip Henry Holt
James Lee Burke Creole Belle Simon and Schuster
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