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

Lurgi Strikes Alan

In 1954, according to contemporary accounts authored by Spike Milligna and Eric Sykes, Great Britain suffered from its first and greatest epidemic of the lurgi, the most dreadful malady known to mankind. Symptoms include knee trembling and an uncontrollable urge to cry 'Yack-a-boo!' at crucial moments.

As the epidemic took its fearsome toll, It became abundantly clear that nobody who played a brass-band instrument ever caught the lurgi, thus clearing the way for Count Jim "Thighs" Moriarty and the Honourable Hercules Grytpype-Thynne to dispose of their hoarded instruments at a huge profit.

Soon Britain was safe again, and the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band had so many new members that they had to hire an extra forty two halls for the annual championship play off with the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. Brighouse and Rastrick won by three goals and a minor key touchdown, though some people claim that their use of the double reverse sousaphone manoeuvre in the closing minutes of the second half gave them an unfair advantage.

The dreaded lurgi soon spread throughout the English speaking world, except for America of course, where it seemed to manifest as the much less dreaded cooties. It became quite common for people to ring the office and explain that they wouldn't be coming in today because they had the lurgi. Milligna and Sykes now found themselves in very distinguished company. Along with Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll (with both of whom they had a lot in common), they had invented a new word which quickly became part of common usage.

In August 2012, lurgi struck me down. I was marooned in Auckland at the time and bereft of brass instruments. Not a trombone was to be had, scarcely a trumpet. Oh goodness me, there was nothing for it – the dread disease would have to run its full course.

It began on the Monday morning. I awoke with a sore throat and a fever. I don't know about you, but when I have a fever my skin becomes very sensitive. The slightest touch is almost, but not quite, horribly painful. My legs are particularly prone to this nasty sensation and pulling a pair of trousers over them is decidedly unpleasant. The hairs curl and wriggle excruciatingly under the press of the fabric. I began to contemplate the advantages of trouserless teaching. Would my students be able to cope? Reluctantly, I decided not to put it to the test. They'd already be nervous about all the high-powered things they'd have to study. I could see no point in reinforcing that inferiority complex by appearing before them with naked legs. And so, covered in trousers, I made my sick and shaking way to the classroom for my first day of torture.

14 is a novel by Peter Clines, a writer who is new to me. It tells the tale of a very mysterious house. The rent is cheap, but the rooms are weird. Every apartment in the house is built to a different plan. Some are large, some are small. Some are locked and nobody knows what is in them. The house is not connected to the electric grid, but power flows into it from somewhere, and has been flowing for at least a century. Under UV light, the walls prove to be covered in writing. Strange equations and mysterious warnings. Things go from weird to weirder. There are cellars within cellars and if you listen carefully you can hear the hum of vast machines...

It's a paranoid story and you won't be surprised to learn that the fate of the universe hangs in the balance. The ending is a little unsatisfying, but I can't see how it could be improved upon! Sometimes you just have to accept that you've written yourself into a corner and move on. It's a lightweight, but thoroughly enjoyable book and it kept me turning the pages, desperate to find out what happened next. You can't say fairer than that.

Dodger is Terry Pratchett's new novel. It's supposedly a YA book (it's published by the children's division of Doubleday) but I wouldn't pay any attention to that if I were you. It's just Terry Pratchett's new novel, and in it Pterry does Dickens (who is himself a character in the novel!).

Dodger is a "tosher", which is Victorian slang for a person who makes a living by scavenging in the sewers for the coins and gems and other goodies that fall out of people's pockets and end up in the darkness and the smell below ground. He earns more than a chimney sweeps boy and he never gets covered in soot, which has to be a good thing. Of course, we'll draw a veil over what he does get covered in...

One night, during a storm, Dodger rescues a young woman who is being attacked by two men. For various complicated reasons, Dodger decides that it is up to him to become her protector. Her name is Simplicity and somebody wants her dead. Dodger has to find who is hunting her down and why she is so dangerous to them.

Pterry brings Victorian London to life in all its smelly, corrupt glory. It's a most untypical Pratchett book -- not in the least Pratchettian (if that's even a word). The jokes are thin on the ground and the observations are much more subdued and less sardonic than usual, though as always they hit their intended target right in the bulls eye. If you go into this expecting a Discworld novel you will be disappointed. But if you approach it on its own terms rather than via Pratchett's reputation, you'll soon come to realise that this just might be one of his best books.

Gardner Dozois has published his twenty ninth annual collection of what he considers to be the world's best science fiction of the year. The book is imaginatively titled The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection. What is there to say that hasn't been said twenty eight times before?

Peter F. Hamilton has another 1000 page doorstop of a novel on the shelves. It's called Great North Road and I bought it solely and simply because it isn't part of a series. It stands completely alone and that has to be a good thing, doesn't it?

The story starts out as a murder mystery in Newcastle-on-Tyne in the year 2143. One of the multitude of clones who make up the North family has been killed. The Norths are powerful entrepreneurs who have forged a rich, interstellar corporate empire. They have financed and built a gate that joins Newcastle to the far-flung planet of St. Libra. Effectively the North family owns St. Libra and from it they export biologically manufactured oil to Earth. The death of one of the family will have enormous repercussions for them, and it soon becomes clear to the detective in charge of the murder case that unlimited money and resources will be assigned to the investigation.

Strangely, twenty years before the story opens another member of the North family was killed on St. Libra itself. But Angela Tramelo, the woman who committed that crime, has spent those decades in prison, protesting her innocence. She claims that an alien lifeform was responsible for the killing. And who knows, perhaps she was right. An expedition is mounted to investigate the situation in St. Libra's wilderness hinterland.

Initially I assumed that the novel would follow two story strands. One would be about the police investigation in Newcastle and one about the expedition to explore St. Libra. And to an extent I was right in that assumption. But I should have realized that nothing is ever that simple in a Peter Hamilton novel.

One branch of the North family is engaged in a complex game of political manoeuvring and there are wheels within wheels. Many of the protagonists have their own private agenda. Nothing about the story this book tells is as straightforward as it seems to be.

As well as having a grand and glorious plot of its own, the book does a brilliant job of extrapolating today's trends. That's always been a function of science fiction of course. It's one of the reasons why we keep reading it. And Peter Hamilton has done a particularly magnificent job of taking the UK's surveillance society to it's logical conclusion. Currently the UK has more CCTV cameras observing its citizens as they go about their daily business than any other country in the world. But by 2143 they've gone one step further – every building and every road is covered in smartdust and everybody has a bodymesh of smartcells. In a very real sense, everybody and everything are part of one large computer network that monitors the world in real time and keeps extensive log files. At one point the detective in charge of the investigation uses this information to build a 3D projection of the entire city in order to track the movements of things of interest. The projection isn't perfect of course. There are gaps in the system. But not very many...

Hamilton also has interesting comments to make about the rising influence of religion in the world. Religious fanaticism seems set to play a significant role in the story.

I am still less than half way through the book, so I have no idea what revelations are yet to come or how these threads will tie together. But I'm enjoying this complicated story so much that I really wanted to recommend it to you very, very highly.

Let's hope this novel starts a new trend of standalone stories. I am heartily sick of never ending series novels that finish with cliff-hangers.

Fooling Houdini is a book about being a magician. Alex Stone has a masters degree in physics and a life long interest in magic. In this book he tries to reconcile the two, with various side trips into psychology along the way. As a youngster, Alex entered the "magic olympics" where he was thoroughly trounced and made to look a bit of a fool. For a time he renounced magic, but later he came back to it with his interest renewed. This book is partly the story of his journey of rediscovery and partly the story of magic itself.

Obviously magic depends on misdirection, on the psychology of making you think you've really seen something other than what actually took place. But there's a lot of extreme physical skill involved as well. If you palm a coin you must be careful not to drop it on the floor and when you shuffle a pack of cards into a non-random order you need very flexible fingers indeed. Many hundreds of hours of intense practice often lie behind things that look like simple tricks.

Unfortunately Alex Stone is constrained by the rules of the magic circle and there's a limit to what he can tell us. I found it very irritating to read his discussion of the tricks of the trade without him ever actually telling me the details of the tricks of the trade. While this is a fascinating book, it's also a very frustrating one and I can't really say that I enjoyed it. Perhaps it would have been better to have just watched him perform...

Pets On Parade is a sequel to Malcolm Welshman's earlier Pets In A Pickle about the trials and tribulations of veterinary practice. It's much better than the earlier book. Welshman has pared down his fondness for obvious puns and is much more willing to let the natural disney attitudes of the animals tell the story instead.

Not only do we get the animal stories, we also get the ongoing soap opera that is Welshman's own love life as he suffers the trials and tribulations of living with the poisonously neurotic Lucy, veterinary nurse by day and withdrawn, uncommunicative partner by night.

The cliff-hanger ending suggests that there may well be a sequel. I may well be willing to read it.

Watching The Dark is Peter Robinson's twentieth novel about Detective Chief Inspector Banks. I hope there are many more still to come...

The novel opens at the St. Peter's Police Treatment Centre. Banks' colleague Annie Cabot has just left the centre after a lengthy convalescence. Banks had visited her a lot during her stay there, so he is quite familiar with the place. This familiarity stands him in good stead when he is called there to investigate a murder.

Inspector Bill Reid has been murdered on the grounds. He's been shot with a bolt from a crossbow, of all bizarre things. When Banks searches Reid's room, he finds sexually explicit photographs of Reid and a young girl. He begins to wonder if someone could have been blackmailing Reid. As he digs deeper into Reid's past, it begins to seem as if an old, cold case may have some connection to Reid's death. And that would tie in with the nature of the photographs as well.

With clues from the compromising photographs, Annie begins to suspect that they may have been taken in Estonia. She'd been there on a holiday trip, and she notices some familiar things in the background.

One of the shady characters from Bill Reid's past has a profitable sideline in importing and exploiting migrant workers from Eastern Europe. Estonia is one of the countries that supply these workers. It isn't long before Banks feels that he needs to visit Estonia, following the trail of the migrant workers backwards.

Meanwhile, Annie handles the English side of the investigation and, as you might expect, it isn't long before the two investigations dovetail together.

In some ways the story is a little formulaic, and the neat way that all the loose ends are tied together is more than a little unrealistic. But a lot of the strength of these novels comes from Alan Banks and Annie Cabot themselves. The stories are always much more character driven than they are plot driven and because the characters are so strong and so interesting in their own right, I find it easy to forgive the sometimes less than sparkling plot details.

And Robinson doesn't shy away from what you might claim the story is really about. The problem of migrant workers is a real problem in contemporary European society and the story covers this very thoroughly indeed, never shying away from any of the the nasty details. You'll understand a lot more about the nature of the beast after reading this book than you ever did before you opened it.

It may be book number twenty, but there's still a lot of life left in Detective Chief Inspector Banks.

"I have the lurgi," I explained to my students. "And by the end of the week you too will probably have the lurgi. But in between those two events I will endeavour to teach you all I know about computers. You will be pleased to hear that I have a degree in chemistry, and I am therefore fully qualified to teach computer courses."

The students were duly sympathetic to my plight. I coughed and sneezed my way through the day, explicating esoterica as I went. String quartets, those saccharine structures, slid through my nasal passages and slithered down my throat which itself was getting more painful by the minute as the catgut and horsehair tangled around my tonsils. My leg lagging became progressively more irritating and I could feel my knees turning blue. By the end of the day I had lost my voice and I had spots before my ankles.

" ", I said to the class when it was time to go home.

"Bye, bye. See you tomorrow. I hope you soon feel better," said the students.

" ", I replied and made my way back to the hotel where I collapsed into bed and, pining for a flugelhorn, fell asleep.

As the week progressed, so did my lurgi. Entire orchestras died unpleasant mucoid deaths as they smothered in the amazonian flow of a foul and slimy liquid that leaked constantly from my nose and throat. I changed my surname by deed poll to Phlegming because it seemed as if I was spending all my time doing exactly that. But at least I was being green – and that's about as politically correct as you can get in this best of all possible worlds!

Feeble trumpeters had little success in keeping the holocaust at bay. Lurgi enveloped my classroom. "Yack-a-boo! Yack-a-boo!" Students writhed in intellectual agony. Kneecaps succumbed to the esoterica of the linux command line.

" ", I explained.

"So lucid!," exclaimed my students. "Such elegance of expression."

Somewhere the haunting sound of phantom cornets played. Nothing else could save me from ignominious tragedy. Early to bed and early to rise showed no signs whatsoever of making me healthy, wealthy or wise. All I got was lots of sleep and a deep appreciation of raucous music.

Somehow the terrible week dragged its way to a conclusion and eventually it was time to go home. First step – get a taxi to the airport.

" ", I said to the taxi driver.

"?", he replied.

I quickly acquired a euphonium from the Black Dyke Mills Band, and with it I honked the opening bars of "Leaving on a Jet Plane". Peter, Paul and Mary, who happened to be passing, sang harmony and strummed their trombones. The lurgi relief was immediate. My kneecaps settled down to a normal rate of spin and my deep throat ache eased into a shallow throbbing.

"!", said the taxi driver. "Yack-a-boo!"

Oh dear...

Checking in at the airport was a trivial exercise. It's all done automatically by magic machines these days; no cut throat work is required at all. But my double bell euphonium caused some consternation when I took it through security.

"It's essential medical equipment," I croaked. "I have a prescription signed by the famous, not to say infamous, Doctor Eccles himself."

"Infamous?" said the security man.

"I told you not to say infamous!"

"You can't take that thing on an aeroplane," said the security man. "It's far too sharp."

"Will it be safe enough if I promise only to play it flat?"

Robin welcomed me home with open sackbuts. The cats put their paws in their ears.

"That noise is far too horny," said Harpo. "I might be forced to throw a bucket of water over you."

"Oompah, oompah, stick it up your joompah," I replied.

Peter Clines 14 Permuted Press
Terry Pratchett Dodger Doubleday
Gardner Dozois Year's Best Science Fiction: 29th Annual Collection St. Martins
Peter F. Hamilton Great North Road Macmillan
Alex Stone Fooling Houdini Harpers
Malcolm D. Welshman Pets on Parade John Blake Publishing
Peter Robinson Watching The Dark Hodder & Stoughton
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