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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (dentum dolorum)

Tooth Is Stranger Than Friction

Robin had been away for a week, visiting her parents in Australia. The cats and I were looking forward to a weekend of incredible debauchery.

"Will there be creatures?" asked Harpo, flexing his claws. They slid in and out of their sheaths like evil stilettos. "Things to kill?"

"Yes there will," I said. "There's one quivering in fear behind the fridge even as we speak."

"Is there?" Harpo sounded doubtful.

"Yes – it sneaks out at night when nobody is around and eats the remains of your dinner. Haven't you noticed how fast the food has been disappearing lately?"

"We'll see about that!" declared Harpo and he went and sat to attention by the fridge, waiting for action.

Bess was less certain about the weekend of sin. "I'd really rather just sleep on my new cushion," she said. "Is all this really necessary?"

"If that's what floats your boat," I said, "then sleep away. This weekend is all about doing what makes you feel good."

"What are you going to do?" Bess asked.

"I've got a book to read and a DVD to watch," I said, "and I'm cooking a curry. It's going to be the most debauched weekend ever."

"Oh YES!" said Harpo, and all three of us gave each other high fives. As we did that, one of my teeth gave a little twinge. I ignored it.

Stephen Brust's novel Agyar sounds as though it ought to be another instalment in his long-running series about Vlad Taltos; but it isn't. It's a stand alone novel, it's rather weird and I loved it to bits.

John Agyar moves into a small Ohio town for reasons that don't become clear until later in the book. He takes up residence in an abandoned house which he shares with a ghost named Jim. In an upstairs room he finds a typewriter. He feels compelled to write things on it and the results of his writing make up the novel that we are reading. We are eavesdropping on something that is not quite a diary, not quite a history, and not quite a straight forward narration of events (it even commits poetry once in a while). Agyar assumes his reader knows many things that he doesn't explicitly make clear in his narrative (essentially he knows that his only reader will be himself and perhaps Jim, but Jim is already familiar with Agyar's nature). This is initially very puzzling, though it soon clarifies itself as little bits of indirect narration start to fit together into patterns.

Agyar is a vampire (though the word is never mentioned in the book). He has been in existence for at least a century, possibly longer and he is in thrall to the person who turned him. It is impossible for him to disobey that person's instructions.

It isn't long before Agyar has two women in thrall to him. But the novel is told so indirectly, filtered as it is through Agyar's own world view, that it takes the reader a long time to appreciate just how subtle his seemingly clumsy approaches to these people are and just how little sex there is in the things we naturally assume are sex scenes. Agyar is overloaded with charisma and he uses it in ways that are quite foreign to you and me, but they serve his purpose.

And that's the whole strength of this book. There's absolutely nothing explicit in it, everything is revealed through indirection and metaphor and yet at the same time it's all so obvious and so open (particularly in retrospect) that it hides in plain sight and yet it still sneaks up on you when you aren't looking. Suddenly you think you understand it all. And then the ending takes you so completely by surprise that you realise you understood nothing, and you have to re-read the book immediately in the light of your new found knowledge...

You simply cannot read this book once. You really have to read it twice. And the second reading has to start as soon as you finish it.

My goodness me, Agyar is such a clever book and Stephen Brust is such a clever writer.

Michael Poore's novel Up Jumps The Devil is sacrilegious, politically incorrect, and outrageously funny. It is nothing less than the life story of the devil (called John Scratch in the book). Scratch is made of wood, he's a great cook (his gumbo is out of this world) and he has an unfortunate attraction to cows. Every bovine in the world is in lust with him...

The book is presented as a series of vignettes that talk about Scratch's influence on many familiar historical events. He was there in ancient Egypt when the pyramids were being built and he knows the secret of the sphinx. He was there when Rome fell and when Hiroshima was bombed. In colonial America he had an affair with Pocahontas and he had an odd encounter with Benjamin Franklin. He nearly lost his immortality at the Battle Of Gettysburg (in retrospect he really shouldn't have pissed it into a bottle and hidden the bottle in a wagon which got captured by the enemy – what was he thinking of). He was at Woodstock (of course) and he had a huge influence on Hollywood (that's so obvious it almost goes without saying). He relaxes at a never ending party in Mexico where he sometimes converses with a talking dog called Fidel.

But there is a story arc connecting all these scenes – John Scratch is in love with Arden, an angel who finds life on Earth to be so insufferable that every time she tries it out she has to give it up in despair and flee back to Heaven. And so the devil has made it his mission in life to create heaven on earth so as to attract Arden back into his life. But the people on Earth (damn them) always manage to ruin every opportunity for transcendence.

Or do they?

This is one hell of a book, devilishly clever, highly offensive and utterly brilliant.

The World House by Guy Adams is a very odd little book. In a series of seemingly unconnected scenes that take place in various times and at various places we are introduced to a strange ensemble of characters who seem to have nothing in common with each other at all. But it soon becomes clear that they all have brief possession of a box whose lid is engraved with Chinese characters. The box cannot be opened. Generally its owners die violently shortly after coming into possession of it, and when they die the box transports them to a house and scatters them through its many rooms.

It's an odd house – there is a bathroom with a bath so large that you can spend spend weeks at sea in it. There are tribes of cannibals in the steamy jungle that grows in the greenhouse. There's a room where the stuffed animals sneak up on you and attack you in the dark. There's a library full of the autobiographies of everyone who has ever lived and there's a room with a snow covered mountain in it which has fully furnished caves at every rest stop.

It's hard to move around the house. There are no easy trails between the rooms. The dark nothingness that separates them is full of wraiths that will destroy you in an instant should they manage to catch you.

Nevertheless a disparate group of individuals do manage to come together and set off to explore the place, determined to find the secret of the house. What is it? Where is it? Why is it?

All these questions have answers but it takes nearly 500 pages to solve all the mysteries.

It's a wonderful page turner of a book – I absolutely had to know what happened next, and I was dying to find out why it happened at all. The final revelation held no real surprises for the jaded old SF and fantasy fan that looks out through my eyeballs (perhaps I've read too much of the stuff) but nevertheless I thoroughly enjoyed the skilful way that all the seemingly disparate threads wrapped themselves up neatly at the end. This is a very clever and very elegantly structured book.

The sequel, Restoration, is a much less satisfying story, probably because the narrative is much more linear and also because it is really only an exercise in dotting i's and crossing t's in order to make sure that the events of the first book do actually take place when they are supposed to (yes – it's a novel all about time travel and causality). Furthermore, you cannot read Restoration as a stand alone novel. It makes absolutely no sense at all without the knowledge of what has gone before and this too weakens it a lot. In many respects I think it's an unnecessary book.

The Hydrogen Sonata is a new Culture novel from Iain M. Banks. It's one of the better ones – the last few Culture novels have been somewhat plodding and pedestrian. This one, however is much more interesting and full of a lot of witty dialogue (something else that has been sorely lacking in his novels of late).

The Gzilt were one of the societies that helped to set up the Culture ten thousand years before the events of this novel. Although they were closely involved in setting it up, they eventually decided not to join it. Now, ten thousand years later they have made the collective decision to follow the well-trodden path of many other civilizations before them; they are going to Sublime, elevating themselves to a new and infinitely richer existence.

As always when a civilization sublimes, the vultures are gathering; scavengers who anticipate rich pickings among the things the Gzilt will leave behind them when they go.

An added complication is the arrival of a ship from the remnants of the Zidhren. The Zidhren were a race who sublimed long ago. However they were instrumental in the uplift of the Gzilt, supplying them with The Book Of Truth, a revered and holy book. But now it seems that there were truths behind The Book Of Truth. Unfortunately the ship carrying the Zidhren message was intercepted and destroyed before it could complete its mission and now, with only days to go before the Gzilt sublime, Vyr Cossont embarks on a search for Ngaroe QiRia, the oldest Culture citizen still alive. He is so old that it is rumoured that he was one of the delegates to the meetings that implemented the Culture itself all those millennia ago. If anybody knows what went on between the Zidhren and the Gzilt, surely he will?

For my taste, the novel has far too many infodumps and far too many interminable pages full of turgid descriptions of astronomical phenomena. Time and again I found myself skipping past the boring bits so as to get back into the story proper. It's a curate's egg of a book – the story is interesting, the wit is clever but all too often the writing is turgid. It all makes for a very slow and sometimes very dull read.

The Saturday of our weekend of unalloyed pleasure arrived. There was a mild, throbbing pain in my tooth now, but I paid it no attention. I had far more important things to concentrate on; I had a curry to cook. Shortly after breakfast, I began to concentrate on frying onions and adding pinches of this and that to the increasingly savoury sauce that the lamb was simmering in. Curries are best cooked the day before they are eaten. The longer they rot in the fridge before you re-heat and serve them, the tastier they become. It's never too early to cook a curry. The cats watched anxiously.

"Don't you think you should add a bowl of mice?"

"How about a dried lizard to give it some body? I've got a spare one under the sofa."

I took their advice very seriously. Always listen to your cats. They are wise in the ways of the world. Then the phone rang.

"Hello, Laurie here," said Laurie.

"Hello, Laurie Here," I said, "this is Alan There."

It's our little ritual. We find it amusing. Nobody else does. I can't think why...

"What are you doing this evening?" asked Laurie.

"I have a curry, a book and a DVD," I said. "The cats and I are planning some decadence"

"No you aren't," Laurie hinted.

"Aren't I?"

"No," suggested Laurie gently. "You are coming round here for dinner."

If Laurie ever invites you for dinner, you should always accept. The man is a kitchen god, similar to, though considerably less shapely than, the Nigella herself. However he compensates for his lack of shape by singing in a much higher register than the comparatively husky Nigella – he sings counter-tenor with the Orpheus choir.

I took my twinging tooth to Laurie's where I was pleased to find that the food was soft and delicious. I was starting to doubt my ability to bite anything hard. My tooth was feeling very sensitive, and so was I.

By the time I left Laurie's to go back home, my tooth was really the only thing I could think about. I was in quite a lot of pain and when I got home I collapsed straight into bed. But I didn't sleep very well. A blacksmith had moved an anvil just behind my tooth and a never ending procession of dwarves were rhythmically beating swords into ploughshares on it. I dosed myself with pain killers. They didn't kill any pain.

The following day being Sunday, all the dentists in the country were out playing golf. I lay in bed with a throbbing jaw. I drank lots of tea – the warm liquid helped a bit and I chewed on the hot tea bags. That also helped a little. Eventually I had a bright idea and I put a wet rag in a plastic bag and warmed it in the microwave. I spent the rest of the day and most of the night holding it to my cheek and jaw.

As soon as the dentist opened for business on Monday morning, I rang and asked for an emergency appointment.

"Come round immediately," said the nurse, so I did.

The dentist sat me down in his torquemada chair. "So," he said, "let's see what's going on here. The first order of business is to find out just which teeth are causing the problem."

He picked up the silver hammer that he had bought from Maxwell's Dental Supplies. Bang! Bang! Maxwell's silver hammer came down upon my tooth. Bang! Bang! Maxwell's silver hammer went seeking for the truth. "Does that hurt?"

I shook my head. Wrong tooth. He tried again.

Once he and the nurse had pulled me down from the ceiling, he said, "I'll take that as a yes."

Eventually we determined that two teeth in my upper jaw were very sensitive. X-Rays were called for.

"Aha!," he said. "There's an abscess under one of the teeth, but I can't see any reason for the other one to be hurting. Perhaps it's just a sympathetic pain. Well, let's work on the obvious things first. I'm going to drill down through the root and let the abscess drain. I'll just numb you a bit before I start."

He produced the needle of necessary things and pumped several gallons of paralysing fluid into my gum. All sensation fled from my face and for the first time in several days I was feeling no pain.

"That'll do," I said. "Let's leave it there. I'll just come back every couple of hours for a top up."

"Sorry," said the dentist. "It doesn't work like that." He began to call for the tools of his trade and the nurse handed them over, one by one. Black and Decker drills whirred, dynamite was packed in the holes and titanic explosions rocked my jaw.

"Gosh," said the dentist, "that's the longest root I've ever seen. I wonder how far it goes? I think I need another X-Ray."

Another X-Ray later, the dentist said thoughtfully, "What's the longest drill we've got?"

"42mm," said the nurse.

"That should be long enough," said the dentist as he resumed drilling. "I might even reach the brain with that one. I always wanted to drill into a brain."

Eventually he seemed satisfied with his progress. He packed the enormous hole in my tooth with a temporary antibiotic soaked filling and sent me on my way. My wallet was so light after paying his golf club membership fees for the next three years that I almost floated out of his office.

If there had never been Harry Potter we might never have seen J. K. Rowling's novel The Casual Vacancy and in my opinion the world would be a poorer place if that had happened. It's so easy to play the "what if" game. What if this had been the novel she first approached the publishers with? Would it ever have seen the light of day? Who knows – but the plain fact of the matter is that because of Harry Potter, Rowling can now write whatever she wants to write with a guarantee of publication no matter what its quality. This time she has chosen to write a novel for adults, and she succeeds brilliantly.

The novel is set in the tiny English town of Pagford. As it opens, Barry Fairbrother drops dead from an aneurysm in his brain. Barry was on the town council and his death leaves a vacancy; the casual vacancy of the title. The surface plot concerns itself with the wheelings and dealings behind the scenes as various people seek to exploit the vacancy for their own ends. Dark secrets lie behind the sleepy English idyll of market squares and cobbled streets.

In some ways it's a very cynical book, dealing as it does with politics, the class struggle, racism, poverty, drug use, bullying, child abuse, rape, self-mutilation, suicide, paedophilia, and mental illness. Few of the characters have any redeeming features when the chips are down. However its saving grace is the sharp wit and precise comedic timing with which Rowling explores her material. It's a lively comedy of manners just as much as it is a bleak condemnation of humanity, and I never thought I'd see both those themes explored in the same book.

There's absolutely no question about it – J. K. Rowling is a very talented writer and The Casual Vacancy is a very clever book.

Ken Follett's Fall of Giants is the first volume of a trilogy in which Follett intends to dramatise the history of the whole of the twentieth century. That's a difficult task to set yourself and it could so easily have turned into a turgid infodump-ridden tome. However on the evidence of the first book it seems clear that Follett has definitely not bitten off more than he can chew, and it's a surprisingly easy read, full of drama and well drawn characters. At one and the same time it tells a tale of real people involved in real events and it goes behind the scenes to explain those events and put them into a world wide political and social context.

The Double Game is a spy novel about spy novels, and if that sounds more than a little bit incestuous to you, that's because it is. The book simply couldn't exist without the novels of Eric Ambler, John le Carre, Len Deighton et al to build on (even Somerset Maugham's Ashenden has a small part to play as do several even more obscure books by even more obscure writers – how many of you have ever heard of Manning Coles?).

Bill Cage is a journalist. When he was a young man he interviewed Edwin Lemaster, a writer of spy novels and a former CIA agent. In a drunken moment, Lemaster hints that once he toyed with the idea of becoming a double agent for the Soviet Union. Bill publishes this little snippet in his interview. It marks the end of his career as a journalist. The flack starts flying, pressure is brought to bear, and Bill ends up as a PR hack, a profession he despises. The years pass and Bill and his father (who used to be in the diplomatic service) attend the funeral of one of his father's old colleagues. The funeral is crowded with retired secret agents and Bill feels old desires stirring. He resolves to re-open his investigation into the possible treachery of Edwin Lemaster.

But there are wheels within wheels. It soon becomes clear that Bill is being manipulated by someone who presumably bears a grudge against Lemaster. When the trail grows cold, someone sends him clues in the shape of quotations from spy novels, clues which start to shine a light on the convoluted career of Edwin Lemaster, clues which put Bill in fear of his life as they guide him to interview some of the very dangerous people who made cold war espionage what it was in real life rather than what it was in the novels that dramatised it.

This is a very clever and enthralling book, but it has a limited audience. I think it can only work for those of us who were there. You have to be a child of the cold war to fully appreciate the ingenious subtlety of this book. And also I think you had to be there when the spy novel grew up, transcended its genre and ever so briefly turned itself into art. Because ultimately The Double Game is about all of those things.

Overnight the left side of my face swelled up to the size of a football. The swelling was so huge that I could barely open my left eye and my nose was twisted several millimetres off centre. I rang the dentist. The nurse answered the phone and I explained my symptoms.

"Oh gosh, that's not normal," said the nurse. "You'd better come back straight away." So I did.

"That's rather impressive," said the dentist when he saw my face. "Looks like the infection from the abscess has spread into the soft tissues. I think we'd better put you on a course of antibiotics. Meanwhile let's see what's going on with the teeth."

Maxwell's silver hammer revealed that the second tooth was still sensitive. "That worries me," said the dentist. "There's no obvious reason for it. There's nothing on the X-Rays. I think I'd better drill into it and see what's going on."

Drills drilled. Have you ever noticed how good drills are at drilling? You'd almost think they were designed for it...

"Aha!" exclaimed the dentist triumphantly. "There's an infection actually in the root itself. No wonder it didn't show up on the X-Ray. I think I'd better drill the whole root out."

"OK," I gulped.

"Nurse," he thundered, "fetch me a size 84 Ryobi and Makita with the patented left hand twist reverse power screw."

Afterwards, I staggered off clutching a prescription for massive doses of antibiotics. I wondered if I had enough money in my wallet for the prescription charges. My dentist now had a lifetime membership of his golf club, and as I left the surgery, I overheard him on the phone booking an extended cruise to the Solomon Islands.

I returned to work. Since the swelling had closed my left eye, the monocular vision from my right eye left me with no depth perception whatsoever. This had strange and interesting results when I tried to draw diagrams on the white board. I couldn't tell how close the marker was to the board and I made lots of squelchy squiggles as it constantly took me by surprise. Fortunately my students were very understanding and they only laughed at me when I wasn't looking.

Over the next few days the swelling started to die down as the antibiotics kicked in. I had binocular vision again and my nose straightened up. There was no pain any more, thank goodness, but there were extremely high levels of discomfort, which was almost as bad. The dentist couldn't put permanent fillings in yet because of the infection. He put another set of temporary fillings in and gave me a prescription for more antibiotics.

"Let's see how it looks in a week," he said presenting me with yet another enormous bill.

The following week I was pleased to see a new Rolls Royce parked in his private space when I arrived for my treatment. "Nice car," I said.

"Thank you," he said, rubbing his hands gleefully. "How's the tooth?"

He had a good look around inside my mouth and decided that it was time for the permanent fillings at last. "I'm going to use a rubber dam," he explained. "It stops nasty tasting things falling into your mouth and it keeps the saliva away from the holes in the teeth. Horrible stuff, saliva. Full of germs. We'd all be better off without it."

He stretched a thick green condom-like object around my teeth and hammered some wedges in to hold it in place. Then he drilled out the old fillings.

"Cement," he said to the nurse.

She turned on the cement mixer and it churned away for a while. "We're running out of sand," she observed.

"Better order some more after we've finished this job," said the dentist. He shovelled cement into my tooth and pounded it it flat with a pneumatic jackhammer. "There," he said in tones of deep satisfaction, "that should do it."

I paid the final bill.

"Thanks," he said as he showed me to the door. "Any idea what's involved in gold-plating a Roller?"

"No," I said. "But I'm sure you'll tell me all about it when I come for my routine check up next month."

I went home feeling glad it was all over and things were back to normal. As I opened my front door, I saw Bess looking anxiously at me.

"Are you OK now?" she asked.

"Yes," I said.

"Oh good," she said. "So is it time for my debauchery at last?"

Stephen Brust Agyar Tor
Michael Poore Up Jumps The Devil Ecco
Guy Adams The World House Angry Robot
Guy Adams Restoration Angry Robot
Iain M. Banks The Hydrogen Sonata Orbit
J. K. Rowling The Casual Vacancy Little, Brown
Ken Follett Fall Of Giants Pan
Dan Fesperman The Double Game Knopf
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