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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (de vermis mysteriis)

Worming Robin

Last Christmas I bought Robin two new front tyres for the car. This year I decided that she needed a present that was much more romantic than that. So I bought her 1000 worms.

She was thrilled. "Just what my worm farm needs!" she declared and she went out and bought a bucket.

"What's the bucket for?" I asked.

"It will live in the kitchen," explained Robin, "and you will put all your vegetable scraps into it as food for my worms."

"OK," I said.

"Don't give them fruit or anything with seeds in," she said. "I had a worm farm back home in Australia and I gave my worms far too much fruit. They left home in protest and moved next door. They made a lovely den for themselves under the canopy that covered the swimming pool. My neighbours were very impressed when they removed the cover so as to go for a swim. Worms everywhere! The children used to dive into the water, come back up to the surface and then spit out the lumpy bits."

"OK, no fruit," I agreed solemnly, even though our next door neighbour doesn't have a swimming pool. "Why can't I feed the worms seeds?"

"Because the seeds germinate and grow inside the worm farm and soon there's no room for the worms. That makes them want to leave home as well."

"Oh, that would never do," I said.

The worms came in a small cardboard box which Harpo the Terror Cat immediately wanted to sit in. We strongly discouraged him. "It's full of slimy wriggly things."

Harpo looked puzzled. "What's wrong with that?" he asked. "As far as I'm concerned, it just adds to the attraction."

"Cats don't like worms," I said firmly.

"Oh don't they?" asked Harpo. "OK. I'll go and sit on an early bird instead."

Robin took the box outside and unpacked it on the lawn. She laid all the worms out in order, smallest to largest. "Stop wriggling!" she ordered firmly. Then she counted them. "One, two, three, four... Oh no!" she said. "What a catastrophe! There are only 999 worms. You've been short changed by the shop – you'll have to take them back immediately." She looked inside the box again. "Oh, it's OK. There are 1000 worms after all. There's a dead one in the corner. Poor thing. Perhaps we ought to have a funeral for it."

Robin dug a deep hole in the garden and we buried the worm with full pomp and circumstance. Robin wiped away a tear, and then she took her worms to their new home, a purpose built, architecturally designed worm farm with a tap on the bottom for draining dubious fluids. Robin introduced the worms to their new home one by one and as she put each worm into the farm, she gave it a name. "Arbuthnot, Abigail, Alan, Anne, Andrew … Zacharia, Zamorah, Zan."

"Why are you giving them names?" I asked.

"So that they can tell each other apart," explained Robin, "and so that they can introduce themselves to each other when they have sex. You can't have sex with someone whose name you don't know." She sounded quite shocked at the idea.

"So you expect the worms to have sex a lot?" I asked.

"Oh yes," said Robin. "That's what worms do. You know how people shake hands when they first meet each other?"

"Yes," I agreed.

"Well worms don't have hands," said Robin. "So whenever they meet, they have sex instead. And what's more, they are hermaphrodites, so they do it both ways at once. They all have twice as much fun as anyone else does – I suppose there have to be some compensations for being a worm."

"So worms are all actually hippie refugees from the Summer of Love?" I asked.

"That's right," said Robin. "Didn't you notice their long hair and the faint smell of marijuana when I took them out of their box?"

"So we'll soon have a lot more than 999 worms?" I asked.

"I expect so," said Robin.

"What happens when the worm farm is so full of worms that they can't even wriggle any more?"

"That's when they stop having sex and start eating each other instead," explained Robin. "Life in a worm farm is just one long, decadent orgy."

The next few days were anxious ones. I put vegetable peelings, tea bags and coffee grounds into the bucket. I even put in some cat biscuits that Harpo and Bess turned had their noses up at. Robin kept emptying the bucket into the worm farm and she'd come back with a very long face.

"They aren't eating," she reported gloomily. "I think they must still be traumatised by the move."

"Never mind," I soothed. "I'm sure they'll recover and start eating soon. Perhaps they are having trouble remembering their names. Once they get that sorted out, I'm sure everything will be fine."

There are many very clever things about Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman novels but one of the cleverest is that when you start reading the books you are convinced that they are fantasy novels and by the time you have finished reading them you are equally convinced that they are science fiction novels.

The viewpoint character in the novels is Rowan, a Steerswoman. She and her guild live by very simple rules – if you ask her a question, she is required to answer with the truth. And if she asks you a question, she expects you to answer her in the same way. If you don't, you are placed under a ban and no steerswoman anywhere in the world will ever answer your questions again.

Living with these rules to guide them, the steerswomen have become the navigators, cartographers, explorers and researchers of their world. Knowledge is a steerswoman's life – she seeks it out and she disseminates it. The world is full of mysteries, but knowledge is power.

However the wizards, another well organised but rather secretive group, also hold knowledge of the world. They can work magic – though it soon becomes clear to the reader that their magic is simply technology wrapped up in mumbo-jumbo. They refuse to share their knowledge of the world, they won't answer any questions, and they are under the steerswomen's ban.

The Steerswoman's Road is an omnibus edition of the first two Steerswoman novels.

The first book is called The Steerswoman. It is hard to say too much about it without giving away massive spoilers, but in brief Rowan is hunting for the source of some blue jewels which she has found scattered in various places across the Inner Lands of her world. For some unknown reason, the wizards are violently opposed to her investigation and they attempt to kill her.

Rowan allies herself with Bel, a barbarian from the Outskirts (a primitive and unsettled part of the world). Together they narrowly escape repeated attempts on their lives. Finally, with the help of other members of the steerswomen's guild, she and Bel come to some small understanding of what the jewels might be and what the wizards might want with them.

In the second book, The Outskirter's Secret, Rowan and Bel travel beyond the edge of the world, deep into the Outskirts and even beyond. Here green vegetation is seldom found, but red and black grass and other exotic plants abound. Life is hard; humans and animals are not meant to survive here. Bel and Rowan travel with some nomadic Outskirter tribes and Rowan learns a lot that is new to her about Outskirter life and the alien creatures such as goblins and demons that infest these bad lands. And there, beyond the edge of the world, she finally finds the source of the blue jewels.

These are quite brilliant stories. The plots are subtle and clever. The societies of the world are well imagined and convincingly described. The themes of the books are large and important and potentially world changing, but we never lose sight of the daily lives of the real people who live and die and love and lose as the events of the story unfold. And watching Rowan using her steerswoman's logic and training in her struggle to understand the wizards, their magic and their motives is a particular delight.

Dawn French is a very funny woman. In television show after television show she has reduced me to a giggling, helpless bundle of merriment. As you can tell, I'm a fan. And so I was particularly keen to read her autobiography, Dear Fatty.

It's an epistolary book. She tells the story of her life by writing letters to people who have been important to her. Her father, her brother, Peter Tork (of the Monkees), Madonna (no, not that one. The other one). It's a funny book and at times a sad book. I enjoyed it hugely.

When R. D. Wingfield died everybody naturally assumed that there would be no more novels about Detective Inspector Jack Frost. Well, it seems we were wrong. With the full permission of Wingfield's estate, "James Henry", has written two prequels to Wingfield's novels. And very good they are too! "James Henry" is a collaboration between James Gurbutt (Wingfield's original publisher) and Henry Sutton (a novelist and also an editor). Sometimes too many cooks spoil the broth, but not this time.

The books are set in the 1980s. Frost is still only a detective sergeant; promotion has not yet come his way. His wife (who is long dead in Wingfield's original novels) is still alive, though Frost sees little of her. He is married to his job and seldom goes home – that at least never changes – but he doesn't seem too averse to a little bit of extra-marital slap and tickle on the side. That surprised me a bit.

The plots of the books are also typical of Wingfield's plots - frantic and multi-faceted, well-paced, with many different investigations occurring simultaneously. Most of the characters are also familiar - Wells, Johnson, Simm, and of course Mullett all make appearances.

And Frost himself is still scruffy, smelly, irreverent and contemptuous of all who surround him. As I said before, some things never change.

The events of First Frost take place in 1981. Britain is in recession (some things never change), the IRA is becoming increasingly active and there are posters in Denton Police Station warning people to be on the alert for an outbreak of rabies. Detective Sergeant Jack Frost is working under his old friend and mentor DI Bert Williams who is soon to retire. Unfortunately he seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth. Nobody, not even his wife, has seen hide nor hair of him for days and people are starting to worry.

Superintendent Stanley Mullett has been in charge at Denton for only a few months. He is desperately trying to restore order within the chronically depleted ranks of his staff and at the same time he has the tradesmen in painting and decorating the dismal and dilapidated station. Chaos rules! Everybody hates and despises him (some things never change).

Then a 12-year-old girl goes missing from a department store changing room. It seems she has been kidnapped. In the absence of DI Williams, Mullet has no option but to put DS Frost in charge of the investigation. The game's afoot, and complications soon ensue. Some things never change.

Fatal Frost takes place a year later, in May, 1982. Britain is at war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands and newspaper headlines celebrate the sinking of the Argentinian ship Belgrano. Jimmy Savile sprawls and leers all over the airwaves and Denton welcomes its first black policeman. Detective Constable Waters has been seconded from London, at his own request. He is going through a messy divorce and he needs some breathing space. He is not welcome in Denton and racist comments and a racially inspired beating by some of his own colleagues soon make that clear to him. But Frost seems to be colour blind and together they make a good team. They are going to have their work cut out for them.

There have been a lot of burglaries in the area. Within a few pages of the start of the book we learn that these have all been carried out by a local real estate agent who has copies of the house keys. He feels rather pleased with his own cleverness. What a shame so many houses have pets in them. He's very allergic to pets. Oh well, it's easy to kill them and hide their bodies in the fridge...

Then the body of a young girl is discovered in woodland next to the nearby railway track. A fifteen-year-old boy is found dead and eviscerated and ritually laid out on the ninth hole of Denton's brand new golf course. The murdered boy's sister is also missing from home. Frost and Waters have a lot of work to do...

I look forward to more novels from James Henry. It is a pleasure to welcome Frost back to my bookshelves.

And then one day Robin came back from her worm farm beaming all over her face. "They've started eating," she declared. "And look at this!" She held up a small bottle full of black goo.

"What's that?" I asked.

"It's my first bottle of worm wee," she said. "Isn't that just fantastic? The instructions say I've got to dilute it to the colour of weak tea and pour it on the flowers."

"What happens then?"

"You step back quickly before the rapidly growing flower hits you in the eye," said Robin. She diluted her worm wee and spread it liberally around the garden.

Sproing! Sproing! Sproing! Sproing! Sproing! Sproing!

"I think that chrysanthemum just punched a hole in a passing aeroplane," I said.

"Hmm..." said Robin, thoughtfully.

Rosemary Kirstein The Steerswoman's Road Del Rey
Dawn French Dear Fatty Random House
James Henry First Frost Corgi
James Henry Fatal Frost Corgi
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