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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (caligula prandium)

Summoned By Shoes

Most mornings, when the sun has barely had time to clear its throat and have a cough and a spit, Harpo the Cat comes into the bedroom demanding breakfast. This is not unusual – sooner or later most cats learn that the best way to get breakfast is to nag their slaves until they get up and provide food. But Harpo has found a unique way of attracting my attention and forcing me out of bed.

He throws my shoes around the bedroom.

Clatter! Clatter!

Bess may be asleep on the bed or she may be curled up on her favourite cushion in the lounge. Either way, she completely ignores the noise that Harpo makes. She regards him as a hopeless case. She will join us for breakfast when the fuss has died down and the shoes have all been put back in their proper places. It would be terribly bad-mannered of her to trip over a shoe on her way to the kitchen. She'd die of embarrassment at such a faux pas and then she'd have to wash herself all over at least twice before she could possibly eat a thing. Oh dear, that will never do.

Robin sleeps calmly through all the noise. They aren't her shoes. Her shoes are hiding in her wardrobe in a mountainous and rather scary pile. Every so often, while dressing for dinner, she will screw her courage to the sticking place and burrow deeply into it. Eventually she will re-emerge, panting and frazzled, with a shoe. Just one.

"These will go perfectly with my new trousers," she says. Then she scratches her head. "I wonder where the other shoe is?" she asks thoughtfully.

"Who knows?" I reply. "Perhaps it is inside a cat." Actually I consider this to be extremely unlikely. Both cats have far more sense than that. Robin's shoe mountain even manages to scare Robin! Goodness knows what it does to a cat. The missing shoe is probably still cowering somewhere deep in the recesses of her wardrobe.

"I think I'd better buy another pair of shoes, just in case," Robin decides.

And so, bit by bit, her shoe mountain grows to even more terrifying proportions. Therefore every morning Robin can sleep the sleep of the just don't care, in the sure and certain knowledge that Harpo the Cat will never go anywhere near that scarily unstable pile.

Clatter! Clatter!

I pull myself gloomily awake and peer short-sightedly at the world. I know exactly what I will see. The three pairs of shoes that I own are no longer neatly lined up against the wall. They are scattered around the room and Harpo is busy killing one of them. The others stare in horror as the poor victim expires beneath Harpo's claws and fangs. I can hear a faint whispering:

"Oh no! Not again!"

The chosen victim groans in agony. I climb out of bed and, leaving my whimpering shoes behind, I go into the kitchen to prepare breakfast for Harpo and for Bess. As I walk past Harpo, he swipes my leg with his paw. If I've waited too long to get up, there will be severely protruding claws. Most mornings I find that I have waited too long to get up.

"You need more shoes," says Harpo. "I've killed all three pairs at least a dozen times. I'm getting bored. I need variety in my killing sprees."

"Three pairs of shoes is enough for anyone," I explain. "I've only got two feet you know. Actually, three pairs of shoes is probably at least two pairs too many."

Poul Anderson is one of the great names of science fiction. He was amazingly prolific and all his stories are at least worth glancing through and most deserve to be read from cover to cover, savouring every word. When he was firing on all cylinders, there was nobody to touch him. I have very fond memories of a series of time travel stories that he wrote. I was addicted to them when I was a teenager. I first came across them in an English paperback called Guardians Of Time. The book contained four fantastic stories which detailed the adventures of one Manse Everard who was a time patrolman. His major task was to ensure that history worked out properly – though because this was time travel and events, it seemed, were not always completely immutable, many complications ensued as he tried to keep things on the straight and narrow. He didn't always succeed in everything he set out to do – though of course that does depend on exactly how you define success...

I thought they were the very best time travel stories I'd ever read, and I still hold that same opinion today. Eventually my copy of the book fell apart because I read it so many times that it could no longer stand the strain of my eyeballs rubbing across its pages. Tor re-issued it as The Guardians Of Time (note the extra definite article) and I immediately bought it because I simply could not bear to be without such wonderful stories in my library. Rather to my surprise, the new edition had five stories in it, one more than had appeared in the English paperback. Could it be that Anderson had written more stories in the series? Yes he had. A couple of years later, Tor published Time Patrolman which contained two more stories. Then they published The Shield Of Time which was a whole novel about the adventures of Manse Everard and the Time Patrol! My cup runneth over.

And now Baen Books has published Time Patrol which contains all the stories from the first two collections together with another three that I've never seen before, making a grand total of ten stories in all. As far as I can tell, all of Poul Anderson's stories of the Time Patrol (apart from the rather lengthy novel) are now collected together in one volume for the very first time. I read the book with joy and delight – the four stories I remember from my youth are just as wonderful now as they were back then and the extra stories are simply icing on the truly scrumptious cake. I still think they are the very best time travel stories ever written by anyone. Poul Anderson is definitely a writer for the ages.

The main attraction of these stories is the sense of history that they convey – many of the tales take place in early historical times when much that we now consider to be commonplace was then part of a sense of wonder at the splendours of the universe. Perversely, the history and mythology of this era are seldom taught in schools and few people know much about it which makes the attraction of the stories all the more exciting. Those times were called the dark ages for a very good reason, but Anderson shines a fascinating light on them. He was a physicist by education, but a historian by inclination. And the scientist and the artist and the historian all come together in these stories of the time patrol. Nobody else has ever combined all these elements in such a brilliant way.

John Birmingham is perhaps best known for his comic novel He Died with a Felafel in His Hand which tells the hilarious tale of his experiences living with dubious flat mates in Brisbane. However John Birmingham is also guilty of committing two SF trilogies. The first, which I've not read, details what happens when a battleship from the 21st century is sent back in time to 1942 to help with the fleet actions of the allied war effort. The second trilogy, which I have read, begins with the novel Without Warning. It is set in March 2003. Coalition forces are massing in the middle east in preparation for the invasion of Iraq. And then suddenly, with no warning at all (hence the title), America disappears from the world.

In the blink of an eye, an unexplainable event which people call "the wave" (for want of anything else to call it) causes every human being in the US, and in most of Canada and Mexico as well, to simply cease to exist. All that is left are patches of grease inside the clothes they were wearing when the wave appeared. Poof!

The only Americans to survive are those up in the north west near Seattle (Damn! Microsoft and Bill Gates are still around – and yes, Bill Gates has a significant part to play in what happens next). There are also American survivors in Hawaii and Alaska. All the people who were overseas at the time of the disappearance have survived as well. Most of the overseas survivors are, of course, the military personnel stationed in the middle east in preparation for the impending war.

America has fallen off the face of the earth economically, politically and socially, but nevertheless it continues to have a powerful military presence, assuming that the chain of command can be sorted out of course. It's a strange contradiction with strange implications.

The immediate repercussions of America's disappearance are horrifying – some middle east countries close in on Israel, scenting easy prey. Israel retaliates by bombing them out of existence with nuclear weapons, which quickly sorts that little problem out! There are political and religious riots in France and England. Venezuela emerges as a new power in South America.

Most of this action is seen through the eyes of a city engineer in Seattle who is trying very hard to to maintain the infrastructures that are crumbling around him. Overseas, we follow events through the adventures of a marooned U.S. super-spy in France; a pair of very sexy drug smugglers one of whom is a member of the British aristocracy; an army reporter embedded with the coalition invasion forces; a general in Cuba who is struggling to maintain the viability of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay; a general in Hawaii who is trying to coordinate the entire military command structure, and a shady lawyer who sees political opportunities in the crisis and who becomes the eminence grise of a very peculiar presidential campaign.

This is a book that cannot make up its mind about what it wants to be. There are far too many pages of shoot-em-out gunfights, full of tedious military porn that consists mainly of salivating descriptions of guns and ammunition, complete with serial numbers. I skimmed all those interminable pages. We never learn the cause of the wave – not that it really matters. Birmingham is much more concerned with the effects of the wave rather than with what might have caused it in the first place. He asked himself the question "What would happen if America vanished from the face of the earth?" and then set out to answer that question. The wave is just a literary device to get his book started as quickly as possible. Unfortunately he's never quite sure whether he wants the book to be a novel of serious political, economic and social speculation or just a simple thriller. The two aspects simply don't work together. In the final analysis, for my own personal taste, I think that the book has far too much gun play and nowhere near enough speculation. That's a bad mixture for a novel published as speculative fiction.

The second book in the series is called After America. It suffers greatly from middle-volume-of-a-trilogy syndrome. None of the situations set up in the first book are really followed through at all. There's a lot of fairly pointless running around and lots and lots and lots of gun play, but nothing ever really gets resolved. The book is also completely incomprehensible if you haven't read the first novel in the series.

The final novel, Angels Of Vengeance does tie things up, to an extent at least. We still don't learn anything about the cause of the wave, which is rather frustrating. What we actually get is a story about the remnants of the United States coming together with a purpose – a will to endure and to rebuild itself. There are strong echoes here of the growing pains suffered by the original USA in the eighteenth century. Direct analogies are drawn and there are suggestions that similar situations will arise in the current rebirth. If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that the past should be our guide to the future. What did the wise man say? Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Sometimes that's no bad thing.

Would the world be a better place without the United States as a superpower? Who can say? The trilogy set out to examine that idea, but it soon lost sight of its purpose and turned instead into a series of small stories about individual characters coping (or failing to cope) with their new reality. And so the books turned from the large to the small and ultimately the speculations suffered from a failure of the imagination. Perhaps the theme was simply too big for Birmingham to come to grips with. That might also explain the plethora of action sequences which ultimately don't add up to anything of any significance at all. On the whole, it was a brave attempt, but I think that John Birmingham bit off rather more than he could chew.

Since shoes are such an integral part of the breakfast ritual, I consider it important to keep my supply topped up. There generally comes a time when work colleagues can be heard whispering scandalously to each other about the tooth holes that decorate some of my older shoes. Mortifying glimpses of sock can occasionally be seen. The most severe wounds drip polish in a steady stream, staining the carpet. In winter the rain gets in and I squelch. Perhaps I ought to do something about that?

When a shoe gets completely beyond all hope of redemption I give the pair a decent Christian burial and then go off to The Warehouse, where everyone gets a bargain. That's what the adverts sing, so it must be true. I spend $20 on a size 8 pair of black shoes which are identical in every respect to the size 8 pair of black shoes that I have just disposed of. I am a creature of habit.

Sometimes, if I'm really lucky, the shoes will be on sale and will only cost me $10. When this happens, I always make sure to buy an extra pair so that I still spend my accustomed $20. Did I mention that I am a creature of habit? This occasional Warehouse bargain is the reason why I now have three pairs of shoes rather than the requisite single pair.

Because the shoes are so cheap, there is a strong probability that they will disintegrate before I get them out of the shop. However, mostly I am lucky, and I manage to arrive home with my new shoes in one piece. Harpo looks at them in disgust.

"These are identical to yesterday's corpses," he says. "Couldn't you do better than that?"

"No," I explain. "I am a creature of habit."

"You already mentioned that," says Harpo.

It's been my month for reading trilogies. Peter May has written a trilogy of detective novels set on the Isle of Lewis, the largest island of the Outer Hebrides, off the North West tip of Scotland. They still speak Gaelic in the islands; English is a foreign tongue.

In The Blackhouse, two bodies are found hanging from trees, one in Edinburgh, and the other on the Isle of Lewis. The circumstances of the murders suggest that they might be connected. Edinburgh policeman Fin Macleod is ordered to investigate. He was born on Lewis but he hasn't lived there for many years. He still speaks the Gaelic – indeed, it was his first language; he didn't learn English until he started going to school. The powers that be seem to think this will give him an advantage. And so, reluctantly, he goes back to his childhood home.

The novel intertwines two narratives. One, of course, involves the investigation of the murder and Macleod’s problems with digging into the backgrounds of people who he hasn't seen for twenty years and with many of whom he still has quarrels and enmities.

The other story, which eventually solves the first, is a first-person narrative about Macleod’s life on the island as a child. We know from the start of the book that Macleod was a clever child who overcame the poverty of his childhood and went on to study at Glasgow University. However he left without taking his degree, and joined the police force, a decision he’s regretted ever since. This second narrative slowly exposes the reasons for Macleod's decisions and at the same time paints a brilliantly evocative picture of life in the islands. It's a very, very different life from that lived on the mainland...

The two narratives intertwine and then converge in an absolutely stunning ending which completely knocked my socks off. This is a brilliantly clever novel on every level.

The second novel, The Lewis Man, is even better than the first.

Macleod has now resigned from the police force and has moved back to Lewis. He is restoring his parents' derelict house and is living with Marsaili, his childhood sweetheart with whom he was reconciled at the end of the first book.

The well-preserved body of a murder victim is discovered in a peat bog. DNA testing proves that the person is related to Tormod Macdonald, Marsaili's father. Of course Macleod is soon deeply involved in the investigation of the crime.

Tormod is an old man now and he is in the late stages of Alzheimer's Disease. He still has flashes of memory about the events from many years ago, but he is unable to tell a coherent story of what he experienced as a young man. However through a combination of Tormod's fragmentary recollections and Macleod's own investigations, a very grim and ultimately quite moving picture gradually develops. We learn about Tormod's childhood experiences in an orphanage on the mainland and what happened to him later when he was forcibly sent off to work for a family in the islands. And just as with the first novel, the long shadows of the past loom threateningly over the present day.

May's research is meticulous and the pictures he draws of island life in the past and in the present has an air of complete authenticity about it. This is a stunningly brilliant book, though the ending is perhaps a little rushed and melodramatic. Nevertheless, the overall sense of bleakness and the very dark and melancholic tone of the story make this a quite memorable book.

However the rot sets in with the third novel in the trilogy. The Chessman reads like a contractual obligation novel. May is obviously tired of the subject by now and the plot is quite ridiculous. He maintains his usual firm grasp on atmosphere and his evocations of island life are as powerful as ever. But the story itself is just plain dumb!

Roddy Mackenzie, an old friend of Fin's, has been presumed dead since his plane went missing 17 years ago. His body was never recovered. Until now...

What happened to Roddy? I'm not sure you really want to know.

If you liked the movie The Sting, you'll love The California Roll by John Vorhaus. The novel concerns the adventures of one Radar Hoverlander (yes, he insists that really is his proper name). He's a con man, a grifter. He can speak fluent Russian, German and Portuguese, he knows about biology, geology, theology and lots of other ologies. He can operate a forklift, make brandy, read a blueprint, read a novel and read lips. He can play scratch golf, he can pick locks and pick pockets. He knows how to hot wire a car, field strip an M16, and build a working computer from scratch. He can preach a sermon, bake a cake and splint a broken bone. In other words he has all the skills necessary to bamboozle money from greedy and gullible mooks. The California Roll is his life story.

One day, when he is between cons, the gorgeous Allie Quinn walks into his life. Ostensibly, Allie wants Radar to teach her grandfather how to run a successful con. But it soon becomes clear that much more than this is going on. Allie seems to know far too much about Radar's life. He feels uncomfortable about this and starts to wonder if perhaps he is being conned. But how? What is Allie really up to?

Things quickly get complicated. Nothing is as it seems, everybody's motives are opaque. Can anyone be trusted? Probably not. Wheels spin within wheels, plots twist and turn. Somehow the whole complex farrago winds its way to a stunningly appropriate climax.

The book is laugh out loud funny, the storyline is eminently satisfying. I loved it, and so will you.

This year, Christmas morning chez Robson began just like every other morning. As usual I was summoned by shoes and I wandered off into the kitchen with torn and bleeding legs to give the cats their Christmas breakfast feast. Bess, who is always a very polite lady, was sitting quietly to attention by her bowl. Harpo teleported from the bedroom to the kitchen and was waiting for me when I arrived. He paced back and forth menacingly.

"Get a bloody move on!"

Normally breakfast consists of a bowl of biscuits. But today being Christmas, breakfast was a can of sliced beef in rich gravy. Both cats love gravy. They like to lick it up before they attack the meaty chunks.

"Oh, wow!" said Harpo as he inhaled the whole bowlful in an instant. "It must be Christmas." He licked his bowl as clean as clean could be and then he clattered off through the cat flap to go and mug a reindeer.

Bess ate her breakfast in great gulps.

"This is lovely," she said. "Thank you so much."

"Don't talk with your mouth full," I told her.

"Sorry, I forgot."

She finished the bowl of food in record time and then wandered off into the lounge where she threw up her entire breakfast all over the rug. The clash of colours made an interesting contrast. None of her meal appeared to have been chewed at all. Even the gravy was still intact and of the proper consistency.

"That was a fantastic breakfast," said Bess contentedly as she licked her lips. "Why don't you gather it all up and put it back into my bowl? I'll have it again for lunch."

"No, Bess," I said as I went to get a cloth, "that's not how it works. In this family we eat each meal once, and once only."

"That's because you are silly creatures of habit," said Bess. She went back to sleep on her cushion.

Poul Anderson Time Patrol Baen Books
John Birmingham Without Warning Del Rey
John Birmingham After America Del Rey
John Birmingham Angels Of Vengeance Del Rey
Peter May The Blackhouse Quercus
Peter May The Lewis Man Quercus
Peter May The Chessmen Quercus
John Vorhaus The California Roll Broadway Books
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