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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (beelzebub glutinosissimus)

No Flies On Robin

We have patio doors which give access to the back garden. The cats love to sit by them, and gaze through the glass at all the exciting things going on outside. Leaves move in the breeze, birds hunt worms on the lawn and shriek insults to each other. The cats find these things utterly fascinating.

"Wow!" said Harpo, the mathematical cat, as he stared out into the garden. "Just look at the singularly attractive catenary curve that the washing line makes as it stretches from fence to fence. I could watch it for hours. And see! There! A leaf just twisted past in a perfect Fibonacci spiral. You don't see that very often – I think it got the golden ratio exactly right; what a talented leaf. This is the best garden ever!"

Bess is much less of a geek than Harpo and has quite different aesthetic values. After a hit of really good catnip her eyeballs rotate as she grooves on the garden's pretty colours. "Oh man," she mutters just before an attack of the munchies sends her off to her food bowl.

When we first moved in to the house, friends came to admire. "Gosh," they would say as they passed by the patio doors, "look at the leaves moving in the breeze. And see all the birds hunting worms on the lawn. Could that one possibly be a lesser spotted humming thrush?" People bear a remarkable resemblance to cats. But people are nowhere near as intelligent as cats. No sooner had the words left our visitors lips than, one and all, they would attempt to walk out into the garden, straight through the solidly closed patio doors, severely bruising their noses, their foreheads and their egos. Robin got really good at mopping up the blood that dripped from shattered noses, applying arnica cream to bruises and rebuilding fractured pride.

"This has to stop," she decided.

"OK," I said. "Why not attach something to the glass so that people get a visual clue that it is there? That might stop them trying to walk out into the garden when the doors are closed."

"Good idea," said Robin, "I'll get some stickers."

Within days some rather authentic looking bullet holes appeared, scattered at random across the glass. Not long after that I noticed that each door now had a screw in every corner – none of this modern Phillips head screw nonsense either, these were good, solid old fashioned screws with a single deep slot for the screwdriver to get a good grip on. And then, for extra support, Robin put a row of Phillips head screws across the middle of each patio door.

"They stop the glass falling out in high winds," she explained.

"So they do," I said. I pushed hard against the glass. "It's extremely firm and solid now, just like it was before. You've done a really good job there!"

It was clear that we had perfect patio doors. Nobody ever walked into them again. Problem solved!

But there was more to come.

If Robin has a fault, which she does not, it is that she has no idea how to finish her projects. Once she starts, just like the energiser bunny, she goes on and on and on and on...

"Look what I've got!" announced Robin one day.

"Show me," I said.

She held up a bag full of quivering things. Once they stopped shaking I could see that they were all twenty six letters of the alphabet.

"Why are they quivering?" I asked.

"Because they are made out of wobbly with sticky on the back," she explained. "They'll be perfect for the patio doors."

Soon after that, I noticed that the alphabet had been joined by a car, several dinosaurs, a self-satisfied cat, three rainbows, several musical notes and a rugby team. All were made out of wobbly with sticky on the back. They shimmered and shivered when people or cats walked past and, if you squinted at them from just the right angle, they refracted the sunlight in pleasing patterns. But we were starting to run out of space on the patio doors. They were looking awfully crowded.

"Do we really need all these extra decorations?" I asked. "Nobody's walked into the door for ages."

"They aren't for stopping people walking into the door," said Robin. "That's just a side effect. They are mainly for being pretty to look at."

"Oh," I said. "That's different."

"Yes it is," explained Robin firmly.

Moving Violations by Melanie Jackson is the first book in a series about one Chloe Boston. I suppose the books are best described as "cosy mysteries". Chloe is a meter maid in an American small town. She's the daughter of the ex-Police Chief. He left the department under something of a cloud and Chloe herself is treated with contempt by most of the police officers. Naturally she solves crimes that the rest of the police department are mystified by. Who wouldn't do that, given the circumstances?

It's fairly typical of its genre and it's rather light-hearted fun. Chloe is an attractive character with a nice line in dialogue. She owns a dog (a Rottweiler!) and two cats. And she has a talent. When people lose something they ask Chloe where they lost it. She always knows. What's not to like about the book? There are many more Chloe Boston mysteries to come. I'm sure I'll be reading them.

Most people only know Prime Suspect from the stunningly brilliant TV series which starred Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison. It had a complex plot and, on the surface, it was just another police procedural (albeit a spectacularly good one). However there was a lot more to it than just another cop show. It dealt with issues of sexual harassment and gender bias in the police force and it had some very biting and pointed things to say about the male-oriented culture of the police. Women officers were (and to a large extent still are) regarded as hopeless incompetents who should be at home cooking meals and washing dishes and looking after the children. That a woman would even think about trying to do such a manly job as take charge of a murder investigation beggars belief!

The author of Prime Suspect was Lynda La Plante and she is a fine novelist as well as a script writer, and she wrote a novel to go along with the TV series. If anything, it's even more hard hitting than the TV programmes were. One thing you cannot do in a visual medium such as television is to show very much of the characters' internal conflict. We only see the characters from the outside and we have only small and subtle clues about what they might be feeling and how they are reacting on the inside. A novel allows these things to be explored far more intimately and the novel of Prime Suspect has an extra depth and a richness that even the very deep and rich TV series did not have. The extra dimension provided by the novel turns it into a much more powerful statement. I was both enthralled and moved by it.

Death Wore White is the first book of a new series by Jim Kelly. DI Peter Shaw and DS George Valentine are partners in the Norfolk police force. Valentine used to be a DI but was demoted to DS when he stuffed up a case. His colleague in the stuffed up case was Shaw's father who was forced to retire and who died soon afterwards. Now Valentine is DS to the son's DI and the resentment between them is clear. Much of the book is concerned with the interactions between Shaw and Valentine and with the echoes of what's left over from the old case.

The current case they are investigating is convoluted, as you might expect it to be (police procedurals get a lot of mileage out of twisty plot lines). However I found the overall story arc about the old case to be rather more interesting than the surface story, particularly as new leads develop. The old case is not resolved in this book and I presume that's reserved for later books in the series.

The primary investigation in the book concerns three corpses with no apparent connection between them. There is also an element of a locked room mystery about things (even though the events take place out of doors). Several vehicles are trapped by a fallen tree. The snow is falling thick and fast and nobody can reverse out of the trap. The driver of one of the vehicles is found to be dead, but there are no footprints in the snow either to or from his vehicle. The story is complex and the relationships between the protagonists are extremely twisted. Don't nod off while you are reading, you'll need all your wits about you to follow the ramifications and tease out the red herrings. Ultimately I found it unconvincing – the criminal conspiracy is just far too complicated ever to have worked. But that's what willing suspension of disbelief is about isn't it? And the story certainly held my attention. Indeed I stayed up very late while I was reading it because I simply couldn't bear to go to bed until I knew who'd done it!

The second novel in the series is Death Watch. Again, it has a convoluted story but (minor spoiler here) the major concern of the book is the criminal trade in body parts which are used for for illegal transplant operations. The science fiction writer Larry Niven coined a word for this – he called it organlegging and when he was writing stories about it, it was nothing but (science) fiction. However that was then and this is now, and while I think Kelly's novel almost certainly overstates the size and nature of the problem, there's more than a degree of truth in what he says; and that makes for somewhat uncomfortable reading. I wonder if Larry Niven is aware of the manner in which his predictions have come to pass?

Again, the story arc concerning the old case is very prominent, colouring the relationships between the protagonists. More new clues are found though again, much is left unresolved.

Jack Vance is best known to the world as a science fiction writer. But he also published some mystery / police procedural stories in the 1950s and 1960s. They've been out of print for decades but Subterranean Press have published two omnibus collections of these early novels. Desperate Days contains two novels about Sheriff Joe Bain and one stand alone novel. The singleton is called The Dark Ocean and it is a rather routine thriller set on board a ship. Betty Haverhill embarks on a freighter. Among the passengers is a mysterious man with whom she has a mild flirtation. There is a fight and one of the passengers commits suicide. Another "suicide" leaves no doubt in Betty's mind that her lover is a murderer, and soon she herself is in danger...

The other two novels, about Sheriff Joe Bain, are called The Fox Valley Murders and The Pleasant Grove Murders. They aren't bad, but they aren't a patch on Vance's SF and fantasy work – they are full of a sense of place and they have reasonably good plots. I found this last fairly surprising. In his SF Vance was generally rather poor at plotting but the genius of his dialogue and the charm and wit of the settings raised his SF to brilliance. The mysteries, being set in the here and now, seem to have acted as a damper on his inventiveness and the wit and the style are completely missing, which lends a certain pedestrian quality to the prose that I disliked.

To be honest, if it wasn't for the fact that Vance is one of my all time favourite SF writers, I probably wouldn't have bothered with these mysteries at all. There's nothing particularly out of the ordinary about any of them and it isn't hard to see why they languished in obscurity for so many years.

All of Vance's mystery novels and much of his SF is available in ebook form from:


The ebooks have been set from Vance's preferred texts (which often differ significantly from what was finally published – many of his novels were ruthlessly cut to meet publishers' demands). The ebooks also use Vance's preferred titles which again are often different from the ones you may have seen on the shelves in the shops. I've bought several of the ebooks and I have spent much of this month (over)indulging in Vance...

Vance's preferred title for the novel published as Showboat World was The Magnificent Showboats of the Lower Vissel River, Lune XXIII South, Big Planet. For once, I think I understand why the publishers decided to cut it...

The novel concerns itself with the adventures and misadventures of one Apollon Zamp. He is a riverboat captain, a travelling showman and a most unscrupulous rascal. He sails up and down the huge River Vissel, making a living by putting on shows and entertainments. In order to maximise his profits, he is not averse to sabotaging the shows and ships of rival captains.

Vance uses the tale as a vehicle for contemplating the oddities and quirks of human societies (a constantly recurring theme in his novels). The river is so vast that the scattered communities have developed in isolation and so, for example, Zamp encounters a town where the inhabitants require the removal of all references to death or birth from the theatre programme (rather a hard task if the only play in your repertoire is Macbeth). Or there is Port Whant where the wearing of yellow is considered to be a sexual invitation...

And throughout it all, his characters caper and engage with extraordinarily witty, understated and excruciatingly polite dialogue, even when hurling mortal insults at a foe!

Incidentally, the story is on a world called Big Planet (again, Vance's preferred title makes that clear). That world first appeared in 1953 in the eponymous novel Big Planet. However this book is in no way a sequel to the first; both are completely stand alone stories.

Many of Vance's novels belong to a series. Vance invented the multi-volume SF and Fantasy trilogy long before it became fashionable. But of his stand alone novels, probably the very best is a coming of age story called Maske: Thaery.

On the planet Maske, the young Jubal Droad leaves home to make his fortune. While repairing a path, he encounters an arrogant Thariot man who rides roughshod over Jubal, causing the path to collapse and seriously injure him.

After recovering from his injuries, Jubal attaches himself to the powerful court of Nai the Hever, where he comes across Ramus Ymph, his nemesis. He drops certain hints to Nai the Hever and Ramus is disgraced.

Jubal and Ramus are now bitter rivals. Jubal discovers that Ramus has a connection to a sinister interplanetary cartel that is manoeuvring to obtain a foothold on Maske. Pursuing Ramus, Jubal finds him among the Waels - a strange people who worship intelligent trees. The scene is set for the final confrontation.

OK – it sounds dumb, and in many ways it is dumb – there's not much that is original about the plot or the theme. But the story showcases the very best of Vance's comic and involuted style, and it details all his obsessions. The pace is swift, there is a complex caste system for the outsider hero to come to grips with. The hero falls in love, as all Vance heroes do, with a cold and distant high born lady. There is the inevitable bartering over money. We have long and sensuous descriptions of exotic food and drink (much of which sounds very unappealing!). The story dwells lovingly on the strange customs of oddball societies, and the twisted geography in which they live (the two aspects are often closely connected). The book describes weird architectures and the curiosities of the local flora and fauna. The prose is unfailingly witty and the dialogue is invariably polite. Tempers are never lost even between mortal enemies and assassins smile friendly and respectful smiles as knives slip in between ribs.

I love Maske: Thaery.

Impulse is the third novel in Steven Gould's Jumper series (well, as long as you ignore the novelization of the movie script which Gould wrote. That novel's called Jumper – Griffin's Story and it isn't really connected to the books at all. Feel free to ignore it).

The story follows on from Reflex though you certainly don't have to have read the earlier books in order to enjoy this one. All the important details are explained and it's completely stand alone.

David, known as Dave, and his wife Millicent, known as Millie, can teleport. The have come to the notice of certain unscrupulous government agents and they now have many safeguards in place in order to protect themselves. They have a daughter called Millicent but she is generally referred to as Cent, in order to distinguish her from her mother.

Why do Americans abbreviate names all the time? I can't count the number of Americans who insist on calling me Al. That's not my name, damnit! My name is Alan. Who is this strange man called Al? I refuse to answer to that name!.

Where was I?

Oh yes.

As the novel opens, Cent learns that she, too, has the ability to teleport, much to the relief of her parents who weren't at all sure that the talent would be inherited. Because she can jump, there is no longer any need to home school her in the wilds of Alaska where Dave and Millie live in splendid (and hopefully safe) isolation. If any danger threatens Cent, she can always jump back home. So now she can go to a real school and meet real people and learn to get along with them – social skills are things that have been sorely lacking in her development to date. But the enemy is always on watch, so Cent must keep her secret and must not use her talent in public.

It's another coming of age novel full of painfully accurate arguments between parents and teenage child (we've all had them). Of course, Cent can end any argument at will, by simply teleporting away to parts unkown to Dave and Millie. There were times when I wish I could have done that...

Eventually the bad guys get in on the act, of course and there's a wonderfully thrilling climax which I don't want to spoil, so I will say no more about it here. I devoured the book in a sitting, and I absolutely loved it.

One aspect that amused me intensely occurred very early in the book, when Cent was still being home schooled by Dave. He takes every opportunity to turn the things that happen around them into lessons. And so when the heat transfer unit in the house leaks freon gas everywhere, Davy makes Cent calculate the spread of the gas through the house, which seems fair enough to me. However she calculates the volume in cubic feet, which gives a decidedly archaic feel to the lesson. And later, when jumping, she calculates distance in feet and velocity in miles per hour. How utterly, utterly quaint!

And then, quite by chance, we had summer. We weren't planning on summer – it doesn't happen very often and even when it does happen it mostly can't be seen. But this year, against all expectation, we had summer and so we opened the doors and windows to let the flies in – I feel so sorry for them as they bang their heads against the window, begging to be let into the house.

The flies buzzed around for a bit, making nuisances of themselves as they crawled over every exposed surface. Occasionally they landed on my ebook reader and very helpfully turned the page for me, thereby saving a lot of wear and tear on my fingertip. However I soon discovered that flies are almost completely illiterate, and they were just making random guesses about when I'd reached the bottom of page and it was time to turn it for me. Flies aren't very good at guessing games, so I soon got tired of their helpfulness.

The cats chased the flies for a while, but it wasn't long before they got bored with the game and they left the buzzing nuisances to their own devices.

“You're falling down on the job,” I told the cats. “To earn your daily biscuits, you have to kill all intruders. Start killing!”

“But this cushion is so comfortable,” said Bess, and she put her tail over her nose and went to sleep.

“I don't do flies,” said Harpo. “Union regulations, and I'm a Union cat – solidarity in all things brother. I do rats and mice and sparrows. Sometimes I do butterflies and moths, even though they make me throw up copiously. But I don't do flies. Oh -- I do Alans as well.” And he bit me on the leg, just to reinforce the point.

Then, one day, I noticed that I seemed to have spent an inordinate amount of time turning my own pages on my ebook reader. Where were all the helpful flies? Summer was still here, the sun was still shining, the sweetcorn in Robin's veggie garden was as high as an elephant's eye. So where were the flies? It was a puzzle. I mentioned the anomaly to Robin, because she likes puzzles.

“Oh, I know where the flies are,” said Robin. “I'm surprised you haven't spotted them yet. Come with me.” She led me to the downstairs room where the patio doors give access to the garden.

“There!” she said triumphantly. “That's where all the flies have gone.”

All the bits of wobbly on the patio doors had melted into an amorphous mass in the fierce rays of the summer sun, and they'd spread a layer of sticky all over the glass. The flies, attracted by the large areas of light, had flown straight into the patio doors and glued themselves firmly to the glass. Unable to escape, they had slowly starved to death. One or two of the larger and hairier flies were still buzzing feebly as they struggled against the inexorable grasp of the sticky.

“Nobody is ever going to walk into these patio doors by accident again,” said Robin in tones of deepest satisfaction.

I looked at all the myriad black blobs of fly corpses that festooned the glass and I had to agree with her. I was absolutely certain that now we had the most visible patio doors in the country. It seems that flies have their uses after all.

Melanie Jackson Moving Violations CreateSpace
Lynda La Plante Prime Suspect Harper Perennial
Jim Kelly Death Wore White Penguin
Jim Kelly Death Watch Penguin
Jack Vance Desperate Days Subterranean Press
Jack Vance Showboat World Tor
Jack Vance Maske: Thaery Berkeley
Steven Gould Impulse Tor
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